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Woochon Clan Ain’t Nothing to Mess With

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Fire.  It can both cleanse or soil, sustain or end life, or perfectly cook or singe delicious, mouth watering meat.  Chicago has always been known for their meat products.  At one point, we were known as the “Hog-butcher to the world” compliments of one Carl Sandburg due to the presence of the now defunct Union Stockyards that were an engine of industry and the employer of the immigrant masses that called Chicago their new home.  Although these legions of cattle and pigs no longer stream into the city by the millions, the ethnic communities have remained a very integral part of Chicago.  They are constantly in flux depending on the decade and world politics.  On the northside of Chicago, there has long been a large and tightly knit Korean community.  Going down Lawrence Avenue, you can still see some of the remnants of the once thriving Koreatown that my girlfriend tells me about when she was younger.  Thanks to the Immigration Act of 1965, it allowed these Korean immigrants to finally come in families and establish business that brought the pleasures of the home country to the US of A.  However, due to changing demographics and the rise of the Latino population in America, Koreatown now has more of a Latin American and Middle Eastern flavor due to the original Korean families moving to surrounding northern suburbs.  However, that doesn’t mean that the food has gone anywhere!  Even though I have lived in South Korea and have eaten my fair share of different Korean foods, I’m always down for a quick pop over to a new restaurant that my girlfriend swears by.  She hasn’t steered me wrong yet!  In this case, we went to Woo Chon Korean BBQ .

It is a very tiny restaurant that is wedged between a Korean store that is both grocer and video store next door that has all of your K-drama needs.  However, if you want to get some of the best barbecue in the city, this is your place.  IMG_6023The waitstaff is also probably some of the nicest you can find in a Korean restaurant since they aren’t known for having the same rules as found in American restaurants.  They might be a bit gruffer or forward compared to your typical server in a T.G.I.Fridays, but they know how to make some delicious food.  We were quickly seated at one of their simple tables which are a bit cramped if you are six feet or taller like yours truly.  We decided to start with kimchi pajeon or a type of savory Korean pancake.  It is derived from a Chinese green onion pancake (cōngyóubǐng) yet different because it is made from an egg based mix.  The name “pajeon” literally means “green onion (pa) + pancake (jeon)”.  While the ingredients seem quite obvious, there are many varieties of jeon that can be filled with different meats, seafood, or in this case, the signature fermented Korean lifeforce known as kimchi. IMG_6013 Typically, Janice’s family gets the haemul jeong or fish, shellfish, and octopus pancake, but I can’t get enough of kimchi in any form.  It was a ton of food to start off the meal for a reasonable price. IMG_6014 It is kind of bready yet filled with crunchy green onions and spicy, crisp pieces of hot and spicy fermented cabbage. IMG_6015 As we moved our way through this perfect pancake,  they quickly began putting out the banchan or little plates of random Korean snacks like pickled cucumbers, cellophane noodles, pickled radish, and even the mysterious acorn jelly that looks like cut up, corrugated pieces of rubber.  It’s not at terrible as it sounds but not my cup of tea.  As well as bringing out the small plates, the server also provided us with a blazing hot bowl of coals for cooking our orders of kalbi or beef short ribs.IMG_6016  Korean bbq has been a bit of a recent phenomenon in American cuisine, but it is a form of dining as old as time.  In Korea, eating beef was a great privilege since the cattle were beasts of burden, and the Koryo Buddhist dynasty of rulers forbade the consumption of meat.  However, in the 13th Century, those crazy Mongols invaded and removed the ban.  They were pragmatic nomads, but they knew good food too.  However, beef didn’t become prevalent on Korean tables until the latter half of the 20th Century as South Korea quickly became the advanced nation we now know.  History lesson over, we threw the raw pieces of meat on the grill with a satisfying sizzle and pop. IMG_6019 Once Janice grilled them to perfection, we mixed them with rice, doenjang (soybean paste), and banchan in leaves of lettuce to create ssam bap or what could be described as lettuce wraps with plenty of savory flavors to enjoy.  IMG_6021We also got a side of pre-prepared dwegi bulgogi or sliced pork loin that is sauteed in a soy based sauce infused with ginger, gochujang (chili sauce), garlic, sugar, and rice wine.  IMG_6018It wasn’t on the menu but highly recommend this Korean classic.  It also has a bit of a spicy kick to it if you’re not feeling the more mild grilled meats.  I loved mixing the pork’s zing with the green onions that came with the kalbi. IMG_6017 It provided a definite earthiness that mellowed out the grease of the meat. We also got an order of moo guk or literally “radish soup”.  IMG_6022If there’s one thing Korean soups and stews are known for, or at least what I’ve noticed, is being absolutely as hot as the surface of the sun, temperature-wise.  While it takes a bit of time to cool off, the taste alone is worth it.  Plus, if you’re looking for a bowl of comfort food during these cold Chicago months, step aside mac ‘n’ cheese, get a warm and filling bowl of soup.   By the end of the meal, we were stuffed to the gills with great food, and we were ready to take on the cold climes outside.

