Five years ago, I was just a hungry kid with a dream. As I became a professional food writer, I’ve tried mightily to stay close to those roots. Somehow, though, I’ve found that lately I’ve become a bit of a grumpy critic. In the zeitgeist culinary parlance, I’ve been a bit of a foochebag, aka foodie douchebag.
I knew I’d hit rock bottom when I found myself watching a new episode of “Check, Please!” and yelling at the TV screen because a young woman recommended a Mexican restaurant that had a huge wall mural of a cheesy dude in a sombrero.
I mean I was crankier than the crotchety Sun-Times critic Pat Bruno after being forced to review a non-Italian restaurant with hearing-aid-threatening noise levels. There had been all kinds of signs of my decline. One of the most poignant came earlier this year when Roy Choi got named a Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef.
For those who don’t know, Choi is responsible for one of the biggest Twitter food sensations, aka the California-based Kogi Korean BBQ taco truck. With a wink and a jar of kimchi, Choi tapped into an unquenched, but previously unknown desire for Asian-spiced and marinated meat-filled tacos.
But, disgusted that once again Curtis Duffy, the naturalistic molecular gastronomer over at Avenues in the Peninsula Hotel had again been overlooked by Food & Wine, I twittered something like “Dude I’m sure your (Choi’s) food is good, but you make tacos.”
For years I’d been calling for big-time chefs to bring their talents to the masses in an affordable way. And yet, when someone did, I discounted his efforts because he wasn’t serving thirty-seven-course tasting menus. I now realize I owe Mr. Choi an apology.
I came to this realization over tacos one afternoon at Del Seoul, the new Korean “street” bbq taco stand in Lakeview. As much as I love to laud Chicago chefs’ originality, Del Seoul probably doesn’t exist without Choi.
Part of Choi’s genius was tapping in to the frenzied post-barhopping crowd’s zen for greasy stomach-lining eats. And while Del Seoul is only open until 10pm on weekends, I can think of no better local drunk-food than their tangle of french fries larded with pork-belly bits, caramelized kimchi, onions, sour cream, cheddar-jack cheese and scallions. If sex and death are the primary occupations of the mind, then you’ll be thinking about this one a long time. Though the fries certainly aren’t better than sex, a few too many portions of these will likely send you to an early grave. Certainly nine out of ten morticians will appreciate my only quibble about the plate that, despite the already horrific caloric overload, I’d still like a little more pork belly in the mix.
If you’re more occupied with the sex part of the equation and thus trying to keep svelte to attract potential mates, might I recommend the kalbi—grilled beef short rib—tacos featuring silky beef glazed in sweet-soy tempered by the heat of chili garlic salsa and a crisp bite of “secret slaw.”
What stands out about Del Seoul compared to a thousand other taco stands in Chicago is that their seasoning, whether it’s panko-whiskered shrimp slathered in spicy chili mayo or the red-pepper-bathed bbq pork, is balanced and nuanced.
However, because so much of a taco’s allure is in the shell, I do wish Del Seoul griddled theirs fresh to order. It’s true there are lots of local tortillerias in town, but a corn tortilla even a few hours old tends to get dry pretty fast. Del Seoul’s tortillas lack a certain suppleness. It’s kind of like scoring a date with the 44-year-old Cindy Crawford. You’re pretty psyched about the whole thing until you run into Adriana Lima at a Victoria’s Secret Angel event. Before you brand me an ageist or sexist, let me assure you I’d be much happier to score a date with 41-year-old Catherine Zeta-Jones or 58-year-old Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo (X-Men, House of Sand and Fog) over Lima anytime. Taco shells, however, never get better with age. The same goes for the banh mi bread, which sports the same fillings as the tacos. The bread’s fine, but it’s not warm and toasty like the buns at Nhu Lan’s bakery.
That being said, Del Seoul is serving good food and bringing accessible Korean flavors to Chicagoans, and we have guys like Choi and Chang to thank for that. They were the men who gave the masses the courage to launch a thousand food trucks. Not only does Del Seoul not exist without their example, but neither, maybe, does Phillip Foss’ Meatyballs Mobile or Matt Maroni’s dazzling naan-wich serving Gaztro-wagon or Bill Kim’s Urban Belly. Even a foochebag can recognize that.
Del Seoul, 2568 North Clark, (773)248-4BBQ, delseoul.com