Korea Comes To Chinatown

Ahjoomah_BrianNg

Ahjoomah’s Apron, which opened this past March, boldly declares itself to be “the only authentic Korean restaurant” in Chinatown. When a friend and I visited Ahjoomah’s Apron on a recent Saturday night, we hoped to test the strength of this claim.

I should note that I am not exactly an expert on Korean cuisine. My personal impressions of Korean culture have come mostly from childhood traumas: choking on ginseng soup at five, burning my dry tongue on savory barbecue meat at nine, and, at seventeen, finding my classroom walls plastered with posters of the South Korean girl group SNSD as part of a senior prank. Ahjoomah’s, thankfully, did not remind me of any of these previous painful experiences, though there was that familiar K-pop beat playing hazily on the speakers when we entered.

The restaurant’s lively chatter, a strange amalgam of English, Korean, and Mandarin, served as evidence of a cosmopolitan clientele. The décor, meanwhile, is rather minimalist, with an emphasis on variable rectangular patterns: the angled shelf-decoration greeting the entrance, the cool gray composite-wood tables, and the long communal benches that uncomfortably lacked backrests. On the walls, murals with tantalizing shots of menu items and descriptions helpfully informed us that “Bibim Bop is served on many airlines connecting to South Korea.” All in all, the atmosphere was fresh, modern, and open–if not without some incongruous quirks.

In addition to banchan, the traditional Korean side dishes, we had a haemul pajeon–a Korean seafood pancake–as an appetizer, which came in around fifteen minutes. While the pancake is technically easy to cook–flour, eggs, seafood: presto–rarely, in my experience, is it of the correct consistency. While the pancake was warm and savory, and the “soy-based house sauce” gave it some pleasant salt and spice, it was also soggy and stuck to our teeth–perhaps due to an abundance of flour. The six plates of banchan, meanwhile, had a raw vegetable taste that highlighted their freshness but verged on the disagreeable.

The first main course, dolsot bibim bop–stone-pot mixed rice–soon arrived. Scattered sesame seeds tastefully adorned the beef, egg, and vegetables, which in turn covered the rice in the black stone bowl. With much anticipation, I poked the yolk of the fried egg to mix it with the rice underneath, only to discover that it had mostly hardened. The small helping of beef arrived a little thinly cut, but was exceptionally tender and flavorful.

The second main course, stir-fried pork belly and kimchi, came next. The finely textured meat had just the right fat content, and was fried in a savory sauce that went excellently with rice. However, we were served only a small helping of the rice–in a wide, lean bowl. This small serving, along with the fact that the amount of thin-cut pork was far surpassed by the kimchi, led us to suspect that we would have had to order more food had we chosen a less filling appetizer.

Overall, the service was responsive, courteous, and polite. The waitresses graciously replenished our water and banchan, and inquired as to our level of satisfaction at regular intervals. The two pieces of Japanese candy that came with the bill were a nice additional touch.

Our dinner for two came to a total of $26.85 before tip–less expensive than Hyde Park’s Café Corea, Ahjoomah’s only Korean culinary competitor on the South Side. All things considered, Ahjoomah’s food is a satisfying, if not electrifying, addition to the variety of dining options that Chinatown has to offer.

Ahjoomah’s Apron, 218 W. Cermak Rd. Monday-Sunday, 11am-10:30pm. (312)326-2800. ahjoomahchicago.com