City Strip Mall Dining at Cafe 33 Orient in Albany Park


[Photographs: Titus Ruscitti]

In the book, An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies, author/economist/foodie Tyler Cowen lists six rules for dining out. One of these is, "Get out of the city and into the strip mall." He encourages people to leave the yuppified neighborhoods and seek out dining options situated amongst dollar stores and ethnic markets. The basis of the rule is that these places pay a lower rent and serve food focused on bringing in the locals, who in turn want something that tastes like what they grew up eating. Over in Albany Park, there's no shortage of ethnic eats and there's even a strip mall or two.


I spied a place called Cafe Orient 33 in a strip mall on Kedzie just off Lawrence, and decided to go check out just what it was they were serving. It turned out to be a Korean-owned spot, which makes sense for this area. Albany Park has everything from Korean and Mexican to Middle Eastern. It's one of the city's larger melting pots, and the restaurant options can be a little overwhelming if you're just driving around trying to pick a place. I decided to go with my gut instinct on this one.

The menu has quite a few selections and a professionally done sign encouraging customers to bring their own beer and enjoy it with some of their Korean fried wings, which definitely caught my eye. When I went up to the counter, a couple more signs, these homemade, called for my attention. The first was a bulgogi cheesesteak. This would, without a doubt, be ordered. It doesn't take a professionally taken photo to entice me, not when there's finely chopped steak and gooey melted cheese involved. The other was a bibimbap noodle dish that had everything from the typical version, except with noodles instead of rice. We also ordered some spicy Korean chicken wings.


First to arrive was the bibimbap noodles. Are noodles an acceptable substitute for this dish? Yes and no. I liked it but also thought the use the smaller cellophane noodles wasn't the best option. They were too clumpy and thus made it hard for me to build my bites the way I like. I need to have a little bit of everything on my fork, or as much as I can fit when I eat from a bowl of bop.


Next item out the kitchen was the bulgogi cheesesteak. I immediately noticed something wrong and that was the fact there was no melted American cheese like the picture. I checked and noticed there was sprinkled cotija instead. Bummer because this was still a very good sandwich, it just could of been great. The meat was tender and gave no resistance whatsoever, while the grilled onions and jalapeños paired nicely as always. If it had the orange ooze dripping down the sides there's a good chance I would of already been back for another.


Last not but not least were the mighty spicy Korean wings. They're potent; the spicy Korean sauce isn't knock-you-silly hot, but it does make your tongue tingle just to the point where you start to get uncomfortable, before fading away. They're also enormous and are given an excellent frying job.


The skin is extra crisp from what I believe to be chopped nuts mixed in. I assume they're either added into the batter or the wings are sprinkled with them after being fried. The meat inside comes right off the bone, while still staying juicy. Some of the lustiest in the city, especially since five are just $5. This is the type of spot Tyler Cowen was talking about.