Uno fuego!" Jenny Cha calls into her walkie-talkie for the fifth time in as many minutes, requesting another flaming charcoal pot for a table at Garden Buffet. An employee in the back room is constantly stoking the blazing-hot baskets, and diners are issued one as soon as they sit down. Meanwhile Cha's mother, 73-year-old Myung Lee, is in the kitchen making kimchi--Korea's spicy, fermented national side dish, usually made of napa cabbage--or frying delicate tofu cakes.
Garden Buffet, one of Chicago's most popular Korean barbecue restaurants and certainly its largest, is carrying on a tradition begun by Lee more than 30 years ago. "My mom has always been a great cook," says Cha, who shares the business with her six sisters and a brother. "She worked in the restaurant business in Seoul for 30 years....People always said, 'You should open a restaurant together,' and that's what we did."
Cha and her sister Mary Im (who now runs Pacific Buffet in Arlington Heights) moved to Chicago from Seoul in 1973, right after high school. Mary got into the men's clothing business, while Jenny worked at an IBM plant in Elk Grove Village inspecting computer-chip assemblies. Their mom finally got a visa and moved here in 1980; eventually there were nine family members all living in Chicago. "We had so much family here; we wanted to be together and open a big place so we could share the profits," says Cha.
That place turned out to be a former bingo parlor in an L-shaped strip mall on North Lincoln Avenue, in the midst of low-budget motels and hardware stores. The family used six years' worth of savings to buy the space in 1994, quickly converting it into a buffet-style restaurant that now seats more than 400 people at full capacity.
Their renovations included building an underground vacuum system that sucks smoke down through the tables, under the floor, and out through a chimney in the back of the restaurant. "Otherwise the whole room is full of smoke," Cha says. She claims Garden Buffet was the first Korean barbecue in Chicago with underground vents; most have overhead hoods. On a recent Saturday night, with more than two dozen tables grilling full blast, there wasn't a trace of smoke in the air, just the sounds of a gently cascading water fountain and the big-screen TV that hovers above the buffet line.
The Korean interpretation of "buffet" means bins full of noodle dishes like chap chae (cellophane noodles with vegetables), a half dozen raw meats for grilling at the table, and endless combinations of soybeans, daikon radish, and cabbage. Every Korean restaurant, barbecue or not, will also offer a variety of side dishes known as panjan. They usually include fresh spinach, soybean sprouts, crisp daikon threads, and a couple of kimchis, usually made with radish, cabbage, or bok choy. At Garden Buffet there's also dried seaweed, salty fish cakes, marinated garlic cloves, and a Korean potato salad that outshines most deli varieties. There's even a choice between preserved kimchi--which has been fermenting in dried red peppers, oyster sauce, garlic, and scallions for weeks--and fresh kimchi, which is prepared and served the same day. "There are at least 40 kinds of kimchi," says Joan Lee, Jenny's sister. "We always have around eight kinds....We put lots of things on our buffet because we want people to eat all different kinds of food."
Approaching the buffet can be daunting for first-timers, but Cha and her siblings quickly take novices under their wing. They suggest starting with a few meats: kalbi (marinated short ribs) and bulgogi (marinated rib eye) are musts, but there's also marinated pork, chicken, and octopus. The kalbi are sliced thin and rolled up around the bone, then cut with kitchen shears at the table into tiny, bite-sized pieces to grill. After selecting the raw goods, patrons are guided to the other side of the buffet to select panjan, soups (pumpkin and black bean on one night), or earthy Korean sausages; perhaps marinated tofu or a few tempura-fried vegetables for the vegetarians at the table; and maybe some chicken wings or egg rolls for the kids. There's also a daily selection of nigiri sushi (tuna, salmon, or snapper) and a couple of maki.
"It's a bit more Americanized than what I've had in Korea," says Christian Oh, who makes regular trips to the restaurant from Hyde Park. "In Korea, kalbi houses are more upscale. . . . The panjan here are not as spicy or salty, and the meat is a little sweeter than at other kalbi restaurants."
The final stop is a station of accompaniments for the meat: gargantuan red lettuce leaves; shredded scallions marinated in sesame seeds, oil, and red peppers; and deng jang, a mild soybean paste that has fermented for up to six weeks.
The charcoal pot sits in a sunken hole in the middle of the table, and it's up to the people sitting around it to keep an eye on things. Once the meat is cooked to your liking, you place it onto a lettuce leaf with some shredded scallion, a little bean paste, and whatever else sounds good--maybe some panjan, or just white rice. Then you just fold and eat--the ultimate Korean burrito.
Garden Buffet is at 5347 N. Lincoln, 773-728-1249.
The West End Bar & Grill opened March 5 in Elixir's former space at 323-325 N. Jefferson.
Lexi's opened this week in the former Madison's space at 1330 W. Madison, serving contemporary American food by chef Andrew Pratt (Spruce, Fahrenheit).
Tarascas International, a spin-off of Tarascas Mexican Restaurant on Halsted, opened last month at 2585 N. Clark.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.