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Monday, April 22

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If you haven't yet tried grill-it-yourself Korean barbecue, then I'd suggest you invite 10 of your closest friends (closest, meat-eating friends, that is) to Chicago Kalbi for dinner. With plenty of soju, decent cuts of meat and intimate semi-private booths, this casual Korean restaurant in Albany Park offers a fun, interactive experience that even those without culinary skills can surely enjoy. And the best part: The staff is welcoming and helpful to clueless first-timers, and can ensure that you don't set yourself or the rest of the place on fire.

This is no small feat indeed, considering that flaming charcoal grills are brought to each party and inserted into the middle of the table at the start of the meal. For those who are unfamiliar with restaurants of this sort, I should explain that the guests can opt to cook their meal over the open flame; the menu lists a variety of cuts of meat, poultry and seafood options, and after guests order, the servers bring huge platters of raw meat -- doused in various tasty marinades and ready for grilling -- to the table.

During my visit, the party I was with ordered quite a bit of food, including kalbi (beef short ribs), bul-go-gi (thinly sliced rib eye, often written without the hyphens), chicken and shrimp. I have to admit that when the server first brought out the platters we were intimidated by the enormous amount of unappetizing raw meat before us. The server, sensing our fears, immediately threw some meat on the fire and showed us how to cook each dish. Soon, the aroma of deliciously grilled meat wafted up from the table, and our fears began to dispense.

My favorite dish of the night was the short ribs. These were thick pieces of beef that tasted like they had been marinated in soy sauce and red wine vinegar, and required about three minutes of cooking time on the center (the hottest part) of the grill. After the meat was cooked, we wrapped it in fresh lettuce leaves and spread it with a salty soy bean paste -- the lettuce was a refreshing vehicle with which to enjoy the strong flavors of the meat and paste.

The bul-go-gi was also tasty. These cuts of meat were paper-thin and were ready to eat after only a couple minutes on the edge of the grill. (A word of advice: It's best to pay close attention while cooking -- otherwise, you will end up with burned meat. Trust me: I speak from experience.) The chicken and shrimp were good but bland, and we had a trickier time grilling these as it was harder to tell when they were cooked through. A variety of Korean-style side dishes were served along with the meat -- kim chee (pickled cabbage) and pickled cucumbers being two of our favorites.

For those who consider cooking your own food more work than fun, Chicago Kalbi offers several dishes -- including both appetizers and entrees -- that are prepared for you. Though I cannot vouch for any of the pre-cooked entrees, we were quite pleased with the appetizers that came out of the kitchen: the golden brown pajun (pancake) was brimming with fresh squid and green onions, dumplings were loaded with beef and fresh vegetables, and tender chicken wings were beautifully deep fried and wonderfully spicy.

Dessert should also not be missed. Chicago Kalbi offers three flavors of ice cream that are simple and refreshing (especially after all that meat). The plum wine and red bean were great, but the green tea really stood out -- I've tasted a lot of green tea ice cream that is chalky and bland, but this was smooth and full of flavor.

The atmosphere at Chicago Kalbi is nothing to write home about, but the warm lighting, cheerful staff and lively customers make it a cozy place to spend the evening. And, now that the temperature is starting to drop, Korean barbecue is really the only kind of grilling we Chicagoans can even hope to enjoy for the next nine months.

Chicago Kalbi Korean Restaurant is located at 3752 W. Lawrence Ave. The restaurant may be difficult to spot for non-Korean speakers as the sign is in Korean -- make sure you have the address handy.

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About the Author(s)

Kim Conte loves to write and eat, and dreams that one day someone will pay her a lot to do both.

If you feel the need to get in touch with her directly, do so at .

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