Asian-Inspired, Genius Level Drunk Food at... Hamburger King?
Even the most plastic food strip has something real and personal and quirky in it, if you keep looking. (At least, this is what I like to believe despite 21st century America's relentless attempts to prove otherwise.) Case in point: there's no stretch of Chicago more blighted with noisy bars and oversized in-your-face signage and sheer brute Orlando-ness than Clark Street just south of Wrigley Field. Yet make the shortest of diagonal turns onto Sheffield and you'll see—for a few more days, anyway—an awning announcing "Hamburger King," accompanied by a neon sign of... a bowl of teriyaki. Which is just the tip of the living history iceberg in this spot.
History: 1942 in the wake of Pearl Harbor, and Japanese-Americans are being rounded up on the West Coast, forced out of their property into camps, right as we're gearing up for a war against people who... round up other ethnicities into camps. Anyway, Chicago, perhaps surprisingly, lets it be known that as far as our city is from the range of enemy aircraft, we're not that worried about Japanese living here. And so Japanese who can flee California wind up settling in a then mainly Swedish neighborhood around Clark and Belmont, opening restaurants and stores catering to an urbane taste for Oriental art.
Jump forward to 1959. Hamburger King was never, apparently, Japanese-owned, though it is two doors over from a bar called Nisei Lounge and, as we'll get to in a moment, its most celebrated dish was Japanese-inspired. (It was also next door to the Wobblies' bookstore for a time. Baseball and Bakunin.) But so much of Japanese Chicago is really Korean Chicago anyway, so it's an unimportant distinction.
What matters is that from (probably) 1959, it was a Korean-owned grill joint catering to late-night post-dive bar dining in the then-sketchy Lakeview area. Around 1984 a woman named Sonia Hwang bought it, and probably gradually grew into the character of the tough-as-nails owner of a late night spot full of drunks ordering breakfast at 3 a.m. and demanding payment as soon as you ordered, where the greasy spoon smell stuck for days and you really only braved the bathroom if you had to.
In other words, the place had atmosphere. Sounds great, I want to check this out, you say. Well, tough. It's gone. A Korean man named Young Lee bought it in about March and... well, you have to have known the old place to understand how shocking the sleek black countertops or the stainless steel appliances are. "Be sure to check out the bathroom," his daughter Sarah, who works the counter, urges. She knows that's all the evidence you need that this is a new day at Hamburger King.
There are new dishes—signs advertise Korean fried chicken and Bulgogi, and a menu revamp is on the way. It's also getting a new name—Rice 'N' Bread. But at the same time, the Lees know what the neighborhood loved about the place. They're keeping Sonia on as a manager and, more importantly, they're keeping the restaurant's unique notion of Asian fusion—the menu which mixes up American diner classics with old school Asian food. (Hence Rice 'N' Bread.) Most importantly... they're keeping Akutagawa.
If you saw a dish named "Hemingway" on a menu you'd assume it was named for Ernest, and so I always figured Akutagawa was named for the author whose story "Rashomon" was made famous by the filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. So it broke my heart to learn from a post on Yelp by a family member of the original owners that it was just named for the customer for whom it was invented.
Nevertheless, it's genius level drunk food for $5.95, soul-soothing but not stomach-punching. On one side, you've got white rice topped with classic American brown gravy. On the other, bean sprouts tossed with scrambled egg, typical omelet vegetables like green pepper and onions, and your choice of meat—sausage, hamburger, or chicken. You've got white or wheat toast. And finally, you've got Asian condiments—soy sauce, togarashi, hot sauce—to doctor the plain original to your own specifications of hotness and saltiness and Asian-ness.
An ancient post on the old LTHForum suggests a connection to the Japanese pancake okonomiyaki, but I'd more likely connect it to the kind of Asian fusion practiced by Navy cooks in the South Pacific tossing local ingredients in with their standard issue provisions. In any case, it should be a famous dish. It should be all over this city. There should be a version at Au Cheval that costs twenty bucks. Instead, it almost went extinct this year, except for the fact that the new owners of Hamburger King understood what needed to change and what needed to stay exactly the same about the place they bought.
3435 N Sheffield Avenue Suite 1
Chicago, IL 60657 (map)