(Chicago) – My exposure to anything-Korean was not vast until recently. I had tutored a lot of Korean exchange students back in college but that’s about it. I never had a motivation to explore the culture, especially the food. Perhaps, the language barrier was to blame.
Not knowing the huge presence of Koreans in Atlanta, a colleague brought me to an authentic Korean restaurant five years ago. I can’t recall the exact details of that night but I remember for sure that the whole dining episode was totally different. There were a lot of side dishes in small stoneware bowls, a table-top grill, a hostess helping us cut and grill the meat, and another hostess educating us the proper sequence in eating all the many dishes we ordered. It felt like I was in a ceremony or something. I have to go back to that restaurant and re-live the experience. Nonetheless, this sparked my initial interest on Korean food.
It is not difficult to spot a good Korean restaurant in Chicago. Plenty of delicious options are available, especially in Koreatown (Lawrence and Kedzie area). However, my favorite of them all is San Soo Gab San in Lincoln Square (5251 N Western Ave). I have spent a lot of dinners here with my friends and each time is an experience worth remembering. Each table has a grill where you can cook any meat or seafood to your liking. No need to give detailed instruction to your server on how you want your food done. You just do it yourself!
Besides the thrill of participating in the cooking process, the food is good in general. The dinner begins with 24 side dishes ranging from pickled vegetables, kimchi, anchovies, bean curd, rice cake, etc. I don’t care much about these small plates, especially the pickled ones. But somehow, they are subtle enough in taste and quantity, to complement the meat barbeque that follows the meal. The steak is well-seasoned and the chicken, marinated in slightly-sweet sauce, is flavorful. Also, this place uses charcoal which adds a smoky flavor to the grilled meat.
I grew up thinking that Korean food is just merely kimchi. There is much more to it; from the interactive dining experience, numerous “banchan” (side dishes) options; tasty and tender barbeque; soft-spoken, yet friendly and helpful Korean servers; and the reasonably priced menu items. There is one downside, though, that I can think of when you eat here. You will smell like barbeque when you leave the place. So better bring an extra shirt or go back home to shower again if you have after dinner plans.