Cheogajip: Where Pizza Gets Lost in Translation
Serious Eats contributor Daniel Zemans checks in with another piece of intel on the Windy City pizza scene. Daniel also blogs about Chicagoland pizza with his friends on the Chicago Pizza Club blog. --The Mgmt.
8273 W Golf Road, Niles IL 60714 (map); 847-583-1582; cheogajip.co.kr
Getting There: Drive
Pizza Style: Apparently, this is Korean pizza
Oven Type: Gas
The Skinny: The nicest thing I can say about the pizza is that people should go to Cheogajip for the chicken
Price: 12-inch pizzas, $10.99 to $12.99; fried chicken, $10.99 to $15.99
I had so much fun with the toppings I had last week at Ian's Pizza (reviewed here for Slice) that I decided to press my luck again this week with a trip out to Niles, a northwestern suburb of Chicago with a significant Korean population. The purpose was to go to Cheogajip (pronounced chuh - ga - jeep), the Chicagoland outpost of the Korean megachain (over 1,200 strong). I think this was Cheogajip's fourth location on these shores. The first two U.S. locations opened in the Virginia suburbs of D.C. (Annandale in October 2005 and Centreville in March 2006). A third location has been in Flushing, Queens, since April 2006, and the Niles outpost opened in the summer of 2007. There are other locations in the U.S. that operate under the name Pizza and Chicken Love Letter, but I'm unclear as to the relationship between those places and Cheogajip, but I do know that the name is not the English translation of Cheogajip, which actually means something along the lines of "wife's family's house."
I'm not sure about the other U.S. locations, but the Niles restaurant is an independently owned franchise, and our server said the menu was identical to the locations in Korea. Presumably also part of the Korean Cheogajip experience is the panchan, which here consists of a plate of coleslaw and a bowl of pickled daikon radish. The coleslaw is shredded cabbage topped with a staggering amount of Thousand Island dressing and some corn kernels. People who, like me, can enjoy an occasional overdose of Thousand Island, will be just fine with slaw, but others may want to pass. I was more appreciative of the pickled radish, although it was on the sweet side. The menu is almost exclusively in Korean—the names of the 11 dishes (six chicken and five pizza) are in English, but the descriptions are in Korean. What the menus failed to mention is that the chicken is excellent, but the pizza is not very good.
The first pizza we got was the sweet potato pizza, which featured Korean sweet potatoes, pineapple, cubed ham, corn, onions and a few slices of green and red bell peppers. Korean sweet potatoes are yellow and they are not as sweet as the varieties commonly eaten in most of the world. The pineapple, which was actually the most abundant of the toppings, more than made up for the lack of sweetness in the potatoes. The ham served no real function other than adding salt. One common feature of all of the toppings is that they were all perfectly cut. Based on the consistent appearance and the taste, I would not be at all surprised to find out that the toppings all arrived at the restaurant pre-cut and frozen.
That is not to say the toppings on the sweet potato pizza were bad, just that they were not very good. What was bad and was certainly made with minimal human involvement, was the crust, which had the taste and texture of multiple pieces of generic white bread smooshed together. It also shared the white bread feature of getting soggy very easily, something that became evident about three minutes after the pizza arrived at our table. It was not so bad that the crust disintegrated, but it was noticeably wet.
The second pizza, which featured an identical crust, was little better thanks to the bulgogi beef and the mushrooms that tasted fresh (even if they had been frozen, they were definitely not canned). The bulgogi was the most mild I had ever had, and that was disappointing, but it was still a pretty good meat topping. Much more noticeable on the second pizza was the large amount of cheese that was piled on, something I found particularly surprising in a restaurant that caters to people with such a high rate of lactose intolerance. All in all, I did not find the pizza nearly as bad as Joe DiStefano did when he briefly reviewed the Flushing location for Serious Eats, but I would not recommend anyone head to Cheogajip for the pizza.
The chicken, on the other hand, is an entirely different story. The joys of Korean fried chicken have been well-documented in New York. In Chicago, it is also readily available, particularly in Albany Park, which used to be the city's primary Korean area and is still home to a lot of Korean businesses. We could not decide between the Supreme Sweet & Mild chicken and the Hot & Spicy chicken. Our server solved the problem by offering to bring a mix of the two. Korean fried chicken is cut into chunks that have very little bone. The pieces are lightly fried, taken out of the oil and allowed to cool, then battered and refried. The result is a very crisp, nongreasy chicken.
The Sweet & Mild has a modest amount of sweet barbecue sauce on it along with a thin stream of mayonnaise. I was a little skeptical of the mayo, but it actually worked well, adding a little coolness and creaminess to the steaming hot chicken and moderating the sweetness of the sauce. The Hot & Spicy chicken more than lived up to its name. There were two people with and one did not eat more than a bite of the spicy chicken, while the other could not stop eating it even as sweat and tears poured out of him. I thought the Hot & Spicy chicken was outstanding, but I appreciated being able to take breaks with the Supreme Sweet & Mild. Almost as impressive as the taste of the chicken were two steps the restaurant takes for cleanliness. Each person is given a clear plastic glove to wear while eating the sauce-heavy chicken. The hot sauce was so powerful that we were all convinced its scent made its way through the gloves and onto our hands, but that might have been our imagination. Either way, the gloves made cleaning up a breeze. Also helping with cleanliness was the small canister on the table that serves as a receptacle for discarded chicken bones.
Adam wrote about the uniqueness of Korean pizza here. I am still sufficiently intrigued that if I ever make it to Korea, I will eagerly visit a couple of pizzerias. I will not, however, eat pizza at Cheogajip again, though I would happily return for the chicken.