Sue Chong at Dragonlady Lounge
Sue Chong at Dragonlady Lounge Credit: eric futran

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It’s 6:30 on a Thursday night, and a line snakes out the door of Kuma’s Corner, the Avondale heavy-metal bar with an insanely popular menu of half-pound hamburgers topped with indulgences like fried eggs and pulled pork.

Across the street about a block east, at the southwest corner of California, Belmont, and Elston, another line’s forming outside a bar called Dragonlady Lounge, just as long, but with a whole different vibe. Here earnest young people with spiky hair and fuzzy sweaters are talking about the kinds of things that earnest young people talk about, from the plight of honeybees to gay tolerance in Thailand. The door’s locked, but peer straight down the bar and you can see a single figure hard at work in the fluorescent-lit kitchen. A handwritten sign reveals what this crowd is clamoring for: vegan buffet, thursdays, $12.99.

Close to 7 PM Sue Chong, a small, fit Korean woman, unlocks the door and apologizes for having forgotten to open it. One large party moves straight to the back and starts rearranging the chairs and couches to form a circle. A couple of people sprawl comfortably on the floor in the middle of it, as if this dark bar with its standard Chicago tavern paraphernalia—Ditka plaque, sailing ship made out of snipped Old Style cans, bottle of Malort—were their dorm room. Others take over tables or gravitate to the South Park pinball machine. The one place almost no one sits is the bar itself—which is just as well, because Chong’s too busy cooking to fetch you a beer or a shot. Try to interrupt her and she’ll chase you out of the kitchen.

Some 40 minutes later she calls out the kitchen door, and the patrons reassemble into another loose line. Almost a dozen different dishes are piled in metal trays on the stove and counter, from green beans coated in spicy kochujang (Korean chile pepper paste) to fried tofu dumplings to a tart, garlicky salad of shredded wakame seaweed. In a few minutes everyone’s washing down this vegan feast with $2.50 PBRs.

Chong isn’t a vegan herself, and until about two years ago she was more likely to make you Chinese food or even a plate of enchiladas than Korean food. When she and her late husband first bought the building 23 years ago, the neighborhood was working-class Latino. They moved into the top floors with their young son and turned the downstairs into a bar and restaurant called Susie’s Wok on Inn.

It’s clear from the way she talks about the first decade or so of running the place that this was a happy time for her, holding court at the bar. But when her husband was stricken with cancer, they closed the place, and after his death in 1999 she took note of changes in the neighborhood. “I don’t want to say yuppie—what is a yuppie?” she says. “Young people looking for what they can afford, they move here.” When she reopened the restaurant after two years, it was more as a Chinese takeout and delivery place, and she rarely actually saw her customers.

A few years later, after foot surgery, she closed up shop again. By the time she was ready to reopen, she was surrounded by cheap Chinese delivery joints and all-you-can-eat buffets, and rather than compete head-on, she reopened as a bar called Stadium West. Local food historian Peter Engler, who visited the place during this time, recalls, “It was a real dive. While I was there one of the regulars fell asleep at the bar and was drooling, and the owner went over and wiped his face while he was sleeping.” At one point, Chong listed the building for sale and began talking about moving south.

It was a vegan friend who’d owned a Korean restaurant in Albany Park who first suggested a vegan Korean buffet as a way to attract a the steady audience. “I go to the Asian market with my girlfriend, I don’t even know, what is a tofu,” Chong says. “I don’t know how to cook it—my friend show me everything.” She started up the buffet a couple years ago, and changed the name to Dragonlady Lounge about 18 months ago.

Every Thursday Chong starts work in her kitchen at five in the morning and works straight through the day—though she claims she takes a half-hour break around 5 PM to drink a cup of tea and relax. The food’s homey—simple dishes made from scratch with fresh ingredients. Chong’s veggie burger, which isn’t on the buffet line but is a standby the rest of the week, is actually fairly inspired. She makes it out of tofu, tempeh, oatmeal, and kimchi, and while it doesn’t taste much like a burger—”veggie crab cake” might be closer—it’s spicy, hearty, and robust, topped with avocado or, sometimes, cucumber.

She still serves dishes with meat and eggs, like bi bim bop, on the other nights of the week, but Chong is scrupulous about keeping the Thursday buffet vegan. “You go in a regular restaurant and order the veggie burger, you think they going to go get special mayonnaise for you? You know what in that mayonnaise? Egg!” she says, like a prosecutor cinching her case. She disappears into the kitchen for a moment and comes back with a jar of soy mayo. “This is the mayonnaise I use,” she says. “Very expensive. But no egg. I don’t give you anything that’s not right.”

Chong’s audience has grown through word of mouth and on Yelp, where the small subset of vegan users treated it like big news.

“There’s less of a vegan scene in Chicago than there is in places like the west coast,” says Kurt Hilgendorf, a high school teacher and longtime vegetarian who’s become a regular. “Vegetarian food here can be good, or it can be kind of boring. You can only go to the Chicago Diner or the Handlebar so many times.”

“My first impression was like, OK, this is a vegetarian restaurant?” says Myrna DeJesus, a dental assistant. “But it’s comfortable after that. And Sue’s the best—she’s like your mom. She’s rude, but we love her.”