It’s only in the last few years that restaurateurs have awakened to the versatility of Korean food and its potential in the mainstream market. But few here have successfully manipulated it without whitewashing its power and pungency or exaggerating its subtleties. (It isn’t all about the chile, garlic, and Lactobacilli.)
At this small Lincoln Park spot with a hip-hop soundtrack, Pete and Irene Jeon make no secret of their debt to the godfather of Korean-Mex street food, Roy Choi of LA’s Kogi BBQ food-truck fleet. But the siblings are also the scions of BK and Sunni Jeon, who own the big, bustling, (mostly) Korean Senoya buffet in Niles—precisely the sort of aggressively unhip and perfectly unintimidating place I recommend to people who want to introduce themselves to Korean food.
The pair, with a nod from John T. Edge in the New York Times months before their mid-October opening, got off to a running start with their accessible collection of hybrids, headlined by tacos topped with sweet marinated kalbi or chile-spiked pork or chicken. Initially, these were presented as spicy raw cabbage tacos with a paltry meat garnish, but they’ve recently been reapportioned with a more balanced protein-to-plant ratio. They’re not at all insubstantial, well worth the price, with most under three bucks.
The kalbi, pork, and chicken can also be built into banh mi sandwiches, made on crackly baguettes from Uptown’s Ba Le Bakery, garnished with the traditional carrot, daikon, jalapeño, and cilantro, and dressed with red-pepper aioli. While they don’t have the symphonic quality of the Vietnamese originals, they do harmonize. I’m most partial to the panko-battered shrimp (available on tacos as well): the crunchy tensile pop of the crustaceans with a creamy schmear of sesame-chile aioli combine to remind me of nothing so much as a New Orleans po’boy.
The most unlikely experiment, kimchi-and-pork-belly fries, is also the least successful: a soggy mess of underfried spuds slathered in cheese, sour cream, and kimchi, with minuscule scraps of meat. This Korean poutine should never have been allowed out of the lab. Yet sometimes when the Jeons go more orthodox, you wonder why they bothered. The pork dumplings, supposedly from a century-old family recipe, are mushy inside, with a stiff, understeamed wrapping. A basic rib-eye bi bim bop is available in a dolsot, the classic stone pot, which is supposed to be hot enough to cook the yolk of this rice salad’s fried-egg top hat. But mine was missing the requisite layer of crispy rice nurungi scorched on the bottom, and without that there’s really no reason to order it this way rather than stick with a porcelain bowl.
On the other hand, jars of straightforward house-made cabbage kimchi are deep and funky, and there’s nothing slack about that—and nothing unconventional either. You can’t successfully innovate without a solid grounding in the fundamentals, and good kimchi is a good omen. —Mike Sula