Review: Cho Sun Ok
Author & Photographer: Emily Kang
Shortly after committing to UChicago, like any good foodie, I immediately began researching restaurants and creating my hit list of places to try before I graduate. It’s taken me two years, but I finally made it to one of the first restaurants I found and knew I needed to try: Cho Sun Ok. This Michelin-recommended Korean barbeque joint is closer to Evanston than Hyde Park, so summer seemed to be the perfect time to make the trek up north to Lincoln Square and see if Cho Sun Ok lived up to its reviews.
Cho Sun Ok doesn’t take reservations, so we arrived relatively early. At 6:00 pm, there was already a small line out the door. The smells wafting outside were heavenly, so I was pleasantly surprised to only have a short wait. Tables turn quickly in this small, corner restaurant (more on this in a bit), so after a few minutes, we found ourselves seated at a large, wooden table with a small gas grill in the center. The menu covers all the classics I hoped to see -- galbi, bulgogi, scallion pancakes called pajeon, Korean dumplings, and a section dedicated to my favorite summer dish, a chilled noodle soup called naengmyeon. We decided to order gun mandu, or pan-fried dumplings, pajeon, chadol-gui, or unmarinated thinly sliced beef, and the bulgogi, which is marinated beef. The menu is predominantly beef, with a few octopus options and no pork or chicken. I didn’t find this to be a problem since I prefer beef for KBBQ anyway, but this may be important to keep in mind for some diners.
When ordering, our server seemed to anticipate what we would order and rushed me in choosing. I took this as pragmatism more than anything, given the growing line out the door, but I began to understand the Yelp reviews that criticized the quality of service. There was also a definite language barrier. My knowledge of Korean language is based on childhood lessons with my grandmother and UChicago’s Korean 101 class, which means I am by no means competent enough to order in Korean. I have a sneaking suspicion that if I had come with my dad, for instance, or another native Korean speaker, we may have had a slightly different experience.
Almost immediately after ordering (like I said-- tables turn quickly), the banchan arrived. Banchan are small side dishes served with Korean food, and arguably one of my favorite parts of the meal. Our banchan included spicy kimchi, shredded daikon salad, creamy Korean-style fruit salad, spicy fishcake, quick-pickled cucumber, bean sprout salad, and a seaweed salad. My favorites were the kimchi and fishcake. Cho Sun Ok’s kimchi is quite genuinely some of the best I’ve had, with an appropriate funk, balanced spice and acidity, and a good crisp bite. Banchan are meant to be eaten throughout the meal, but these were so good and we were so hungry that we raced through them pretty quickly while waiting for the meat to come out, alongside the mandu and some of the pajeon. I loved the mandu. So crisp on the outside, yet steaming and soft in the middle, these vegetable-packed pockets of joy satiated my growing hunger and just made me really happy. The pajeon was full of scallions and octopus. It was nice and thin so the pancake didn’t get gummy or too heavy. I liked the chew of the octopus and the sharpness of the green onion. With the vinegar-based dipping sauce, this made a well-balanced side.
Finally, the star of the show: the meat. The chaldol-gui came out first, since it isn’t marinated and should be cooked as is. The meat was beautifully marbled and generously portioned for the price. For this one, the staff left us to our own devices to cook the delicate meat in the stone bowl on the grill… for a moment. After I put a few pieces in and snapped a couple pictures, a waitress swooped in to quickly sear the rest for us. Tables. Turn. Quickly. The meat was flavorful, the fatty cut yielding a rich and distinctly beefy flavor with its quick sear. Savor the flavor of the meat on its own, or try it with one of the plethora of sauces on the table. Either way, the chadol-gui is a definite winner.
We cooked the bulgogi in a similar manner, with me impatiently tossing some meat into the bowl, trying to take some pictures, and then the waitress coming to take the tongs out of my hand. Was I not doing it right, or was I too slow? The world will never know. Regardless, it doesn’t really matter because the bulgogi was fantastic. The marinade was slightly sweet and spicy, bringing out a complex richness in the beef. Eat this with some of the raw scallions on the plate to add brightness, and you have some of the best bulgogi I’ve eaten outside of my home (sorry, bias).
At the end of the meal, the waitress brought out extra kimchi, japchae (a cold noodle salad), some more bean sprouts, and rice. She tossed it all in the bowl on the grill with the remaining bulgogi bits, along with any banchan we hadn’t eaten (excluding the seaweed and potato salad, of course). She tossed it all together, creating a kimchi fried rice with the remaining ingredients. We didn’t order rice, but it just came with the meal, making this a welcome surprise. Yum. At this point, we were already pretty stuffed and didn’t eat too much of the rice. Luckily, Cho Sun Ok does offer carry out, so I was able to take home the leftover rice, pancake, and a bit of the chadol-gui we had left on our plates. I made bibimbap at home the next two days and it was fantastic.
All in all, the food at Cho Sun Ok was great, but this is not a KBBQ place for a long, relaxed dinner. The appetizers were classic and well-executed, the banchan was plentiful and flavorful, and the quality of the meat was truly beautiful. However, for Cho Sun Ok, speed is key. So, is a 30 minute meal worth a 45 minute Uber drive there and another 45 minutes to come back? I’m not sure. Was this some of the best Korean food I’ve had in Chicago? Yes. If you decide to make the trek, you will not be disappointed with the food, but I can’t claim you won’t find equally satisfying options closer to Hyde Park. Nevertheless, I’m glad I went. I can happily check this off my list and say with confidence that it’s worth the hype.