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January 27, 2012

Hunger Strike | For whom the belly tolls

Bill Kim doesn’t care. He just cooks what he wants. Sure, he might have been chef de cuisine at the “temple of haute cuisine” that is Charlie Trotter’s. And yeah, that does put him in the ranks of Grant Achatz, Graham Elliot and Homaru Cantu, as one of the many restaurant protégés that make up the oligarchy of Chicago’s restaurant scene. But  lacking a Michelin-starred restaurant, Kim can’t help but be the runt of the litter, the black swan, the Khourtney Kardashian of the Trotter clan. Fortunately, Bill Kim doesn’t give a shit. He’s pretty badass. In a matter of months, Kim’s ever-growing Belly Empire (Urban Belly, Belly Shack) will go up yet another pants size with the addition of Belly Q on West Loop’s Randolph restaurant row. And you can be certain that the foodie masses will descend on it like a meat-seeking missile. But for the time being, Belly Shack, the newer and more casual of Kim’s current holdings, represents precisely the kind of over-the-top faux-Asian food that abandoning the world of fine-dining has granted Kim the freedom to create. Abandon all fanciness ye who enter here.

Belly Shack is located right under the Western-O’Hare Blue line stop– unassuming is an unassuming way to describe the space. Inside you’ll find a large communal table surrounded by smaller seating arrangements on the periphery, all decked out in steel and wood, and some Banksy-esque graffiti on the wall. Get your own damn cutlery, pour your own damn water, and BYOB seems more like a mandate than a recommendation, as virtually every table was imbibing alcohol in one form or another. Ordering takes place at the cash register, from the small menu above which can basically be sampled in its entirety during the course of two visits, as I did. But don’t let its size fool you. Big flavors come in small snackages.

Overall, this might be a weird way of conceiving the food at Belly Shack, but it’s like having all the fun and innovative kookiness of food truck food in a nice, warm restaurant setting – you know, with chairs and bathrooms and stuff you can’t find outside.  Consider some of the sides, for instance ,which might as well be appetizers. The “tostones”, which are basically crispy plantains in absurdly addictive lime-zested chimichurri sauce, are gone within 60 seconds of being served. They have the texture of the best hash browns you’ve ever had, while the unassertive flavor of the plantain lets the chimichurri shine in all its garlicky majesty. Is it a Korean influence, or Mexican, or…I have no idea. Not that I mind really, because I want to bathe in that sauce. The same cultural identity disorder goes for the Brussels sprouts and chorizo, mixed together with little shards of tortilla chips, to the point where it’s all one delicious mush, though not a big deal since it’s far more interesting than the generic sprouts and bacon you’ll find elsewhere. I guess the edamame special available on one night is a bit more decidedly “Asian” in its origins, in which the green bean was doused in a sweet soy glaze (the signature Seoul sauce, I GET IT!) and covered with crispy fried shallots. The dish was a pretty ingenious mechanism for forcing you to consume copious amounts of Seoul sauce as you try to suck the little soybeans out of their protective pods.

The mains, however, are decidedly more fusion-y than the rest of the menu – again, not that this gets in the way of the food or anything. I’ll start with the least intriguing option, the organic brown rice bowl, which, while topped with tofu, chicken or beef, is about as exciting as a bowl of brown rice can be. I mean, it’s tasty and filling, sure, but bizarrely uninspired when compared to the rest of the food. The Boricua, a piece of hoisin-BBQ sauced tofu between two plantain chips, is also pretty good for what it is, though I would call its structural integrity into question. Plantains, while a delicious snack on their own, do not make a very good substitute for bread.  Fortunately, pretty much every other item on the menu is a winner. The Korean BBQ Beef is a must order, and the presentation of the tender marinated bulgogi, homemade kimchi (spicy, but thankfully reasonably so), and flat bread pitas gives you the freedom to assemble pretty much the best hot pockets imaginable. Admittedly it was a little inconsistent – nice pieces of quality beef on one night while a bit mushy and grainy, like bad Italian beef, on another. Either way, it’s a surprisingly elegant dish that would not be out of place in a more traditional Korean restaurant. On the flip side, the Belly Dog and Asian Pork Meatball Sandwich represent the overly indulgent and ridiculously rich side of the Belly Shack menu, both of which echo the overstuffed sandwich and hotdog monstrosities of South America. The Belly Dog begins its journey in life as a good quality hot dog, but somewhere along the way it starts running with the wrong crowd (egg noodles and pickled green papaya),  and ends up half-eaten in your mouth, with little pieces of noodle dangling from your jaw like Cthulu’s tentacles. Same goes for the meatball sandwich, which is not so much a sandwich as it is a football made of bread stuffed with some bizarre twist on cold, leftover spaghetti (Somen noodles in this case) and meatballs. And it’s just as disgusting and disgustingly good as that sounds.

As for dessert...basically don’t order it. Save your money, save yourself the disappointment – order more of those plantain thingies instead.  Or just buy a bottle of the Seoul sauce and chug it.

Maybe you noticed that “not that I mind" is a recurring theme when it comes to the food here, and at most places, apathy or disregard towards the kitchen would be taken as a bad sign. But at Belly Shack it’s an attitude that jives with the menu’s carefree spirit. Authentic Korean or Asian cuisine this is not – but it’s not quite high-concept “fusion-y” crap either. Instead it’s addictively good flavors that work together in magical, mysterious ways. Don’t even bother trying to discern any “nuances” or “hints” of flavor in these dishes - any second wasted thinking about this food is time you could be eating it in a state of blissful ignorance. Just accept the fact that you’ve been played by Bill Kim.Shake your first in the air all you want and angrily fume “Damn you Belly Shack and your crass pandering to my caveman craving for fat and carbs!”

Just make sure your other fist is full of Korean BBQ on its way to your mouth.

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