Most local Korean food court aficionados are familiar with the varied delights at the Super H Mart
in Niles and the more tightly focused offerings at Avondale's Joong Boo Market
. You don't often as hear much about the food court at Assi Plaza in Niles, a mostly Korean supermarket that's slightly smaller than the former but dwarfs the latter.
Assi's food court features some eight stalls offering dumplings, sushi, Chinese food, rice cakes, fried chicken, baked goods, and practically every standard Korean dish imaginable—plus a few very uncommon ones, like barley bibimbap and broiled ox knee bones (dogani muchim
). Naturally, fundamental as it is to the Korean way of eating, there's an abundance of different soups, particularly at the stall with a name that's rendered in English as "Korean Beef Soup." That doesn't give much hint to the specialty of the house: seolleongtang
. That's ox-bone soup, a specialty of the region around Seoul that historically was prepared as a harvest rite, when the bones of a lumbering field beast were boiled for hours to produce a milky white, collagen-rich brew bulked up with noodles and various bovine parts. Call it Korean bone broth. (No. Don't.)
If you remember the great Lincoln Square seolleontang specialist Han Bat
, you might be disappointed by the bowl here, which doesn't have the same silky marrow-emulsified body. Still, it's an ample bowl that comes with the requisite side of rice and cabbage and radish kimchi. Those are much needed to counter this bland (by nature) soup, but along with sea salt, black pepper, and a vinegar-soy mix it becomes something enjoyably restorative. Order it with intestine, if you're gutsy ($11).
The stall does a lot better with gamjatang
, the fiery pork neck soup, garnished with herbaceous fresh leaves and nutty crushed seeds of the sesame-like perilla plant. "Gamja" actually means potato, so you get some of those too, though the bowl is dominated by hulking sections of pork spine. Remove these to a dish and with some deft chopstick surgery the fatty, fall-apart meat pulls right off the bone. It's a fine bowl ($8.99), though the usual bo ssam
pairing isn't a available as it is over in Morton Grove
To the right of Seoul Seolleongtang, there's another rarity at Chu Ga Dek Snacks, which specializes in kongkuksu
, or chilled soy milk noodle soup. This is an enormous bowl, filled with a cold, alabaster substance with the viscosity of yogurt, made from ground soybeans. Garnished with a hard-cooked egg, a dab of sesame seeds, and julienned cucumber, it comes with a choice of wheat, buckwheat, or acorn flour noodles. Like the buckwheat noodle dish naengmyeon
, this is a summertime dish, though otherwise it's unlike that relatively light, cold soup. I'd pay good won
to see anyone stay awake after polishing off a bowl of this thick, chalky soup. This one's all about the texture and temperature—it doesn't have much flavor at all ($9.99).
Korean "corn dog"
If you're not in the market for such wholesome stuff head directly across the food court to Doore Chicken, which not only does Korean-style fried chicken and—somewhat incongruously—warm, fresh-from-the-machine red bean walnut cakes (hodugwaja
), but Korean corn dogs, which are just referred to as "hot dog," because unlike their American counterparts they're not covered in corn-based batter, but rather a chewy, panko-dipped rice batter ($2).
That's just scratching the surface of what's available at these eight stalls, none of which seem to overlap in terms of their offerings. Just goes to underscore the rare and multitudinous food choices out in between the bright lights and the far unlit unknown
Assi Plaza, 8901 N. Milwaukee, Niles, 847-470-9450,
Assi Plaza food court in Niles