Seoul Food | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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Korean Seoulfood Cafe

560 W. Van Buren | 312-427-4293



The name of Korean Seoulfood Cafe may pun on South Korea's capital, but the cook's from Chonju, in the southwest of the country. There, in the rice bowl of the peninsula, the food is spicier, saltier, and generally more highly regarded than the rest of the nation's—and here in Chicago the cook isn't trying to coddle patrons with oversweetened glop. Chonju is the home of the ubiquitous rice dish bi bim bop, and at Seoulfood it's available with chicken, shrimp, or pork as well as the more common beef. It's a deep bowl filled with quality grains, but like most items on the menu, it's a mite pricier than what you'll find on the northwest side. Then again, that's where you'd otherwise have to go to find less common dishes like beo-sut jeon gol, a hot pot filled with chap chae and assorted mushrooms; "Harry Met Sally," a special of spicy stir-fried pork belly and squid; and nak ji bok keum, broiled octopus with noodles and vegetables that's usually eaten while the critter is still in its death throes (not here, unfortunately). A few panchan come with each order, including a salty-sour jalapeno kimchi I'd never seen before. The house cabbage kimchi is fresh and crisp, and though I prefer a bit more funk myself, it has a respectable burn. I like this place—even if some dishes are served in tinfoil containers like TV dinners, giving the impression that they've been held and reheated. I guess that's the price of offering such a large menu of relatively obscure items. —Mike Sula

Mi Na Ri

3311 W. Bryn Mawr | 773-267-3590



Minari is the Korean name for an herb related to parsley and dropwort that typically makes an appearance in seafood hot pots and stews, the house specialty at this spare little spot on Bryn Mawr. Hot pots of cod, assorted shellfish, and "honkfish" (a species identical to monkfish whose habitat seems to be strictly limited to the English portion of the menu) come steaming to the table with radish, tofu, mushroom, and minari in a spicy red broth. For whole grilled fish one can choose among saury, hairtail, and yellow corvina in additional to the mackerel that seems to be available in every Korean restaurant on the planet. Besides seafood there are a few other atypical dishes, including four varieties of jook, or rice porridge, popular nourishment during periods of unruly digestion; an enormous bowl of house-made noodles in thick chicken broth; and a selection of refreshing "summer special" noodle dishes. The side dishes vary according to availability, but if you're lucky you'll get gejang, sweet raw crabs marinated in soy and spiced with red pepper paste. —Mike Sula

San Chae Dol Sot Restaurant

3737 W. Lawrence | 773-588-5223



Located in a Lawrence Avenue strip mall, San Chae Dol Sot is easy to drive past, its vague signage of little help. Once inside and seated, guests are greeted briskly but benevolently (the controlling-mother-type service will continue for the rest of your visit, so it's best to just accept it). Dolsot bi bim bop is the house specialty, and few places offer more variations. The dish consists of a hot stone pot, or dolsot, filled with steamed rice and a combination of meats, vegetables, seafood, and kimchi. Assuming you mix your bi bim bop correctly, you'll be rewarded with the prized crispy golden rice clinging to the bottom of your bowl—the best part of the meal. An egg topper, to my mind a critical component of bi bim bop, is not normally served here—if you want one you'll have to ask for it by its Korean name (dal-gyal) while miming the act of cracking an egg. San Chae Dol Sot has one of the better panchan selections in town, and while they don't give you a lot, whatever they put on the table is fresh. Typical soups and stews are also on the menu, and you can get barbecue cooked for you in the kitchen. Unlike most Korean restaurants, San Chae Dol Sot isn't open late at night, and be forewarned: anyone still on the premises at closing time is asked to put down the chopsticks and leave. —Kristina Meyer

San Soo Gap San

5247 N. Western | 773-334-1589



Ever since the demise of 24 Hour Korean Restaurant, San Soo Gap San (and to a lesser extent Hai Woon Dae) has ruled the night and early morning in terms of after-hours Korean food, notwithstanding the occasionally grouchy service. The coals are live, the panchan is plentiful, and there are a number of very well done nonbarbecue items available, including a resurrecting hot-sweet stir-fried sam gyeop sal (bacon) panfried with kimchi and hearty hot soups like kalbi tang (a soup of slow-simmered short ribs), yuk gae jang (spicy shredded beef soup), and tofu stew. Additionally SSGS gives very good tongue, thinly sliced, tender, and delicious smeared through a little red pepper paste. While it's not my favorite Korean restaurant, at 4 AM it hardly ever matters. —Mike Sula

Solga Charcoal Grill and Noodle

5828 N. Lincoln | 773-728-0802



Located in the formerly drab space that housed Pyung Yang Myun Ok, Solga is a smarter-looking, sleeker outfit. Purists may still be disappointed: Solga's pots get a boost from a gas flame. But the flavors don't suffer. The house special, kalbi (short ribs), comes plain or marinated in a piquant mix of soy, garlic, and sugar. Other meats for grilling include tripe and baby octopus. Mixed seafood or red-meat hot pots and assorted Korean standards like sul lung tang (beef marrow soup) are solidly rendered. One holdover from Pyung Yang's menu, naengmyeon (homemade buckwheat noodles), is served chilled in broth and makes a refreshing summer meal. Panchan come eight strong (including kimchi, kimchi daikon, fried tofu strips, seaweed salad, and boiled potato) and are cheerfully replenished. Tatami rooms are available. —Peter Tyksinski

Woo Chon

5744 N. California | 773-728-8001



This ramshackle shotgun brick house is a curious sight from the outside, wedged into an odd, angled alley behind Lincoln Avenue, across California from a convenience store that stocks Libertarian Party literature. It doesn't look like it could handle a stiff breeze, let alone a throng of 17 birthday partiers, a motley mob of experienced Korean barbecuers as well as novices, hard-core carnivores, and squeamish plant eaters. But the waitstaff were pros, juicing us with soju and beer and commandeering the tongs to flip tender slices of beef whenever we revelers got lost in our own noise. Did it matter that the panchan arrived after appetizers, buckets of hot coals, and the huge platters of marinating meat? The vegetarians were placated, huddling over their bowls of bi bim bop, while the meat eaters filled up with heavy appetizers like yook hoi, shredded raw beef tossed with Asian pear, sesame oil, and egg yolk, and goon mandoo, fat, beefy fried dumplings. The house regained control when the waitress firmly removed the beef short ribs after a greenhorn mistakenly placed them on a grill already crusted with the sirloin's sweet marinade. A scoured metal rack was delivered and the ribs were given the green light, though after the lean steak, their relatively stringy spare flesh was superfluous. A late-arriving peppery miso soup with zucchini and tofu floaters made a bracing dessert and probably the only suitable finish to such relentless meating. —Mike Sula

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