The primeval fear that a bigger, stronger animal could come along and snatch your kill was probably the root of mankind’s first eating disorder. That’s partly why the discovery of fire was so important to early humanoids, huddled around blazing embers not just for warmth and protection but also to take the time necessary to roast a sizzling mastodon joint and enjoy it in the nonthreatening company of friends and family.
Rapid, indeliberate ingestion isn’t just bad for the guts, it’s bad for the soul. That’s why it’s such a shame that live-coal Korean barbecue has been going the way of the Cro-Magnon in recent years, with the shuttering of such notable north-side gogigui houses as Kang Nam, Solga, and Hai Woon Dae.
While Korean food in general enjoys a broader profile than it did in the not-so-distant past, and while Korean barbecue itself isn’t going anywhere, the movement (for better and worse) is toward faster, gas-burning grills at places like Wicker Park’s Tozi and Bill Kim’s BellyQ, where better-quality meat is cooked without the salubrious charring effects of organic smoke and fire. So it was a surprising and happy development when Gogi recently opened in the space that once housed Hai Woon Dae. It has both live fire and meat of a quality several orders above most anywhere else.
The folks behind Gogi, mother and son Stella and Pete Cho (who also operate the neighboring bar, Yeowoosai), tell a bittersweet story, opening to honor the dream of their late husband/father, who still saw opportunity for live-coal barbecue in the empty West Ridge strip mall storefront. Physically they’ve done nothing more than lay fresh coats of sleek, black and crimson paint over the formerly rickety interior, light some candles in the bathroom, and pipe in a sedate soundtrack of classic jazz (at odds with the more bestial nature of the proceedings).
But relative to HWD’s omnibus menu of barbecue and other Korean standards, Gogi has chosen to focus more intensively on the meat, with nine cuts of mostly beef and pork, many available with different marinade options—which is another big difference from the more straightforward offerings of the existing competition. But the starkest difference between Gogi and any of the remaining Korean barbecue houses in the city lies in the quality and freshness of these proteins, among them bright red and beautifully marbled slabs of quarter-inch-thick pork belly; broad pork and beef ribs that unfurl into thin sheets of tenderized meat; lean, soy-and-sesame-oil-marinated nuggets of short steak; or ropy veal intestines, if you’re gutsy.
The meat is brought to the table with large bowls of glistening fresh pa muchim, a simple salad of greens and shredded green onion, one of the many bracing foils to the animal excesses to come. There are also baskets of plain lettuce and perilla leaves, and a variety of garnishes: little dishes of salted sesame oil, raw slices of garlic and jalapeños, and schmears of ssamjang, a mixture of red chile paste and bean paste that adds the necessary funk to the lettuce-wrapped packets of grilled muscle that you construct and deliver to your muzzle by hand.
A few of these choices are served with pomp and set above the gas-ignited charcoal pits embedded in the tables. The pork belly, or samgyeopsal, which can be ordered rubbed in herbs or marinated in wine or green tea, is delivered with a pig-shaped cast-iron skillet on which an accompanying heap of spicy bean sprouts and kimchi is cooked. And just because you’re expected to do some of the cooking yourself doesn’t mean you’ll be abandoned. If the house isn’t overwhelmed, the flesh from the galbi and dwaeji galbi (beef and pork ribs, respectively)—possibly the most inscrutable cut for beginners—will be carefully flensed from the bone and arranged on the grills by servers who aren’t the dour lifers you might have encountered elsewhere. Instead they’re engaging, helpful folks who can spot a piece of just-cooked dak galbi and move it to the cooler edges of the grill before it turns to fossilized chicken breast (though on occasion they’re prone to overenthusiasm, tonging meat on the grill before it reaches optimum temperature).
The appeal of red meat extends beyond Gogi’s barbecue menu. The yukhoe, Korea’s answer to steak tartare, is especially good—a pile of thin, marbled strips of tender beef, garnished prettily with julienned Asian pear, pine nuts, sesame seeds, and raw egg. And Gogi offers a few other worthy nonbarbecued items as well, such as crispy griddled haemul pajeon, a wheat-and rice-flour pancake embedded with chewy octopus; vivid orange kimchijeon, one of the many remarkable extensions of fermented cabbage in the Korean canon; and a simple flayed and broiled mackerel, its rich, oily flesh separating easily from the bones with dexterous ministrations of the chopsticks.
Gogi has a good dolsot bibimbap too, the bottom layer of the rice crisping appropriately in the stone bowl. But other offerings, particularly the soups, leave more to be desired, built on thin, unremarkable broths. And the powerful heat employed in the production of many these dishes can be abused, as with the gyeran jjim; the delicate steamed egg dish should be smooth and custardy but here can arrive dry and overcooked.
Every available space on the table at Gogi is covered with an assortment of replenishable banchan, the little side dishes standard at any Korean meal, which here include some rarely seen offerings, like gochujang-drizzled chile pepper leaves and sauteed mushrooms. And the drinking options are a step above the typical soju and watery Korean lager as well, including the crisp, refreshing Japanese Hitachino wheat beer and locally brewed Slow City Makgeolli. Those, along with several rounds of meat, are really all you need for the most satisfying Korean barbecue experience in the city.
It should be clear that the auxiliary soups and other kitchen-prepped food at Gogi are not the draw. The attention to detail is focused intently on what happens in the dining room. It’s an experience that will separate you from the animals at other Korean barbecue joints.