Bill Kim's Niles favorites
For the best fermented veggies, blood sausage and fried chicken, Le Lan's chef insists a trek to Niles is worth your while.
Bill Kim may be about to open pan-Asian noodle shop Urban Belly in Logan Square, but his stomach remains loyal to his mom’s Korean dishes. Because he’s the chef at upscale French-Asian restaurant Le Lan, she’s tried to add some American touches to her cooking. But he’s having none of it. “I want Korean food,” he says. “I just want something very simple.”
Take kimchi, a quintessential Korean dish of fermented vegetables—often napa cabbage, radishes and hot peppers. For the best, he suggests a trip to Super H Mart (Civic Center Plaza, at Oakton St and Waukegan Rd, Niles, 847-581-1212), Niles’s big-box answer to a swelling Asian suburban population. There, it’s easy to discern variations in rows of glass jars. Vibrant greens mean fresh kimchi, he says; a slight brownish hue is a sign of age, which gives the fermented vegetables a stronger, tangier taste. “Koreans are very fussy about their kimchi.”
“You don’t see a lot of Korean stores that have their own tofu department,” Kim says as he peers into the open kitchen near the back of the store. But even tofu addicts should stay away from Super H Mart on Sundays if they’re hoping to get in and out quickly---—the place is jumping. “If you’re Korean,” Kim says, “eventually you’ll run into someone you know.”
In one of the little shops inside Super H Mart surrounding the grocery, you can indulge in hot, double-fried chicken at Toreore’s Chicken and Joy (847-965-0311). Kim orders the No. 1, marinated fried chicken, a 14-piece feast with shredded daikon radish on the side. “I love the pickled radish, which provides a light touch to a heavy dish,” he says.
Just around the corner at the same strip mall lies grilled-meat mecca Arirang Korean BBQ (741 Civic Center Dr, 847-966-7072). Kim loves the kalbi, or marinated short ribs. “Sometimes people get irritated when they have to cook [their own food at the table],” Kim says as he unrolls the meat with tongs and grills over a gas flame built into the table. When you order a main dish—meat, stew, fish or noodles—waitresses deliver banchan, a herd of colorful sides including napa-cabbage kimchi, radish kimchi, spinach tofu, fish cakes and seasoned cucumbers.
Next, Kim investigates the new Assi Plaza International Food Store (8901 N Milwaukee Ave, 847-470-9450), and finds Mae Ploy (his favorite brand of sweet chili sauce) and the most versatile brand of coconut milk (Chaokoh). Assi also sells refrigerators designed for kimchi, Kim points out. A fridge just for kimchi? “Oh, yeah,” he says with a laugh, “kimchi will stink up your cooler.”
It’s too early for karaoke when Kim stops by Jang Chung Dong (9078 W Golf Rd, 847-768-5884), but he sings the praises of the restaurant’s blood sausage. Slices dipped in seasoned salt go down like cheese fries at the ballpark and taste more like ramen noodles than pork blood. Kimchi comes standard, but other sides vary, Kim says. Cool, gelatinous squares of bean-curd jelly, for example, are “not as refreshing in the winter as in the summer.”
For the closest thing to Korean street food, Kim recommends checking out Chingoojib (9098 N Golf Road, 847-759-8880). “It takes me back to my childhood,” he says. “I was only seven in Korea when I got to taste my first street food. It was spicy rice cake with veggies,” which is $10.90 at Chingoojib. The dish is a stew of chicken stock, Korean chili paste, mushrooms, pine nuts and vegetables with rice cakes (think Korean gnocchi).
When he wants something on the sweeter side, Kim stops by the appropriately named Bakersville (8357 W Golf Road, 847-966-0404), a Korean bakery. He goes for the custard bread, the rich-but-light pound cake, the butter-and-sugar bread and the sweet bean-paste egg bread. There’s no smell in the air here other than sweet, baked goodness, so even those who can’t get past the odor of kimchi elsewhere are sure to find something appealing.