At JKogi Seoul Street Eats in Jackson Ward, a mural of an enormous octopus with tiny sea creatures as passengers inside its body graces one wall and a plate of angry squid electrifies the taste buds. It’s easy to forget that this place started life as a takeout and delivery space.
These days, JKogi is an integral part of the neighborhood given its extensive hours, which feel like a gift to late-night show goers and barflies in search of grub after 2 a.m. on weekends. Students and people from nearby offices pack the place at lunch during the week, while tour groups, convention center tourists and locals keep the place humming Saturdays and Sundays.
If Korean street food isn’t your forte, don’t worry, because an affable staff has your best interests at heart when ordering. The first time I attempt to design my rice bowl from the four categories — protein, base, vegetables and sauce — I waver a moment over the choice of a half-dozen vegetables. But the knowledgeable guy behind the counter offers an insider tip: “Order them all.”
He’s spot-on. Cucumbers, carrots, soy bean sprouts, red cabbage, pickled white radish and the seasoned, fermented kimchi — the heart of Korean food — increase not only the mass of my bowl, but also the flavor profile.
Dak tori chicken ($8.50) over kimchi bacon-fried rice ($1.50 extra) with all the vegetables and a wasabi hot mustard — tae yang — delivers earthy, spicy, braised chicken chunks complemented by the piquancy of pickled flavors and the fresh crunch of every vegetable in the Korean larder.
Those vegetables also serve well in a pork belly bowl ($9) over mixed scallion salad with tangy barbecue sauce named Don’t Kats U. Good as it is, the pork belly is no match for the depth of flavor of the dak tori chicken.
Think of kimbap as a sushi roll made with cooked protein rather than raw fish, and you’ll have some idea of how much more belly-filling these fat rolls of rice-wrapped meat are than their Japanese cousins.
The meat in both bulgogi kimchi ($7.50) and pork belly ssam ($7.50) comes across as a bit on the dry side — and given the girth, can quickly result in bulging cheeks if attempted in one bite. Spicy tuna ($7) unexpectedly rocks our world with tuna salad, jalapeño, fish cake, egg, sweet radish, carrots and perilla leaves from the mint family. Who needs a tuna sandwich for lunch with this sassy riff on the standard?
Should rice bowls or kimbap not speak to your growling stomach — and especially if you’re a heat head — go directly to the small-plates section of the menu for some of the best grazing I find.
Fans of textural eating shouldn’t miss thubokki ($6), full of fish cakes, which resemble flat noodles, and rice cakes, which remind me of toothsome, extruded pasta, only solid throughout, along with carrots, cabbage and spicy rice. This dish is the one time in three visits when our server isn’t informed enough to explain which are fish cakes and which are rice cakes — which can’t be an uncommon query in a town still learning the components of various cuisines from around the world.
Completely unlike any other dish we have, the kimchi pancake ($6 classic, $8 beef or squid) resembles nothing so much as a puffy Dutch baby pancake with a flurry of chopped scallions on top, with egg batter making it crusty and golden on the outside. Inside, delicate squid make for an appealing complexity.
The one dish I’ll come back for again and again, especially when the cold weather hits, is soondubu ($6.50), a spicy tofu soup that reads on the taste buds more like a bowl of earthy delights, so packed is it with plump shiitake mushroom slices and shredded rib-eye. Yes, there is kimchi and tofu, but let me assure you, it’s the abundance of meat and mushrooms that makes it a standout.
Props go to JKogi for its drink menu as well. It keeps the focus on Seoul with a half-dozen Korean beers, Milkis yogurt soda — a carbonated, creamlike soda— Shikae rice punch and Sac Sac in teeth-achingly sweet grape or orange.
While I might not hit repeat on every dish or drink I try, there’s plenty to appreciate when the goal is flavor-forward fast food. S
JKogi Seoul Street Eats
Sundays-Thursdays 11 a.m.-midnight; Fridays-Saturdays 11 a.m.-3 a.m.
325 N. Second St.
Editor’s note: Style is re-reviewing restaurants that former food critic Elliott Shaffner reviewed during 2014-2015.