Korean bar food
Spicy chicken thighs and tofu soup are on tap at our favorite Korean bars.
Defining factors of Korean bars: pitchers of sickly sweet cocktails made with soju, a clear, rice-based liquor; lengthy menus of anju (snacks); clubby pop music turned up to 11; and Korean kids who can’t be a day over 21 soaking it all up. For the complete checklist and good people-watching, DMZ Café in Niles is the late-night hot spot, dead before midnight, hopping at 1am and always a good stop for the “dry snacks” platter ($12) ➊, including strands of dried calamari for the adventurous and pistachios for the timid.
In nearby Des Plaines is Ssaboo (formerly Hourglass), which lured loyalists from its original Lawrence Avenue location with killer sweet-and-spicy chicken ($12.95) ➋. The crowd is a mix of ages, with businessmen sipping whiskey at the bar, middle-aged women slurping kimchi stew in a clay bowl ($8.95) at tables and college-age kids picking at stellar seafood pancakes ($17.95).
Back in the city, another small cluster of Korean bars north of Lincoln Square includes hidden gem Dancen. It’s everything a good bar—Korean or not—should be: small, cozy, dark and staffed with friendly faces who are as good on the grill as they are behind the bar. Here, they do both at once thanks to the bar’s built-in flattop, responsible for the best booze snack in town, “fire chicken” ($12) ➌. Bite-sized hunks of chicken thighs are soaked through with soy-spiked chili paste and piled high on the plate. Trust: After a couple of bottles of soju, you will be cleaning those bones.
➊ Yogurt soju ($22), pitcher of soju mixed with a tart yogurt drink
➋ Sul Joong Mae ($13), a plum wine
➌ Chum Churum soju ($14), a popular brand of the Korean rice liquor