Lunch in the Loop: Korean Express
Editor's Note: Whether you're a tourist or an office worker in downtown Chicago, you can get sick of eating at chain restaurants all day. So we've started a series to get you the lowdown on where to find a great and affordable lunch.
Back at the beginning of the year, I resolved to eat more Korean food. It's June, and I, uh, haven't quite gotten around to it yet. I haven't lost the spare tire that seems to have accumulated around my fat face, either. Sorry, mom! So now that it's halfway through the year, I finally got that new gym membership and I'm covering a Korean restaurant! That has to be good for something, right? Right? Don't answer that. Especially you, mom.
Korean Express touts that it's Chicago's first Korean fast food restaurant. While that may not be true, I can say with confidence that it's the only Korean restaurant in the Loop. I have seen several outposts, but both Google and Yelp seem to think there's only one, and that it's closed. I can happily report that it is indeed open (thanks for nothing, internet!). Another detail to note: All locations share space with a fast food Chinese restaurant named Lai Lai, which has a separate service counter.
When you think of Korean dishes, most people typically think of kimchi and barbecue, but bibimbap is also right up there. The Premium Bibimbap ($6.75) starts with a small mound of rice, which is topped neatly with various cooked and fresh vegetables like spinach, bean sprouts, zucchini, lettuce, shiitake mushrooms, meat, a runny fried egg, seaweed, gochujang (which is a sweet and fermented chili paste), and sesame oil. If that sounds busy, it is. But it's busy in a wonderful way.
It is presented beautifully, but the fun part is vigorously mixing the dish until everything is messy. Don't worry, you're actually supposed to do that. This bibimbap tastes like it should; it's a complex blend of white rice bound together with sweet chili paste, small bites of sweet and spicy pork, crunchy fresh bean sprouts, bitter wilted spinach, funky meaty shiitakes, with a finish of sesame oil that coats the inside of your mouth. And the magic of bibimbap is that every bite is different.
Mul Naengmyun ($6.25) is an icy cold bowl of extremely chewy buckwheat noodles in a puckeringly tangy beef-based broth. I appreciated the welcome crunch of cucumber and radish, which contrasted with the noodles, and that the broth finishes with a hot mustard, which clears your sinuses just like wasabi.
Jjambbong ($6.50) is a seafood noodle dish that blends a spicy broth with various seafood items like shrimp, sliced crab stick, mussels, cabbage, and zucchini. Sadly, this actually tastes like fast food. The noodles are soft and the seafood isn't particularly flavorful.
The restaurant was out of the popular galbi (barbecued shortribs) that day, but they did have plenty of bulgogi ($6.75), which is thinly sliced beef marinated in a sweet and salty soy marinade that tastes similar to teriyaki. It's served rather plainly, and it's lacking the sliced green onions. Also, the meat is a little dry and a bit too chewy. It does, however, make for a good addition to the bibimbap.
The kimchi is additional ($1.25). It's the traditional napa cabbage style, and it's the a fresher style rather than an aged one, which means it's more crunchy and the pickling hasn't penetrated the cabbage very much. It's not a Korean meal without kimchi, so don't forget you have to have it. I'd be a bad Korean boy if I told you otherwise.
330 S Wells St # A, Chicago IL, 60606(map)
About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.