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Cheap date: En Hakkore

2 for $30: En Hakkore
1840 N. Damen Ave. 773-772-9880

I'd love to see the word "fusion" retired from restaurant menus. It gives me unpleasant flashbacks to the late ’90s, when suburban Brazilian-Japanese-American hybrids flung together ingredients with utter abandon, covered everything in soy sauce and called it a day. Fast-forward to the present day, and counter-service Bucktown restaurant En Hakkore has come around to redeem the term. "Fusion" isn't spelled out on the menu, but with dishes such as Korean rice bowls sharing the spotlight with paratha tacos, that's exactly what it is. For those on a budget, the mixed menu offers sizable portions with bright flavors and enough variety to satisfy cravings for multiple Asian cuisines.

Main attraction: Freshness. The three Korean bap bowls ($7.50-$12) on the menu each include at least 13 types of vegetables, from crisp cabbage to crunchy daikon radish sprouts. In a dish like the Al-bap bowl ($12), a simple preparation of four types of fish roe atop a rainbow of vegetables, the quality of the ingredients is paramount. I splashed a few spoonfuls of chili sauce atop the salad, but wanted the taste of the veggies and the bursting granules of fish roe to take center stage. Likewise, the Korean barbecue beef tacos (two for $7.50, also available with spicy pork filling) are made to order, which is crucial given that they're wrapped with paratha, a buttery Pakistani flatbread that can become dense and cold over time. The food seems even lighter surrounded by the openness of the storefront, a minimally decorated room (which formerly housed sandwich shop Melt) with a glass front looking out onto Damen Avenue.

Best value: Again, the bap bowls. These wok-sized bowls of veggies and rice are available topped with spicy pork or Korean barbecue beef (Bibimbap, $9.50), the aforementioned fish roe (Al-bap, $12) or sashimi (Sashimi-bop, $12), and are nearly enough for two people to share. Even if you're proficient with chop sticks, all the tiny chopped veggies take a while to eat, meaning you could spend nearly an hour on dinner despite El-Hakkore's counter-service setup. A shareable appetizer or substantial side dish, the Kim-bap ($6.50) is a nine-piece maki-like roll that adds barbecued beef to a roll of crabmeat and fried tofu, then wraps the trio in veggies and rice. The beef adds substance to the large rolls, while the pickled radishes, cucumber and zucchini lend some crunch.

Tip: En Hakkore doesn't serve alcohol, nor is it BYOB, but the friendly owners do stock an impressive selection of Asian soft drinks and juices, many of which I hadn't seen before. If you want to break the ice with a drink before your dinner date, there are plenty of bars—like The Bluebird, Lemming's, and Lottie's Pub—within a few blocks.

Sample order: One order of beef paratha tacos ($7.50) + 1 Al-bap bowl ($12) + 1 Kim-bap roll ($6.50) + tax = $28.60

See other cheap date recommendations here.

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