Tackling Two Different Bibimbaps at Smalls and En Hakkore

[Photographs: Mike Gebert]

Who puts the bop the bibimbop de bop? This is a tale of two radically different versions of the same dish, the Korean bowl of rice, vegetables, meat and egg. Is one right and one wrong? Or is it all good? Let's find out.

Bibimbap #1: En Hakkore is a funkily decorated, tidily-run Korean restaurant in Bucktown. Where Korean restaurants often hide themselves behind curtains and shutters, it's brightly lit by big plate glass windows, and has a communal table up front. If the name doesn't sound very Korean, that's because it comes from the Bible (Judges 15:19).

Initial attention focused on its tacos—yes, really; Korean meat in chewy paratha bread. But the main dish as far as the owners seem to be concerned is their vegetable-heavy version of bibimbap—at least to judge by the posters on the wall now, touting its healthiness.

And it's a gorgeous bowl of colorful vegetables, carefully chopped, beet purple and carrot orange shouting color from a backdrop of cabbage and rice. But as if to prove that vegetables and meat need each other, it would be a dull dish of feed to chomp down, if not for the fist-sized quantity of slightly sweet beef, dotted with sesame seeds. Mix it all together and you feel virtuous from the vegetables you're ingesting, yet there's just enough of the primal satisfaction of meat to make each bite delicious. It's a balancing act, pulled off perfectly. (My only complaint is that the egg is hardboiled, depriving you of the runny yolk to mix into the rice.)

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Bibimbop #2: Smalls Smoke Shack presumably needs no more introduction than it already had here. The tiny barbecue place at the back of an Irving Park bar became an instant favorite for its unexpected combination of Texas BBQ and Asian comfort food flavors.

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Yet even as diners regularly eat their pulled pork with Filipino garlic rice, maybe the best fusion dish they invented out of nowhere is still underappreciated. That's the brisket bibimbap, one of the things they served back when they were the Brown Bag Food Truck. It is, simply, some of their Texas brisket served with all the other makings of bibimbap.

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And what was simple and clean at En Hakkore suddenly gets funky and dirty. The smoky salty greasiness of the brisket transforms everything it soaks into, imbuing it with a late night honky tonk vibe bibimbap has never known before. They offered me the choice of garlic rice instead of plain in it, too; I feared the sensory overload that might result.

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So we've got a spiritual bibimbap, and a very earthly, sensual one. Which one is better? That is a question we must all answer, and face our judges accordingly.


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