Sherri L. Ter Molen earned her PhD in communication from Wayne State University in Detroit. She is also a near-lifelong Koreanophile.
The Korean Wave in the Windy City
As the organizer of both the Chicago Korean Language Meetup Group and the Metro Detroit Korean Meetup Group, I'm often asked where to find Korean cosmetic face masks, Haiti Honey Butter Chip, and the best Korean BBQ. This is especially true when friends from the Motor City visit the Windy City.
Chicagoland has one of the most sizable Korean populations in the United States. Because of this, the area is filled with Korean sounds, flavors, products, and experiences. Whether you're a fangirl who loves U-KISS or simply someone who loves Korean food, these are my top 10 K-Chicago must-visits!
1. K-Pop of Chinatown
When people casually ask how you are, do you instinctively want to reply, "Fantastic Baby?" If so, you're probably a fan of the K-pop boy band, Big Bang. Korean pop music, or K-pop, is a worldwide phenomenon, and it's found a home in Chicago at K-Pop of Chinatown—a little piece of K-Pop heaven in Chinatown.
You may wonder why this Korean pop culture enclave is in Chinatown rather than Koreatown, however. Chicago's Chinatown is vibrant and right along the L (Red Line Chinatown stop). Chicago's Koreatown, on the other hand, is a bit off the beaten path. It's rather unfortunate that Koreatown isn't next to an L stop, but at least K-Pop of Chinatown is conveniently located, meaning that you can easily get your fix of K-pop CDs, DVDs, socks, light sticks, T-shirts, stickers, pens, and much more!
We've all seen it. In at least one episode of nearly every K-drama, the supposedly homely Korean poor girl or the super dreamy Korean rich guy gets drunk while the other plays caretaker as the couple falls hopelessly in love. If you want to experience this level of alcohol overindulgence, even if a Hallyu star isn't going to come to your aid, Dancen is for you!
This Korean bar has soju (Korean grain alcohol), soju cocktails, makgeolli (Korean rice wine), makgeolli cocktails, Korean beer, and Korean bar food! Dancen doesn't open until the evening, so don't try to go for lunch. You'll want to arrive early in the evening if you want to snag a table though. Despite the photo of the menu on the wall, the menus brought to the table are in both Korean and English. Order a pitcher of soju cocktail and some ddeukbokki (spicy rice cakes) to start. Konbae (Korean for cheers)!
You won't be let off right in front of the door, but you can access Dancen by the 92 Foster or the 49 Western busses, if you so choose. You'll just have to trot a block or two. You may prefer to drive, but parking is challenging. The other option is to take a taxi. You'll probably want to taxi it out of there after a few rounds of makgeolli cocktail anyway.
3. Lincoln Noraebang (Lincoln Karaoke)
Unlike American-style karaoke, which generally takes place in bars in front of friends and strangers alike, the Korean version is a semi-private party. Going to a Korean noraebang, or song room, with a small group of your closest friends or coworkers is like going to a motel that rents its rooms by the hour, but don't get the wrong idea! There's nothing unsavory going on at Lincoln Noraebang except for a few poorly-tuned voices!
Get a handful of friends together, and make a reservation a few days in advance because rooms get booked up early. The noraebang machines in each room are chock-full of the latest K-pop songs, old Korean standards, Japanese pop (J-pop), American pop, and a wide variety of other styles. You'll need to either be able to read Hangul (the Korean alphabet), or you'll need to bring a Korean speaking friend along because the noraebang machine remote controls are labeled in Hangul (the Korean alphabet). Nevertheless, if you can pull a few Korean words out of the air and a few sweet sounds out of your voice, you'll have a great time!
Technically, you can walk to Lincoln Noraebang from the 92 Foster bus, if you get off at Lincoln. It may be easier to drive, but street parking is a challenge. A taxi may be your best bet.
4. Crisp—Chi-Maek in Chi-Town
My Love from Another Star fans will want to flock to Crisp for chi-maek ("Chi" from chicken and "maek" from maekju, the Korean word for beer). Chi-maek was featured in the aforementioned K-drama, but it's been around for a while.