So if you’re looking for a more low-key Korean bbq place that isn’t packed with everyone who wants to experience the novelty of grilling meat at their table, I’d recommend Woo Chon Korean BBQ.  Oh yeah, and the food is mouth-watering to say the least and easy on the old wallet.
Woo Chon Korean BBQ Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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The Heart and Seoul of Chicago

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안녕하세요! or Hello! to everyone out there on the interwebz!  Welcome to another wonderful edition of Mastication Monologues where I bring you the best, most delicious, and/or intriguing eats I find as I walk down this path called life.  Today’s edition relates to the greeting in the funny looking writing at the beginning of the post.  If you’re not familiar with Asian scripts, I wrote in the Korean writing system known as Hangul.  It’s a relatively new writing system compared to the Roman alphabet or Arabic, but it is ingenious in its design compliments of King Sejong who invented said alphabet back in 1443.  Each symbol relates to how the different components of the human mouth are positioned to make each sound.  If I had to choose a sound to accurately describe how I felt after eating at Korean fusion BBQ joint Del Seoul in Chicago, I’d probably say ㅁㅁㅁㅁㅁㅁㅁㅁ(mmmmmmmmm).  

I met up with my friend, Heidi, yesterday since we recently came back from a year in Korea together.  While we were both happy to be back in the good old USA, it felt only fitting that we caught up on things over the food that we tried throughout our adventures in the Land of the Morning Calm.  I was a bit surprised to find it in the neighborhood by DePaul and not in Koreatown, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying my dining experience from beginning to end.IMG_3090  Upon walking in, I was surprised to find the place was kind of like a Far East Asian Chipotle where you have to order your food and then sit down at a table with a number.IMG_3097  Looking over the menu, I could see that it wasn’t quite the Korean cornucopia I was expecting.  While they did have some classics I’ve enjoyed like 비빔밥 (bibimbap; mixed vegetables and rice bowl), 김치볶음밥 (kimchibokkeumbap; fried rice with kimchi), and the ubiquitous 김치 (kimchi; pickled cabbage), they were missing other common dishes like 떡볶이 (tteokbokki; rice cakes in spicy sauce) and 잡채 (chapchae; translucent fried noodles).  Instead, they were replaced with Korean fusion treats like tacos, banh mi, and kimchi poutine.  I wanted to try a bit of everything, so I got the following:  a 갈비 (galbi; bbq beef ribs) taco ($2.95), a spicy bbq pork banh mi ($6.25), and a small cup of kimchi ($1.50) since I love my pickled vegetables.  

