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Chicago’s Last Bite: A Korean Revelation

From top-tier table-top barbecue to authentic fried chicken, food from the Korean peninsula is certainly having its moment—with a unique, fusion spin. The following restaurants showcase some of the most ingenious, inventive interpretations of the region’s fare, but are always rooted in Seoul-ful traditions. No matter how casual or upscale you want to go, there’s something to fit every mood and taste in Chicago’s constantly evolving Korean dining scene. Here’s a taste:

UrbanBelly {1542 North Damen Avenue; 773.904.8606}

Chef Bill Kim’s “joyously creative yet curiously familiar” UrbanBelly combines flavors from his Korean childhood with influences from his wife’s Puerto Rican background, resulting in dishes they refer to as “Korican,” including savory soups, spicy fried chicken, and curry bowls. They also fit a variety of lifestyles and diets. “There are so many flavorful alternatives like coconut milk, which don’t sacrifice flavor and add another level of depth to the menu,” says Kim. “The Coconut Curry Phô is gluten-free and dairy-free and is one of our signature items.”

Tous Les Jours {1726 West Division Street, 773.697.8227}

This mega-popular bakery franchise, with more than 1,300 locations throughout Asia and the United States, showcases a wide range of classic French pastries as well as items heavily influenced by Asian ingredients such as red bean, sweet potato, yuzu, and green tea. As a proud Korean-American, Owner Richard Sang Kim is always looking to share his culture with others through the renowned offerings. “Our most beloved baked goods include a panko-encrusted Croquette filled with kimchee and Japchae glass noodles; the +Milk Bread, which is an airy milk-based bun filled with vanilla bean custard; and our Cloud Cakes that feature light sponge layered with strawberries and our famous fresh cream,” he says.

Jeong {1460 West Chicago Avenue; 312.877.5016}

One of Chicago’s newest Korean ventures, Jeong focuses on thoughtful, elegant dishes inspired by Chef David Park’s childhood in Korea. Says fiancée and business partner Jennifer Tran, “In Korea, Tteokbokki is a traditional street food where rice cakes are simmered in a spicy chile sauce with aromatic veggies. At Jeong, Park sears rice cakes with schmaltz to provide a crispy exterior and an added depth of flavor, and pairs the rice cakes with his version of the spicy sauce, pickled mustard seeds, charred cabbage, and quail eggs that are marinated in soy and beet juice.” By no means a traditional Korean restaurant, “Jeong has a Korean soul with an American heart,” she explains.

PERILLA | korean american fare {401 North Milwaukee Avenue; 312.243.3344}

River West’s Perilla offers classic dishes and Korean barbecue alongside refined takes on traditional flavors and ingredients. Top dishes to check out include Steamed Egg with dashi, green onion, and sesame; Fire Chicken with Chihuahua cheese, onions, and fire sauce; LA Galbi, or Korean fried chicken served with Perilla ranch, pickled radish, and your choice of traditional or yum-yum sauce; and Sautéed Brussels Sprouts with brown butter, Parmesan, and walnuts. “Our inspiration,” says Co-Owner Thomas Oh, “is learning the depths and range of Korean cuisine, its rich history, and appreciating how well preserved the Korean culture remains today.”

RYUU Asian BBQ & Sushi {2766 North Milwaukee Avenue; 773.661.1919}

Logan Square’s table-top barbecue not only specializes in Korean cuisine but also other pan-Asian specialties, including Thai and Laotion dishes, Japanese yakiniku, satisfyingly spicy comfort soups, and signature nigiri, sashimi, and maki. For Chef Anna Makmok, her mother was her inspiration and guiding light. “Cooking for family is a labor of love, and to honor that we use authentic recipes developed over many years,” she says. “Among the most popular dishes is the traditional Bulgogi Beef, which is marinated with soy sauce, sesame oil, pepper, and garlic – perfect for grilling and served with Asian fusion side dishes and Korean, Japanese, and Thai dipping sauces.”

Bonchon {1732 West Division Street, 773.360.7460 and 2163 South China Place, 312.877.5822}

Every piece of Bonchon chicken is double-fried, hand-brushed with a signature sauce that was originally created in Korea back in 2002, and then served with a variety of unique pan-Asian comfort foods. “In the beginning, there were few places in the United States to satisfy this craving for authentic, flavorful, crunchy, Korean fried chicken,” says Manager Robert Brasseaux. “Our founder introduced premium, flavorful sauces and cooking techniques that serve as the foundation for dishes served in a globally-inspired, modern, and sleek environment. And for the next generation of diners, a new way to experience fried chicken was born.”

Passerotto {5420 North Clark Street; 708.607.2102}

Chef Jennifer Kim of Andersonville’s Passerotto combines a seamless version of the Korean food she grew up on with a nod to central Italy and the coastal Italian food that has impacted her life. Dishes like Ddukbokki Lamb Ragù with homemade rice cakes and Cantuccini, baked with apricot, lemon, almond, and La Stoppa Passito wine, stop diners in their tracks and are well worth the trek from downtown to the far north side of the city.

Parachute {3500 North Elston Avenue; 773.654.1460}

Michelin-starred, James Beard Award-winning Parachute has been wowing diners since 2014 in Avondale with dishes like Broccoli Salad with ras-el-hanout; interesting riffs on bibimbop; and Koreapolitan Ice Cream with black sesame, yuzu, and red bean. “We have a love for recreating memories by putting a new twist on it,” says Chef Beverly Kim, “and a love for creating totally new dishes that are not founded on any tradition but based on seasonal ingredients and highlighting them in a way that is delicious and interesting.”

By Jeffrey Ward