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In Chicago, you can find this phenomenon at Crisp, which peddles Korean fried chicken, but you'll have to bring your own beer. You read that right! Crisp is BYOB! (This isn't entirely uncommon in Chicago. Restaurants that don't have full liquor licenses are often BYOB establishments.)
Crisp also offers bibimbap (rice topped with vegetables, meat, an egg, and a spicy condiment called kojuchang), but they call this dish a "Buddha Bowl." In addition, this Korean fusion restaurant makes truly remarkable burritos stuffed with Korean BBQ.
The big draw, of course, is the fried chicken, but don't worry if you don't drink beer! You can still enjoy half of the chi-maek experience, and you won't have to go thirsty. Although Crisp doesn't sell alcohol, it does sell other beverages including imported Korean juices such as Sac Sac Grape. Whatever you choose to drink, you really must try the Korean fried chicken. It's so delicious that, with one bite, you'll sing out, "My Destiny!" (a song from the My Love from Another Star OST).
Crisp is conveniently and gloriously served by the 36 Broadway bus.
5. Joong Boo Market, a Korean Emporium!
Joong Boo Market (sometimes referred to as Chicago Food Corp.) offers all of the essentials for making your own kimbap (Korean sushi-like rolls without raw fish), including sheets of seaweed, rice, and fresh produce. In addition, Joong Boo Market has fresh meat and seafood, bottled sauces, canned goods, Korean ice cream novelties, alcohol, and housewares.
For this reason, "market" isn't exactly the right word to describe Joong Boo. It's a full-sized grocery store with everything you need to make practically any recipe you find on Maangchi, not just simple kimbap. Plus, there's an excellent food stall in one corner of Joong Boo Market where you can dine on Korean favorites such as yukgaejang (a spicy beef soup) at very affordable prices, and there's a delicious stand selling inexpensive dumplings known as wang mandu just outside the door in the parking lot. Bring your car or as many shopping bags as you think you can carry. You'll need them! There's so much to enjoy at Joong Boo Market!
Joong Boo Market is within walking distance of the L Blue Line Belmont stop and is served by the 82 Kimball bus.
6. Choc Choc Cosmetic
Choc Choc Cosmetic is a new addition to the Chicago K-scene, and if you go, you'll leave feeling like a million won. Korean cosmetics have become so popular in recent years that at least one big-box retailer in the United States is carrying some K-cosmetics.
Choc Choc Cosmetic has much more, of course, meaning that you'll find Korean collagen face masks, BB creams, BB cushions, facial washes, and makeup from a variety of brands, many that you see advertised in the credits rolling up or across the screen at the end of K-dramas. This is an adorable shop with useful and luxurious products that will make you feel as attractive as your favorite air-brushed Hallyu stars.
Choc Choc Cosmetic is just a short walk from the Belmont L stop on both the Red and Brown Lines. It's also easily accessible by the 36 Broadway and the 77 Belmont busses.
7. San Soo Gab San Korean BBQ
Oh, you like Korean BBQ; do you? You'll love it even more once you dine at San Soo Gab San Korean BBQ, where sizzle and spice make everything nice. If you've never had Korean BBQ, it can be a little intimidating.
Knowing that you (Yes, you.) have to grill your own meat may fill you with fear, but take courage! It's actually quite easy and truly worth the effort. If you're a newbie, simply order bulgogi (beef that's been marinated in a mixture containing soy sauce and sugar). Unless you're a vegan/vegetarian, you'll love it!
Don't be alarmed when your server brings you soup, rice, and a bazillion small side dishes. All of this is normal and included in the price of your dinner. The small side dishes are called banchan, and this set will include at least one or two types of kimchi, the national dish of Korea.
The best aspect of San Soo Gab San is that the grills, which are embedded in the center of most tables, are heated with charcoal. Many other Korean BBQ restaurants depend on gas grills. Charcoal-grilled meat is peerless! When the hot charcoal and the meat arrive, get grilling! You may want to watch a couple YouTube videos about Korean BBQ before you go, but once you figure out the system, you'll be hooked.
