A Hamburger Today
Standing Room Only: Bill Kim's BQ2GO
1400 West Randolph Street, Chicago, IL 60607 (map); 312-563-1010; bellyqchicago.com
The Short Order: Globally inspired salads and wraps.
Want Fries with That? You're eating healthy here.
Seats? There is a seating area in the back, but most orders are to go.
Chef Bill Kim never opens the restaurant you expect him to. Actually, let me rephrase that: he never opens the restaurant I want him to. This is a man who works wonders with broth, and who could have spun his deliriously creative noodle bar concept, Urban Belly, into an empire of slurping soup outlets. Instead, he went all in on a Latin American/Asian hybrid called Belly Shack, where togarashi-dusted fries come with a side of curry mayonnaise, and the hot dog arrives with crunchy ramen noodles and green papaya. Each and every time a new place opens I am disappointed, then intrigued, and finally won over. I've decided that enjoying one of his restaurants requires you to discard any expectations and follow along with his whims. It's better that way.
BQ2GO is no exception. Though housed in the same building as BellyQ, his enormous new Asian barbecue restaurant in the West Loop, BQ2GO does not, I repeat, does not serve Asian barbecue to go. Looking over the two menus, I don't think there is a single dish that is the same. So, what the hell does BQ2GO serve? In one word: salads. Sure, there are some wraps on the menu, but most of them are little more than composed salads in handheld form. In fact, the wraps are listed bizarrely under the "Chef Recommended Salads" heading, which seems needlessly confusing. Anyway.
If any dish seemed to sum up the concept perfectly, it's probably the marinated kale with chickpeas, curried cauliflower, and yuzu-sherry dressing ($9). Here we have components from approximately four different cuisines (Italian, Indian, Japanese, Spanish) all mixed up together without what appears to be any rhyme or reason. But as I've come to realize, this is the same territory where Kim thrives. The crunchy kale soaks in the sweet and citrusy dressing, the chickpeas add heft, while the well-roasted cauliflower lends depth. It's tart, filling, and creative. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay is that it doesn't taste gimmicky or overwrought. It just works.
I can't quite say the same thing about the wrap I tried. Instead of pita or some kind of flour-based bread, the wraps are rolled up in rice paper, which makes them look like a cross between a Thai spring roll and an overstuffed burrito. I certainly can't complain about the flavors in the Thai roast beef rice paper wrap ($10), which also features lettuce, green papaya, quinoa, and mint. The beef is nice and pink, and crunchy lettuce adds some pleasing textural contrast. But perhaps, like Thai spring rolls, it needed a dipping sauce to really sing. It felt a little polite. (I should note that there are a lot of sauces available there, so perhaps I screwed up and didn't pick one up.)
Each day there are also a host of salad specials. When I went, I picked up a helping of the somen salad with roast beef, cherry tomatoes, and edamame ($4 for a small). More than any of the dishes, this reminded me of something you'd find a Belly Shack—acidic and light, it worked well as a side dish, though probably not as a main course.
In the end, BQ2GO almost seems like the opposite of BellyQ. Instead of a celebration of fire and meat in all its smoky, fatty glory, BQ2GO favors fresh vegetables. You can also create your own salad by selecting ingredients from six different categories (meats, greens, vegetables, cheeses, grains, dressings). But when I visit a Bill Kim restaurant, I trust his palate more than mine. It might take some adjusting, but the food always manages to surprise.