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.
Last summer I made my first foray into the weird and depressing food court that's about a block away from the Clark and Lake transit hub in the Loop. I visited a strange and mysterious place called Green Apple Yogurt. Now that I'm back to loserly-looking-for-a-full-time-job mode again, I find myself wandering around downtown with my eyes peeled for a great place to eat. The task isn't easy.
As I passed by the food court again, I noticed a new bright green awning advertising a place called K-Kitchen, selling Korean food. "This is the food of my people!" I thought. "If I don't go in, I'll bring shame upon myself for not supporting my heritage. Also, hurry up and get a job, you wiener." So I stepped in and I was suddenly reminded about why I never go in. My secret nickname for this food court is The Food Court That Time Forgot. Seriously, it's a weird place.
K-Kitchen advertises itself as being "Healthy Korean Fare," which is exactly why I went to check out the deep-fried chicken balls (hee hee) known as the Seoul Chicken ($7.99). The fried chicken bites are pretty much popcorn chicken, uniformly breaded and fried, and then drizzled with a sweet and spicy gochujang-based sauce. For you Korean newbies, gochujang is a sweet fermented chili paste. The fermentation adds a funky and deeper quality to the paste—without the aging, you'd have a bitter acrid chili paste without the savory depth of fermentation.
The chicken is sprinkled with peanuts, which is curious, since Koreans don't usually cook with peanuts, but they're a good crunchy addition to the fried chicken. Pieces doused in the salty-sweet chili sauce are delicious, and surprisingly light-tasting considering they all took a bath in the fryer. In terms of spicy, I'd rate these as medium, in case you're a spice-baby.
The dumplings (included in the meal) are blistered in oil before you get them, which is interesting too—we usually pan-fry our dumplings rather than deep-fry them. They are, as you'd imagine, somewhat greasy, but crisp and piping hot. The stuffing of meat and glass noodles is strong on the MSG, making me suspect that these are simply bought and prepared. Homemade Korean dumplings take a lot of manual labor, so I'm not entirely surprised.
Bibimbap ($7.99), (translation: "mixed rice") is a popular Korean staple that starts with a pile of rice, covered with portioned sections of vegetables and meat. Part of the fun is mixing it all together vigorously—don't be shy, it's supposed to be messy. K-Kitchen makes it easier for you non-Koreans to order by calling it a Green Bowl.
It's topped with carrots, bean sprouts, cucumbers, zucchini, shiitake mushroom, romaine, and your choice of meat (or you can go meatless). This is a lighter bibimbap rather than the denser, heavier versions I'm used to. Pour a bunch of gochujang in, which is served on the side, and go to town. The mix of vegetables, rice, and sweet chili sauce makes for light but vibrant bites, especially the ones with pickled vegetables in them. K-Kitchen doesn't put a fried egg on top by default, like some places do, but you might be able to sweet talk them into doing it for you.
Skip the soups altogether. The hot beef soup ($5.99) is loaded with MSG and hardly has any beef in it. It's supposed to be a version of yukgaejang, but isn't quite what the spicy shredded beef stew should be.
Also, check out the tables at this food court. Black and white stripes! Do you guys remember the Venture stores back in the day? Venture closed in the late '90s, but man, I had a flashback when I ate on one of those striped tables. My family used to go to Venture all the time.
You'll also want to skip the hot tofu soup ($7.99), if you're looking for an authentic version of soondubu, which is ideally a bright-red stew of silken tofu in a spicy salty broth. The broth here is more orange than red. This is also laced with MSG and suspiciously tastes like the same broth as the hot beef soup. There is, however, a ton of silken custardy tofu (my favorite kind), if all you're looking for is tofu.
It's tough for me to tell you that some of the food isn't particularly good at K-Kitchen, since the folks that run it are hard-working and kind. I don't like this part of the job sometimes (unless I'm trash-talking fast food). But my search for a great Korean lunch downtown continues. Hopefully not...forever.