Restaurant review: Bulgogi Korean Restaurant
Culinary rule of thumb: If a restaurant opens in the Saraga International Grocery store, it will probably be good.
With its remarkably large, wildly diverse inventory, Saraga is like the United Nations of supermarkets. It's also been an incubator for pocket-sized restaurant businesses that have gone on to open successful, bigger operations elsewhere. For example, Ranchero Kitchen (an excellent Salvadoran eatery on Morse Road) and Momo Ghar (a terrific Tibetan and Nepalese specialist in the North Market that maintains a space in the international grocer) both had their starts in Saraga.
To this list of overachievers, add Bulgogi Korean Restaurant. Named after the classic Korean meat dish, Bulgogi occupies a surprisingly roomy corner to the far right of Saraga's entrance. The Bulgogi crew has done a commendable job of decorating the space so it appears distinct from the bright, bustling supermarket housing it.
Bulgogi is hardly fancy, but it gets the most out of its dark wooden-plank floor, relatively nice lighting, spiky little plants rising up from white containers and color photographs of Korean food favorites. I didn't do the math, but there seems to be a corresponding picture for every dish offered on Bulgogi's small menu.
Of course I tried the Bulgogi ($12), and it's even better than I'd hoped it would be. Boasting more intense umami notes than most local versions, the tender curls of steak, grilled with onions and sprinkled with sesame seeds, also strike an exemplary balance between salty and sweet flavors. As per usual with orders, it comes with rice and a little banchan sampler that includes chile-sauced cucumbers and funky daikon, plus a crisp and curiously compelling stir-fried dried anchovy dish and uncharacteristically bland bean sprouts.
More delicious beef and onions — this time grilled with green peppers, carrots, spinach and mushrooms — join noodles made from sweet potatoes in a strong rendition of Japchae Bop ($10). Rife with Philly steak-style flavors, this is an entree — like the easy-to-love bulgogi — that will please both veterans of, and newcomers to, Korean food.
The Bibimbap ($10), another cuisine standard, is also well above average. Firstly, the stone bowl that the rice-based dish is presented in is hot enough to form a highly desirable crust where it comes in contact with the rice. (Let the rice sizzle, untampered with, at least a minute to allow this to happen.) Secondly, abundant toppings such as a fried egg, bulgogi, julienned zucchini, carrots and spicy cucumbers — these, and the chile paste added by your server, are to be mixed into the rice — combine for a delightful meal that offers something different in practically every bite.
The Korean Fried Chicken ($12 for a seven-piece “half”) is so addictive that this place could have just as reasonably named itself after that. (Although calling itself “KFC” would not be advisable.) As per Korean custom, it's fried twice and arrives with tender meat beneath a wonderfully crackly crust that snaps like a candy shell. If, like me, you enjoy an over-the-top flavor explosion that's fiery, sweet, savory and garlicky, order it with the gochujang-based “hot and spicy” sauce.
If an ocean-inspired meal with zucchini, cabbage, carrots and other vegetables is calling, the mammoth seafood-and-noodle stew (Jjamppong, $10) is especially good here. It outclasses most of its local competitors by offering “more”: a more nuanced, chile-spiked, garlic-scented broth, plus more seafood, which includes very respectable shrimp, mussels, squid and cuttlefish that is more tender than what you usually get elsewhere. Pair this with the pleasant Gimbap ($7) — Korea's heartier answer to the California roll — and it's easily dinner for two.
It'll be interesting to see if this fine new little eatery grows into something bigger. Frankly, I'm just glad it exists in any size.
1265 Morse Rd., North Side