No two cuts of meat will be treated the same at SoJu BBQ, an upcoming Korean restaurant that will offer grilled meats and street food in the West Loop. Owner Jake Lee is an immigrant from outside of Seoul who arrived in America when he was 11. His late mother dreamed of opening a restaurant and her son is fulfilling that wish inside a new 30- to 40-seat restaurant at 36 S. Ashland Avenue.
Lee knows not everyone enjoys grill tables. At SoJu, restaurant staff will prepare food in the kitchen and waiters will bring the meats out to patrons. Lee said his barbecue is unique. Different meats, like kalbi and bulgolgi, will have different marinades — not just the simple soy sauce and garlic base that many restaurants use as an all-purpose soak. Lee realizes that stores like H-Mart give Chicagoans more access to Korean marinated meat than ever. He wants to give customers more than something they can pickup at a supermarket and grill at home.
Even though Americans are increasingly familiar with Korean food, Lee, who has a background in finance as a graduate of the University of Illinois, feels the food still isn’t mainstream. He remembers his mother sending him to school with a lunch full of Korean food. This is a common immigrant tale, but Lee recalls his classmates scoffing at him with xenophobic remarks about smell. They were used to PB&Js and Lunchables. That didn’t bother Lee too much: “You guys are eating pieces of [crap], but not me,” Lee said while remembering his childhood thoughts.
While that may sound a bit brash, Lee is very aware of perceptions among those unfamiliar with Korean food. Kimchi is a polarizing topic as some don’t like the fermented smell of Korea’s national dish. Lee is a big fan of the stuff, and SoJu will offer different types of kimchi. Some may be more mild an in attempt to introduce diners.
“I’ve had so many experiences with people who couldn’t appreciate it because they couldn’t get themselves to try it,” he said.
Lee, along with his college roommate, Tony Jin, are putting together a menu of Korean classics. Lee was reluctant to share details, but he says they’ll be using techniques that aren’t normally utilized at Korean restaurants. Lee also wants to use ethically sourced meats.
When Lee first arrived in America, his family lived in Rockford. There’s not a lot of Korean restaurants in the area, and Lee taught himself to cook under the tutelage of his mother, Chung Lee. His mother was passionate about her culture’s cuisine, and her son hopes to carry on that dream. While soju is a Korean alcoholic drink, “SoJu” is a reference to Lee’s name. He goes by “Jake” now, but his Korean name is “Ju.”
The restaurant will likely start as a BYO, with Lee hopeful to add a liquor license. Check back for more details in the coming weeks.