One of Chicago’s premier Korean barbecues is opening a downtown location, as San Soo Gab San is coming to River West. The owners have signed a lease and are waiting to announce the new location; the original location won’t be affected and will continue to operate. They’re taking over an existing bar/restaurant which should close within 45 days. Bolstered by partnering with the owners of The Angry Crab and Aloha Poke Co., San Soo is targeting a summer opening.
This is a story of an immigrant business growing. The new restaurant will also feature a tweaked name: San Soo Korean BBQ. Many customers know the restaurant simply as “San Soo,” and the new name explains what the restaurant offers to those unfamiliar. While Chicago doesn’t have as large of a Korean population compared to LA, San Soo’s Christopher Kim believes his city’s Korean barbecue is criminally underrated. Kim, a suburban Orland Park native, grew up in his parents’ restaurant at Foster and Western. The location will continue to operate as San Soo opens an additional location.
“We’re going to keep the original flavors of Korean cuisine in general, but we’re going to elevate it and make it welcoming and inviting to the urban market,” Kim said.
San Soo’s been around for 25 years, serving marinated, smoky grilled meats — like kalbi — to customers late into the night. For a few years they were open 24 hours a day. Those late hours sometimes bring in customers who have had a couple drinks. But no one — inebriated or not — has even been burned while cooking their meats on the hot coals deposited in front of them on their grill table, Kim said. San Soo broke through this year, making it on Michelin’s Bib Gourmand list. That’s a big deal for so-called “ethnic” restaurants, as the recognition brings in new diners willing to try foods they’re unfamiliar with, said Kim, as San Soo saw a spike in business. The Kims also have a suburban Morton Grove location.
Kim is an only child, and relies on his father and mother — Young and Cindy Kim — for advice. But family isn’t his only support for help opening his new restaurant. The Angry Crab’s Alvin Kang and Aloha Poke Co.’s Zach Friedlander are onboard as partners. The trio hopes to open San Soos across the country. Kang, who has two restaurants and has signed a lease for a third Cajun seafood boil, is Korean. He’s had a childhood dream of becoming a grey-haired old Korean man with his own restaurant. He’s a big fan of the Kims.
Friedlander isn’t Korean, but he’s also a fan. He’s focused on improving service. Service problems are a common complaint, as many times Korean restaurants rely on older Korean women as servers. They bring a touch of the old-world mentality, Kim said. They want to serve customers as quick as possible and send them on their way. While that’s efficient, the philosophy sometimes isn’t as warm and comforting to the typical customer in the Western World. Kim hopes servers at his new restaurants can better educate diners. Friedlander is astounded by what the Kim family has accomplished.
“He’s a first-generation Korean entrepreneur,” Friedlander said. “It’s cool to see that knowledge being passed on.”
Customer comfort is a big deal for the new San Soo. The space will also feature a modern ventilation system, Kang said. That way, customers will feel comfortable going to a bar for a post-dinner drink and won’t reek of smoke from one of the 16 grill tables inside. While the other locations serve beer, the new location will dive into the world of Korean cocktails. In Korea, Kim tried soju poured on shaved ice. It was a revelation for him, and a taste he wants to share in Chicago. They’ll have a patio and private room, too.
While old standbys like bulogolgi will remain, new items like Korean tacos will make their ways to the menu. Kim feels pressured to include the tacos, as it’s a trendy item in Chicago with places like Del Soul in Lincoln Park and En Hakorre in Bucktown making them popular. LA’s Kogi BBQ truck started the trend years ago. But Kim offers a twist: He prefers hard shell tacos, so look for crispy tortillas at San Soo.
Kang and Friedlander met as teenagers while working at a suburban Circuit City electronics store in Northbrook. They’ve teamed up to form Pineapple & Dreams Hospitality Group, and are committed to expanding Aviato Eats and Aloha Poke. However, San Soo won’t fall under that banner.
Kim feels that the time is ripe for expansion, as Korean food soars in popularity. He pointed out how Iron Chef Stephanie Izard often uses Korean flavors in her West Loop restaurants. He notes how Bill Kim’s Belly Q has been cooking up Korean fusion for years on Randolph Street. H Mart will eventually open a location in the city. He wants to see more Korean restaurants in Chicago because he believes the food will improve with competition. But for now, he’s focused on opening San Soo, and is grateful to his parents.
“It’s their legacy — I’m not going to fail them,” Kim said. “I’m going to surround myself with the best team around and be successful.”