As we sat down, I had trouble finding an open table since the place was hopping with patrons greedily devouring their dishes.  The owners also provide complimentary soy sauce and spicy Sriracha sauce to jazz up your selections which wouldn’t normally happen in Korea.  Our tacos came out first, and they were a lot smaller than I was anticipating. IMG_3092I would liken it to the side of a large English muffin, but what it lacked in size it made up with bold flavors.  Not only was the beef expertly grilled and seasoned, but the cilantro-onion relish combined with the secret slaw brought in a slightly herbal yet semi-spicy punch to this south of the DMZ border fusion dish.  I would definitely recommend getting the tacos.  Next came the Vietnamese banh mi sandwich with Korean ingredients. IMG_3095 I loved the jalapeno pepper slices and the juicy pork pieces that were simmered in a Korean gochujang (hot pepper sauce) marinade.  What I didn’t love were the pickled daikon radish strands and the extremely fresh bread used to bring all of the great ingredients together.  The radish took a lot away from the other elements with its overpowering pickled flavor which I didn’t appreciate.  As for the bread, you might think I’m crazy for ragging on the crunchy yet chewy loaves used to make scrumptious banh mi, but in this case, I felt it was too much bread for too little ingredients.IMG_3096  While I do love carbo loading when I’m not going to run a marathon, I felt this was a case of going buck wild with the baguette to the loss of the other ingredients.  I tried a bit of Heidi’s 불고기 (bulgogi; bbq beef) sandwich, and it was the same deal.  Too much dough stopping the other ingredients’ flow.  These sandwiches weren’t terrible by any stretch of the imagination and a better value for the price compared to the tacos, but the tacos were more finger-licking good.  Then there was the kimchi.  Kimchi flows through the blood of every Korean, and it is the be all end all of foods for them…and me and my friend, Meropi.  There is even a special time of the year where Koreans gather as a family to prepare the kimchi for fermentation for the winter.  That’s how highly Korean regard this fiber-tastic but not vegetarian friendly delicacy.  While there are many different types of kimchi, the most popular is the spicy kimchi that consists of pickled cabbage and chili sauce.  I shocked my Korean coteachers every lunchtime with how much of the fermented vegetables I’d pile on my food tray, but it made up for a lot of the other options that had tentacles sticking out of it.  After so many days of eating the cabbage, I really came to love it, so I wanted to see if Del Seoul’s could match up to the motherland’s special blend of spices.  From the first delicious chopstickful, I was taken back to the land where I was complimented on my chopstick skills and scolded for mixing other foodstuffs with my bland white rice.

Kimchi just chillin in the corner

Kimchi just chillin in the corner

  Long story short, it was the real deal, and I’m sure that I will always remember my adventures in the East when I savor this much maligned food in the West.

Overall, I’d recommend Del Seoul to anyone who’s a little wary of jumping tastebuds-first into Korean cuisine or those who want to experience certain Korean classics reinvented through fusion food.  The prices aren’t overwhelming, and the environment is simple and welcoming.

Del Seoul on Urbanspoon

 

Somewhat Hoarble

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Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Even though I recently talked about my visit to a Vietnamese eatery to sample some pho (See Phonomenal), today I will be talking about my dining experience at Pho Hoa located in Itaewon on Itaewon-Ro heading straight out of exit 2 for about 10 minutes.  Here is their website.

While my friends Ravi and Carolyn were in town, we were running all about Seoul seeing the sights, but with all of that traveling we managed to work up a serious appetite.  Ravi wanted to try this Korean vegetarian place that consisted of traditional side dishes served to you in a tapas style meal.  However, when we got there, there was a wait for a table since it was a very small establishment, so we decided to walk back up the street to find another place to eat.  We eventually settled on Pho Hoa since it was close by.  All I knew is that I wasn’t going to eat pho again, so I looked over their rice dishes.  During my search, I did notice that the pho bowls they offered were more authentic than Pho Mein’s they provided you with cilantro, jalapenos, bean sprouts etc.  I settled on the pork rice in the end (10,000 Won) along with a Saigon beer (4,000 Won).

When both of them came out, I was more interested in the beer since it looked more intriguing.

Charlie don't drink good beer

Charlie don’t drink good beer

However, I didn’t have my hopes up since Asia really isn’t known for their quality brews.  I was correct when I found out I was sipping on a pale lager that had a very small head and really devoid of any flavor.  As for my food, I found it as unspectacular since I recognized the bulgogi (which is beef, not pork) residing next to the mound of white rice. IMG_1914 At least the egg roll was Vietnamese, and it was delicious with its golden, flaky wrapping and fresh veggie innards.  One of the main reasons why I disliked this meal is because it was so bland and the rice was not fully cooked.  Thankfully, after a couple generous dollops of Sriracha sauce, I ate every spicy spoonful.  The meat was a bit better than average since it had an interesting sweet aftertaste, but some pieces were a bit on the dry side.  I could tell this was a plate specifically designed with Korean audiences in mind due to the lack of severely spicy elements that are more common to Southeast Asian cuisine.  I’m sure if I got one of their pho bowls, I would have been more satisfied.  Overall, it was an average meal that could have been better if I went with one of the safer options like pho.

