leave your inhibitions at the door
Whenever we go to Chicago, we usually stay in the Bucktown area, which is home to a lot of super-hip boutiques and restaurants that give it a Greenwich Village-like feeling. It wasn’t always like that, though. Before the moms in yoga pants arrived with their Range Rovers and strollers it was largely an Hispanic working-class area. You know, the type of area where people in Range Rovers mostly drove through as quickly as they could.
Belly Shack is tucked underneath the El tracks in one of the remaining non-gentrified areas of Bucktown on a stretch of Western Avenue known more for it’s used car lots, repair shops, and other non-foodie businesses. In recent years, I’ve seen some personal training studios and other shops pop up that indicate that even this area is starting to change. But don’t worry, that Asian massage place next to Belly Shack is still open so you can still get that rub-and-tug.
Or at least so I heard, I can’t personally vouch for those services being available.
Belly Shack is the brainchild of chef Bill Kim, a South Korean émigré who was a former chef de cuisine at Charlie Trotter’s, which was one of the top 5 US restaurants – ever. A few years ago he opened up Urban Belly, a gorgeous, modern noodle and dumpling shop with communal seating. Not long after that, he opened Belly Shack which is a reflection of his personal life with his wife – a marriage between South Korea and Puerto Rico. Both places won a spot on Michelin’s Bib Gourmand list which highlights top restaurants under $40 for two people.
I’ve been to Belly Shack several times, but this is the first time I actually thought to take pictures. It’s a fast-food place – you order and pick-up the food from the same counter – and everything is under $10. So for this to be mentioned on the Bib Gourmand list is really a testament on how outstanding it is.
What I Ate
I’ve always maintained that there’s one proper way to have a hot dog.
I still stand by that. But there are some people doing some really creative things with hot dogs, such as Hot Doug’s and Franks n Dawgs. The Belly Dog here is definitely in that same category. Which category that is, I’m not really sure as they are so far off what it means to be a hot dog.
It’s an all-beef hot dog with egg noodles and pickled green papaya. I loved how the interplay between the sweet & spicy notes from the papaya, the hot dog, and the occasional crunch from the noodles. Those are served with fries sprinkled with togarishi, a sort of Japanese chili powder that doesn’t so much add spice as much as general earthy interest, and a curry mayonnaise.
I also ordered the Brussels sprouts with chorizo.
cheap Chicago food
These alone are good enough for a meal. These were delicious, but maybe a tad on the salty side. Of course, this being a BYOB place, the saltiness is just an excuse to pop open that beer you brought. Not that you need an excuse to pop open that beer. Lush.
Other items I’ve had before –
- Asian Pork Meatball Sandwich – a large pita stuffed with the lemongrass infused meatballs, somen noodles, and Korean chili paste
- Boricua – Brown rice and hoisin sauce on a crispy plantain. The standard version comes with tofu, I got mine with marinated beef.
- Somen Noodle Salad – topped with shrimp, toritlla chips, tomatillo and jicama.
I really like how the two influences from opposite ends of the globe – Korean and Puerto Rican – mix well together. Maybe because it’s a fast food-type concept, but there’s a certain air of casualness about the menu. The menu doesn’t call much attention to the Korean-ness or Latino-ness of different items. They all just sit side-by-side with each other like it’s no big deal.
As it should be.