Normally, I approach new restaurants on an empty stomach. But last Thursday night, after devouring a few bowls of ramen at the excellent Misoya in Mount Prospect (thanks, Mike Sula for that tip), I convinced our friends to try this new place I had heard about, Gogi. I figured we’d stop in for a quick snack, maybe a squid and octopus-jammed pajun (pancake) or a simple plate of dukbokki (rice cakes steeped in sweet-spicy gojujang) and we’d be on our way home. But I knew as soon as we walked into the former Hae Woon Dae space on North California that we were going to be here for awhile.
Our friend, Miiri, is Korean on her father’s side, and when she sees kalbi (marinated, grilled short ribs) on a menu, she gets as excited as I do when faced with a pastrami sandwich. Since Gogi means “meat,” we figured we’d try an order. As we perused the menu, Miiri’s husband, Glenn, got super-excited about something called makgeolli, a milky white Korean rice wine, with just a trace of effervescence, traditionally served out of a giant, earthenware tureen with a long, wooden ladle. (Ironically enough, the very next day, Sula had a lengthy piece in the Reader about makgeolli). They both had tried this several years ago, while on a trip to Korea, and we were surprised to hear that this particular brand was now being produced in our region.
As the banchan, or series of vegetarian side dishes, were set down on our table, all of our eyes began to light up. Sure, there was the expected bean sprouts and a fried fish cake and some pickled cukes, but there were also tiny, fermented black beans and charred, slender chili peppers set over chrysanthemum leaves. Clearly, the owners had taken great care with these items, waiting until our kalbi arrived before they even served us their homemade Napa cabbage kimchi (which was just the right amount of funky and fiery).
When the kalbi arrived, rolled into three perfectly aligned balls, each topped with a single daikon radish sprout, we noticed how they preferred to do all of the work for us, unfurling the kalbi strips as one piece over the grill. The heat source – natural charcoal that’s started in your table’s pit by a gas flame – is allowed to heat up in front of you, so you can then add the meat to the flame when you choose. This was our only quibble; we had wished the charcoal would have reached a much hotter temperature before grilling, as it never really got blazing, thus not allowing the outside of the kalbi to caramelize. No matter, the richly-marbled beef still turned out pretty juicy and delicious, and we preferred that the server did the snipping and portioning, so we could continue to eat the fantastic banchan (while Glenn kept asking me to serve him more makgeolli). As the grilled beef made its way to our plates, we were encouraged to add some grilled garlic or spice-rubbed lettuce and scallions to our lettuce leaves, along with the beef. These mini packages of charred beef, fresh vegetable and aromatic leaves were just heavenly, and despite the fact I had two bowls of ramen sitting in my stomach from a meal consumed just an hour before, I showed no signs of slowing down. I even managed to try a few, small squares of haemul pajun, since the exterior was so nice and crispy:
I rarely get this excited about new restaurants, especially in West Rogers Park. And it’s funny, because I was initially pessimistic when I found out this restaurant was the first effort by the same family who own the Korean bar Yeowoosai just a few doors away. How many bar owners, after all, know how to succeed in the restaurant business? The owner, Peter, told me that the restaurant is in honor of his father, who suddenly passed away a few months ago. He had convinced the family to take over the Hae Woon Dae space after the previous owners abandoned it, and told them to invest in fixing it up and create their own version of what they believed a Korean restaurant should and could be. There’s no doubt they’ve created something special in this green awning-adorned strip mall. The question is, will they be able to handle the eventual hoards of makgeolli, pajun, gojujang, kimchi and kalbi-loving food freaks who are poised to descend upon it? If they can consistently turn out food like we had last Thursday night (and fix that charcoal issue), they’ve got a bright future ahead of them. Gun bae!
6240 N. California Ave.