Saved By The Bell

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Hello to everyone out there and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Today I will be telling you about a little birthday celebration I went to last night in Itaewon that could have ended in gastronomic tragedy, but I managed to tame my own hunger with a little piece of home.  One of the girls in my orientation group invited us out to a Moroccan food in Itaewon, the foreigner quarter of Seoul, and naturally I jumped at the chance to eat food I’ve never had before.  However, upon arrival, we found out that the restaurant was under renovation, so eventually we found an Egyptian restaurant down the main drag of the area.  It was called Ali Baba’s, and I didn’t know really what to expect from Egyptian food since I never tried this type of food either.

Upon walking into the establishment, we were greeted with a mostly empty dining room aside from one couple.  There were various tchotkes on the walls representing Egypt from plates sporting the iconic King Tut death mask to images of the pyramids at Giza.  I was more enjoying the vivacious italo-dance techno beats that were mixed with Middle Eastern rhythms and pumping out the speakers all throughout our dining experience.  Upon sitting down, we were served with unleavened flatbread which was not complimentary (1,000 W each piece) and partially undercooked.  One of my fellow diners asked our waiter/owner if they could grill the bread to at least make it less soggy, and the waiter said, “It’s fresh.  We have an oven”.  We took this as, “I have a microwave, so that’s how it is”.  This was just the beginning of the terrible service.  I ordered the shish taouk (17,000 Won) since I wasn’t quite sure what the meat was going to be roasted on a skewer.  We quickly saw that the waiter didn’t know who ordered what, and some people didn’t get their food until everyone else was done eating.  Ineptitude aside, my food was served to me in a semi-attractive arrangement with fresh greens, two tomato slices, and two cucumber slices.

Close but no cigar

Close but no shisha

However, upon tucking into the dish, I was quite disappointed.  The pieces of chicken were succulent but not very flavorful.  I feel that I could have had the same thing if I stayed at home and cooked boneless chicken breasts in my oven-less kitchen.  Shish taouk is traditionally served with rice, tabbouleh, garlic sauce, tomato sauce, or fries.  None of this was present.  Hence I felt the price did not reflect the quality of the meal.  The worst part was the fact that the waiter/owner took pictures of us while eating.  It was not only intrusive, but a terrible PR trick to make it seem like his restaurant is better than it really is.  If you want good Middle Eastern food in Itaewon, look elsewhere because Ali Baba’s is run by one thief.  High prices for mediocre food?  No thank you.

After that meal, a couple of my friends and I decided to go to Taco Bell.  Why?  1.  Taco Bell is amazing back home, and 2.  I want to see how it’s different in Korea.

Even though it's by a mosque, this is my mecca.

Even though it’s by a mosque, this is my mecca.

Even thought the menu is a bit smaller in terms of choices in comparison to back home, I ordered a grilled bulgogi burrito (3,500 w) and a fiesta bulgogi taco (2,700 w).  It was totally worth it.  I just find it funny how Korea adapts almost every Western chain by just stuffing bulgogi in everything.  Not that I’m complaining though.  The grilled bulgogi burrito was moderately sized and was piping hot.

Like a newborn in swaddling clothes.

Like a newborn in swaddling clothes.

The tortilla was very strong and held in all of the contents from the first bite to the meat juice-filled end.  It was an interesting mix of delicious cheddar cheese, spicy Korean rice, onions, tomatoes, and sweet marinated beef.  It was even better with a liberal spritzing of my favorite Fire sauce that seemed a bit spicier than its American counterpart.

Layers of deliciousness

Layers of deliciousness

As for the fiesta bulgogi taco, it wasn’t that spectacular.  It was like eating a taco supreme without sour cream (beef, lettuce, cheese, and tomatoes).  That Korean twist of flavor was seemingly absent in the taco regardless of the bulgogi.  This latter meal was not only more satisfying in terms of flavor and quantity, but the sad thing is that the total bill for my four friends and I at Taco Bell was equal to the price of one entree at Ali Baba’s.  Moral of the story:  Don’t trust places named after famous thieves and just go to Taco Bell.

It’s a Good Day to Fry Hard

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Hello to everyone out there to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  This is part one of two for my Easter weekend in Incheon/Seoul.  This past week has been way too crazy for its own good at school with losing one of my coteachers to sickness, so I was intent on making the most of this weekend to put my worries behind me.

