Andrew Lim and Tom Oh have been waiting for this since they were friends in middle school in Chicago’s northern suburbs. The duo will officially open their new Korean-American restaurant, Perilla, on Friday inside the San Soo BBQ space. Lim’s been cooking in the space since October, tweaking the menu as San Soo’s ownership transitioned away from the River West restaurant.
The intent is to stay “Korean to the core,” but add little touches to give the dishes a little more panache. The name doesn’t just show an ownership change, but a change in the restaurant’s atmosphere and philosophy. It’s a little more elegant plating. The food’s a little bit more elevated.
The restaurant’s grill tables will remain, but Lim’s new menu — something he’s phased in over the last few months — showcases more than marinated meats. Beef like kalbi and bulgolgi are San Soo mainstays, as the Chicago classic has amassed a loyal following — and Michelin Bib Gourmand status — in Lincoln Square. The new spot, San Soo BBQ, opened last year with plans to open multiple locations. Expansion never happened and ownership tapped Lim to take over and he saw it as the opportunity to open the full-service restaurant he always wanted.
Lim will feature more homestyle plates like stews and soups. He’s also excited about bumping the quality of meat using Berkshire pork belly and prime cuts from Whittingham Meats. They’re also working with Joong Boo Market (Oh said he prefers working with a local company; H-Mart is LA based). Marinades are traditionally used to cover up inferior cuts of meat. Perilla meats will come with and without marinade. There’s no need to hide the beef.
“All our meats are fucking delicious,” Lim said.
Lim is a restaurant veteran who opened a small restaurant, City Rock, inside the Thompson Center. He serves the Loop lunch crowd with an assembly-line approach to bibimbap. But Lim, who worked with Boka Restaurant Group chef Chris Pandel at the Bristol in Bucktown, yearned for a larger landscape.
He recruited Oh, his childhood friend, to join the operation in April. Oh worked at Roka Okor and most recently with Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. He helped manage LEYE’s River North property that includes Il Porcelino, Paris Club, and Ramen-San. Oh was leaving a comfy job with Chicago’s largest restaurant group. He needed assurances if he was going to join Lim. They wanted a fresh start and decided to change the restaurant’s name.
Oh and Lim want to fold City Rock and Perilla into a new company called ESD Hospitality. It’s a riff on a Korean term for first-generation Korean-Americans. Other projects include a second City Rock located somewhere downtown and a bar stocked with soju.
“It’s time to do Korean food justice” Oh said. “This city deserves good Korean food and deserves to be done respectfully.”
Korean flavors have permeated into many places. Dozens of sports bars offer some take on Korean chicken wings. But what Oh and Lim want to be is masters of their own destinies, to be the ones who shape the narratives around the foods they grew up eating. Korean food is going through a renaissance in Chicago with Jeong in West Town and Passerotto in Andersonville. There’s also Mott St in Noble Square. Lim’s proud to be a part of it.
“None of us came from the same circles, we came from very different places,” Lim said. “But we are all doing the same thing somehow, for some reason.”
There is one Korean-American name absent from that group that many Chicagoans know. Beverly Kim runs Parachute in Avondale with husband Johnny Clark — both James Beard Award winners. There is a connection with Lim and Oh thanks to Oh’s mother, Kaein Oh. She’s a chef that years ago ran the Korean Restaurant in Albany Park (yes, that was the place’s name). She’s known in the immigrant community and often helps cooks out but teaching them recipes. Unbeknownst to Tom Oh, until recently, was that fact that his mother had been quietly sharing old recipes with Kim.
Perilla is a type of mint leaf found in Korea and other parts of Asia. It’s similar to shiso, which is used in Japanese cooking. It’s often sold as sesame seed leaves. For Lim and Oh, the leaf represents durability. It’s known to survive in a variety of soils, no matter the climate. It’s become a metaphor for how their families immigrated from South Korea.
“This is the story of our parents, how they traveled away from home and didn’t know anyone, didn’t speak the language,” Lim said. “They began as second-class citizens right out of the box because of the color of their skin, not knowing how to communicate.”
But times are changing. Perilla officially debuts on Friday as the signage should arrive this week.