Some years ago some friends used a credit card to pay the check after an epic feast at San Soo Gab San, the 26-year-old late-night north-side granddaddy of live-coal Korean barbecue. As they made their way to the door toward the perpetually packed parking lot beyond, they were chased down by their server, one of the stoic ajummas who haul around the banchan and scissor the sizzling galbi for endless hordes of soju-soaked carousers.
Something made her snap.
“No tip?!” she demanded, waving the receipt. “No tip!?!”
A third friend who’d lingered behind at the table quickly waved a pile of cash that had been held down under a dish of half-eaten kkakdugi. The woman, a member of one of the hardest-working immigrant groups in the service economy, first stood, horrified, then wilted in prolonged, anguished apology in front of the entire restaurant.
Thereafter, each time my friends returned to San Soo Gab San they were treated like long-lost children, doted over and fed with motherly affection. First-generation Korean-American immigrants, my own in-laws among them, can switch from fierce to gracious on a dime. They will take no shit, but they will love you with food.
That’s always been the feeling I got when I visit SSGS, one of the last of its kind still operating in the erstwhile enclave once known as Koreatown. Most of the best Korean barbecue now requires a drive to the suburbs, where the earlier generation moved after achieving prosperity. Meanwhile a younger class of restaurateurs has dug into the city, opening spots from Tozi in Wicker Park to Daebak in Chinatown to Bill Kim’s Belly Q in the Fulton Market District. What these places are usually lacking—besides the rough charm—are the live coals that make eating Korean barbecue an essential modern-primal pleasure. For better and worse, cocktails, K-pop, and gas-powered electric burners rule these rooms. It’s a different world.
Even San Soo Gab San’s five-year-old Morton Grove outpost burns gas, and so does San Soo Korean BBQ, the newest kid on the block, a partnership between Christopher Kim—the son of San Soo Gab San founders Young and Cindy Kim—and Zach Friedlander and Alvin Kang from Aloha Poke Co. (the minichain that recently came under fire for lawyering up and trying to cease-and-desist other restaurants using the word “aloha.”)
Here in River West, in the former Black Iron Tavern, no one among the multiethnic group of servers seems to have seen more than 30 suns. There’s an eye-popping mural on the exterior wall of Japanese video-game robot hero Mega Man, by street artist Ali 6, and inside a typically squiggly collage by Lefty Out There leads to the bar, where you can order a Kim’s Cup—a sweet fizz of Pimm’s, pineapple soju, and Sprite—or a handful of other punny cocktails built around Asian distillates, tequila, or vodka. The bar is certainly better stocked than the mother ship, offering a variety of bottles and cans beyond the usual Korean lagers and even a short, short wine list ticking off the major varietals. And there’s really no better fun than dropping a few soju bombs when you’re hunched around a grill.
For that grill, there’s a selection of the usual meats, such as samgyeopsal, galbi, and bulgogi, first listed in English for the novice—pork belly, short rib, and san soo rib eye—along with a few that aren’t offered at the mother ship. These are brought to the table, or marinated in a tweak on the original formula of Korean pear, sugar, soy, Sprite, and some secrets. Kim says its sweetness has been dialed up to appease a broader clientele.
That sweetness necessitates the occasional change-up of the gas-lit cast-iron grills, which cut down on the smell of smoke on the clothes (though not when the sugar starts to burn). Tossed on the grill with rapidly charring raw onions and king mushrooms, snipped with shears, then wrapped in green-leaf lettuce smeared with salted sesame oil and chile flakes or a sweet, sticky ssamjang, these are as good as they can be without the smoky kiss of live flame.
The rest of the menu is a pared-down selection of SSGB’s regular offerings, straightforward Korean classics with little hint of the culinary cross-pollination most kids go for these days. “My mom hates fusion,” says Kim. She “actually comes in and checks up on me. She makes sure I’m not messing up.”
As with the barbecue, there’s an extra level of sweetness in some of these dishes, particularly the japchae, dosed with sweet soy sauce. But the crystalline sweet-potato-starch noodles are firm and sesame slicked, tangling with shiitakes, spinach, and carrot, and it’s still difficult to resist the urge to inhale them like a pneumatic vacuum.
Kim did go a little rogue, adding a few dishes his parents don’t have, like kimchi fried rice; or gyeran jjin, a ceramic bowl of burbling steamed egg scrambled with concentrated beef stock; or a thin, crispy kimchi pancake to pair with its cousin, an eggy seafood pajeon snappy with squid, shrimp, and mussels.
A straightforward rendition of a sizzling dolsot bibimbap shares billing with an iron-rich deposit of yukhoe (the Korean steak tartare), here given a cheffy presentation: studded with pine nuts, flanked by neat batons of Korean pear, and crowned with an egg yolk sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds.
These details are likely due to the influence of Kim’s chef, Pierre Vega, formerly of the Bedford, who trained for weeks under the eye of Cindy Kim.
San Soo Korean BBQ is solid overall, but there’s one dish that rises above the rest. Kim told me that the kimchi jigae is no different from his mom’s, and the stew is indeed colored a wicked chile red, set off by pure white slabs of tofu. But its bacon-mined depths produce a rich, mouth-glazing porky goodness normally associated with a good bowl of tonkotsu ramen.
Kim and company’s efforts to make Korean barbecue approachable for River West’s party sheeple without compromising the last generation’s standards too much might be best illustrated by the banchan (small side dishes). There may be fewer of those surrounding the circular grill, but the kimchi, fish cakes, bean sprouts, and sweet soy-drenched potatoes are familiar apart from a bit finer dice on the kkakdugi (radish kimchi). Those who’ve never seen these before can consult a Rolodex with the photograph and name of each posted on the tables.
I just can’t get past the absence of flame. But Kim and his partners will compromise: the permitting is in the works for the Astroturfed back patio to be outfitted with live charcoal-burning grills, a fiercely gracious gesture to all the San Soo Gab San OGs. v