So after a semi-wild night on Friday in Bupyeong, I was planning on meeting up with some friends at this barbecue festival in Seoul, but due to some detours they took, somehow they were over an hour late.  I got tired of waiting in the cold and semi-drizzling outdoors, so I went downstairs at Magpie Brewery to get my southern style barbecue to find a line that was all the way out the door and not moving.  I waited for probably ten minutes and called it quits.

Never meant to be

Never meant to be

I’ve had my fair share of barbecue, and I’m pretty sure this wasn’t going to be like the real thing I’ve had while in the Dirty South.  Instead, I made my down to a restaurant right around the corner that I saw on the walk over to the brewery:  The Poutine Factory.  Now, I remember during my childhood we took a trip to New York/Canada, and we stopped in Canada at a McDonalds for a bathroom break.  Naturally, I wanted to see if they had anything different on the menu, and I saw that they had something that looked like fries piled high with cheese curds and gravy with the word “Poutine” next to it.  I didn’t really know what it was back then, but that image always stuck with me.  So this place, Poutine Factory, seemed to be a perfect place to finally try that mysterious Canadian food I saw many years ago.

By Noksapyeong station

By Noksapyeong station

It wasn’t the cheapest meal I’ve had here, 12,000 won, but I went with the KB fries with a side of chili sauce.  The decor of the place was not too kitschy with little Canadian souvenirs everywhere along with different books in a little bookshelf with different facts about Canada.  I saw the guy also freshly frying the fries in the back, so I was expecting a great meal. They were all finished, and I was salivating just looking at the Poutine from afar.  Then the chef tripped and spilled it on the floor…luckily I got a discount because of it.  He whipped up a brand new order, and I was face to face with my Korean Poutine.

Bon soir, mon ami

Bon soir, mon ami

It was a mini mountain of freshly fried fries topped with kimchi, marinated bulgogi, chili sauce, sesame seeds, and sour cream.  Plus, I had a side of sweet chili sauce and a bottle of Sriracha just to keep things interesting (as if they weren’t already).  To start, the fries were perfect with a golden-brown hue and a fluffy white interior.  Plus, they were not greasy or over salted.  The bulgogi was really good with the gochujang chili sauce and sesame seeds.  There was a good amount piled on the fries, and the meat was very tender.  The only downside to this dish was the kimchi.  Now, I’m not a kimchi expert/Korean, but this kimchi was very bland even though it had been mixed in with the gochujang.  I thought that the sour cream drizzle brought more to the table as a cooling element to the savory/spicy elements of the meal than the limp contribution of the fermented cabbage.

Overall, Poutine Factory is a bit pricier than a normal Korean restaurant, but you get a substantial portion of very hearty food.  It was a tasty tribute to the spirit of the Quebecois.   Bon Appetit!

Where’s the Kimchi?

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Hello once again to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Today’s review is about my brief encounter with one of the most American/global restaurants in the world in South Korea.  I’m talking about the golden arches, the clown, or the corporation everyone loves to hate:  McDonalds.

These cops aren't clowning around

These cops aren’t clowning around

We had  just visited the oldest Buddhist village in Korea, so naturally we topped off our field trip with a visit to one of the most controversial American exports.  Politics and dietary qualms aside, I always am interested in trying what each country has to offer on the menu.  Even though I was disappointed that they didn’t offer kimchi or rice for sides instead of fries, I decided to get a bulgogi (marinated Korean beef) burger and a choco-berry McFlurry for dessert (courtesy of my friend, Lauren.  What a sweetheart).mcdonalds-korea-bulgogi-burger  The bulgogi burger was quite interesting since it managed to capture the essence of the marinade used on the traditional Korean beef dish while supplementing it with a bed of lettuce and mayonnaise.  It was a smooth and sweet barbecue rush to the tastebuds while the mayo gave it a nice tangy aftertaste.IMG_1195  As for the choco-berry McFlurry, it tasted like a chocolate and raspberry milkshake.  Even though I’m not the biggest fan of fruit and chocolate, it was acceptable.  All in all, McDonalds in Korea was ok but not as crazy as I thought it was going to be.  However, they do deliver here which is very different from the States.

Annyeong Haseyo, deliciousness!

Annyeong Haseyo, deliciousness!

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