By Dana Kavan Gagnon, @ChicagoDana
March 20, 2013
Mini-review: Ahjoomah's Apron
218 W. Cermak Road 312-326-2800
Rating: !!! (out of 4) Off to a good start
I live a few blocks from much-adored Korean barbecue joint Cho Sun Ok, so if I'm going to take the 40-minute Red Line ride to Chinatown for Korean food, it's got to have a certain level of "wow." Luckily, Ahjoomah's Apron's "well-being Korean" didn't disappoint.
Background: In a small storefront that used to house Emerald City just a couple of blocks from the Cermak "L" stop, Ahjoomah's claims to be "the first authentic Korean restaurant in Chicago's Chinatown." And, really, it's the lone Korean-only restaurant in Chinatown, although the ’hood is home to some pan-Asian spots.
Owner Mickie Lee lives nearby in Bridgeport. She found herself driving to the suburbs frequently for authentic Korean eats, so when the opportunity to bring the food closer to home presented itself, she couldn't pass it up. Ahjoomah is an endearing Korean word for a middle-aged mom. Lee said it reminds her of the women in her life who always cooked for her, including her own mom, who recently passed away.
The scene: Don't expect grill-top tables and a smoke-filled dining room like the city's Korean barbecue spots. Ahjoomah's is airier and conversation-friendly. Long tables with wooden benches, perfect for groups of six or so, take up the middle of the room. On the night I went, customers ranged from a family with toddlers to six laughing teenagers to couples on date night. Even those unfamiliar with the cuisine will feel welcome and not the least bit intimidated. Artwork describing typical dishes and cooking philosophies line the gray walls, giving novices a chance to read up before ordering.
The food: To start, my group of six ordered five of the eight appetizers--and we definitely had a favorite. The kimchee pancake ($6.95) was less eggy and more golden than others I've had, and I like this version better. It was slightly crisp and really showcased the aggressive kimchee flavors. We weren't fans of the chicken wings ($6.95), which were overwhelmingly sweet and so sticky that bits of our paper napkins tore off and stuck to our fingertips when we tried to wipe our hands.
Ahjoomah's banchan (typical cold Korean side dishes) weren't as over-the-top as other places, such as the dozen dishes you'll find at Cho Sun Ok, but the five plates we did get all tasted fresh. On the entree side, the dolsot bibimbap ($9.95), which comes in a sizzling stone bowl, wasn't the best I've had and was slightly skimpy on the beef, but it was entirely satisfying. After filling up on the addictive chunks of caramelized rice, I kept pushing the bowl away and then pulling it back towards me. Still, the other chef's specials—particularly the tender stir-fried squid and strips of pork ($12.95), dripping in a sweet-meets-spicy sauce—really stole the show. The portions are enormous, at least enough for two (if not three) meals, so I recommend ordering a variety to share. Ahjoomah's also offers "dinner for two" entrees ($21.95-24.95), which I can only imagine serve four.
Service: The friendly staff was immensely accommodating, bringing more gochujang (the ubiquitous Korean hot sauce that makes everything taste better) and a fork for my friend who was struggling with the metal chopsticks.
Bottom line: With most entrees clocking in at less than $13 and a BYOB policy (no corkage), we spent less than $20 per person and ended up with several boxes of leftovers. That much value, plus a welcoming atmosphere and straightforward but well-executed dishes definitely makes Ahjoomah's Apron a worthy stop for near South Siders. But even those from outside the neighborhood might be surprised to find themselves traveling to Chinatown for Korean food.
Reporters visit restaurants unannounced and meals are paid for by RedEye. firstname.lastname@example.org | @redeyechicago
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