8. Java N Mug
Everyone and their brother asks me where they can find pat bingsoo—sweet red beans and shaved ice with ice cream, fruit, and other treats. There are a few locations that I know of within the city, and they are all within our tiny, out-of-the-way Koreatown.
One of these is Java N Mug. Step inside, and you'll feel like you've entered a K-drama. It's a great place where you can order coffees, ramen noodles, bubble drinks, and waffles. There's no shame in ordering a sweet coffee or a bubble drink followed by a delectable bingsoo, by the way. With a menu so tempting, how could you resist? Really.
Java N Mug is a short walk down Bryn Mawr from the 82 Kimball bus stop. Don't forget to marvel at all the Korean restaurants and other businesses as you stroll by!
9. King Spa & Sauna
King Spa & Sauna is a Korean jimjilbang, a Korean bathhouse and sauna just like the ones shown in K-dramas. There isn't a jimjilbang in the city, so if you're game, you've got to head out to the burbs.
This experience may be a bit much for you if you're shy about your body because patrons are required to bathe nude with others of the same sex. It's worth noting that the baths are like small indoor swimming pools or oversized hot tubs, so they're big enough that you won't feel like you're cuddling with nude strangers. Alas, bathing with others can be uncomfortable for some, but it's a must if you want to enter the saunas.
Once you've bathed and dried off, don the hospital-gown-like pajamas and head out into the coed areas where you can enjoy the Ice Room, the Amethyst Room, and the Salt Room. Each room exposes the body to a different cleansing and calming element. Don't forget to fold your towel into a ram's head known as a yangmeori and to place it upon your head! It's tradition!
There's also a cafe where you can buy absolutely necessary sikhye, a sweet rice drink. If you're thinking that you can't afford a day at the spa, think again. King Spa & Sauna will cost much less than you're imagining. Besides, there are often discount tickets available through Groupon or at the customer service counter at Super H-Mart next door. (What's Super H-Mart? You're about to find out.)
King Spa & Sauna is in the suburb of Niles, Illinois. You'll need to drive.
10. Super H-Mart, Everything You'll Ever Need Under One Roof!
Super H-Mart is a GIANT Korean supermarket with a handful of Korean shops. And when I say "super," I mean "super." I'm pretty sure the produce section is actually larger than my condo. It's that big. Think of the Biodome, except that it's a Korean supermarket. Seriously, you could live off of the bounty of what's inside Super H-Mart at this moment for years!
You want Korean groceries. Super H-Mart's got them. You want a food court and a Korean bakery? You better bring your appetite! You want cute Korean stationery, Korean furniture, a Korean rice cooker, or services from a Korean-American bank? Super H-Mart is the place!
One of the most exciting shops within Super H-Mart is THEFACESHOP, which you may have to visit even if you've already spent your budget at Choc Choc Cosmetic. Let's face it: No one can ever have too many Korean facial products!
Super H-Mart is in the burbs, so you'll need to drive. The good news is that it's next to King Spa & Sauna. At least, you can kill two birds with one stone!
Some of the Best Things in Chicago Are Korean
There are many other K-Chicago places to visit including Art Zone Gallery and Café and Cho Son Ok Restaurant. The 10 listed here are just the 10 I tend to recommend most often. Get out there and enjoy the Korean culture that exists in Chicagoland and beyond!
In the American Midwest, Korean Food is the Best.
Changes to Chicago's Korean Scene
This article was originally published in 2016. Unfortunately, businesses come and go, so the information contained in this list may not be up to date.
Questions & Answers
Question: Where can I find Korean clothing, shoes, and wedding gifts in Chicago?
Answer: You can find Hanbok at Oh Happy Day Chicago or Asiana Hanbok & Paebok in Niles. If you're looking for Korean housewares as wedding gifts, check out Super H-Mart in Niles.
© 2016 Sherri Ter Molen