Friday, August 10, 2012

Belly Shack

While Belly Shack was certainly not my absolute favorite meal while in Chicago (I mean, it was up against some stiff competition), it definitely was not my least favorite. In fact, there are at least a couple of dishes that warm my soul just from thinking about them.

Being a Korean-American chef and serving up non-Korean food with Korean flavor profiles is pretty trendy these days. But it's one of those trends I don't really mind, as long as the chef is bringing something new to the table. If you're just now trying to make another Korean taco truck, just stop. Roy Choi's got that covered. Seriously. Stop it. Other than that, I love seeing how chefs incorporate flavors that I grew up with into well-balanced, thoughtful dishes.

Belly Shack's Bill Kim doesn't necessarily rise to the level of, say, David Chang, but he does have a serious knack (kind of like Roy Choi) for understanding and delivering familiar, and somewhat updated, comfort food. The restaurant is pitched as a marriage of Korean and Puerto Rican flavors ("Ko-Rican")--some were shining examples of the concept, others suggested a less passionate relationship.

The space is obviously influenced by urban street culture with tagged walls, industrial colors, and metallic seating arrangements. The space is simple, though, and eerily clean. Naturally, my two friends, Janice K. and Steph C., and I ordered a sizable chunk of the menu.

First was one of my absolute favorites: Hot & Sour Soup. Rich, tangy, hearty, complex, and clean--a clever intersection of tortilla soup and a traditional Chinese hot and sour soup. Neither contribution of flavor profiles crowded the other: the bright cilantro and characteristically zesty broth balanced out the heartier hominy and juicy chunks of chicken. Gulping this down in a few heartbeats was tough to resist, mainly because the soup seemed to taste better with each and every spoonful.

The two downers of the night were strangled with large nets of noodles. The first victim was the Asian Pork Meatball Sandwich. Multiple porky meatballs topped with a mountain of flavorless somen noodles (too much unnecessary starch!) and stuffed into an awkward piece of dry and floury pita bread (maybe an Italian Giuseppe bread of sorts instead?). The measly topping of crispy shallots wasn't enough to save the texturally deficient sandwich and the topping was a sadly sweet rendition of Korean chili paste (go-chu-jang), that the table agreed would be better replaced by some gutsier sriracha, and perhaps a spritz of lemon or lime.

The second strangulation was the Belly Dog, a thick and more flavorful pita topped with a juicy, grilled dog, a mountain of crispy (read: often limp) egg noodles, crispy shallots, and pickled green papaya. This might have fared better with a sauce (sriracha-lime aioli?) alongside the crispy shallots and pickled green papaya. The egg noodles were absolutely unnecessary.

The side of Togarashi Spiced Fries with curry mayonnnaise were good, but mainly because of the sauce and addition of togarashi. The fries themselves were unfortunately a bit soggy at times.

Okay. Now back to the good part! Served in a typical Korean metal rice bowl, the Edamame was delicious. Some more of those crispy shallots and "Seoul sauce." I was hesitant about the sauce, mainly because it was packaged for sale right next to the cashier, and most bottled Korean marinades, especially when labeled "Seoul sauce," tend to be overly sweet and salty with nothing beyond generous portions of garlic, soy sauce, and sesame oil. But this was different. It was not too salty or sweet, with a notable balance of acid, heat, and balsamic vinegar. The sauce exceeded my expectations and made each pod of edamame rise above its typical minimalist, salt-sprinkled preparation.

My other favorite of the meal was the Brussel Sprouts & Chorizo. The quartered greens were cooked through with the perfect amount of caramelization and sometimes a welcome char. The chorizo was rich and hearty, lightened up by some cilantro and punchy fish sauce. The crispy wontons on top were a great addition for texture and a tad bit of starch to simmer down the other bold flavors. So, so good.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the Boricua with Marinated Beef. Next to the Hot & Sour Soup, this was probably the next most successful display of Asian and Puerto Rican influences. A fun mix of Korean ingredients smashed between two flattened fried plantains. The plantains were surprisingly crispy and satisfying as a substitute for bread. The beef was delicious, with a tasty and well-balanced bulgogi-like marinade.

The layer of brown rice and bean sprouts mashed with a heavy helping of hoisin BBQ sauce and a sauce similar to Thai chili sauce was a perfect, sweet, tangy, and delicious way to complement the starchy plantain. It also reminded me of how, as a kid (and now), I would love to mash my brown rice with tons of butter, bean sprouts, and a soy sauce, green onion, sushi vinegar, sesame oil, lemon juice, garlic, and red chili flake sauce (at least, that's what I think went into it--I should ask my mom about that). A real throwback to my childhood.

And of course, to finish off our Chicago trip, we had to get some Soft Serve with Bacon Chocolate Chip. The ice cream was classic--creamy, sweet, and smooth. The bacon sprinkle was fun, but I was kind of hoping for a larger, saltier portion of the stuff. The chocolate chip cookie chunks were a little hard, but I liked how the brittle chunks added some great texture to the dessert. Still, I wonder what the dessert would have tasted like with freshly-baked, soft chocolate chip cookies and chunks of crispy, salty maple-glazed bacon.

All in all, I'm a fan of what Bill Kim has to add to what sometimes seems like an over-saturated food trend. Belly Shack was a great, comforting way to round out a crash course in Chicago's food scene and to hobble onto a plane in the cold weather back to Seattle--happy, inspired, and satisfied.

Belly Shack
1912 N Western Ave
Chicago, IL 60647
(773) 252-1414

GET: Hot & Sour Soup; Edamame; Brussel Sprouts & Chorizo; Boricua with Marinated Beef.

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