The influences are subtle and they are showing up all over the city.
A generation ago, most people didn't know what giardiniera or chipotles were. But immigration has taught us they belong on Italian beefs and burritos. It's one of the reasons Chicago is so diverse and delicious.
Enter Korea. From New York City chef David Chang to the Kogi barbeque trucks in Los Angeles, they are a new generation is using kimchi, gojujang and sesame to flavor fast food all over town.
For chefs like Bill Kim, who have worked in four-star kitchens and now want to dial things back, the return to one's past seems like an obvious step. The mantra at his Belly Shack - which sits beneath the Western Avenue Blue Line stop - is all about sandwiches, and it happens to include both his own Korean memories, as well as his wife's Puerto Rican roots.
"My intention was just kind of take things that I grew up with, that were street food-related, and what Yvonne, my wife, grew up with and kind of marry the two together," said Kim.
A ground pork "meatball" sandwich includes crispy fried shallots, but also a bracing chili sauce and fresh mint; Korean barbequed beef is laced with chili sauce and served with spicy cabbage and cucumber kimchi, plus wedges of pita for a self-serve sandwich.
A few miles away, in Lincoln Park, Del Seoul has recently doubled its space, fueled in part by a love for the marriage of tacos and Korean ingredients. The Korean kalbi, essentially marinated and grilled short ribs, are added to the corn tortillas, then topped with a vibrant, crunchy assortment of cilantro, onions and Korean slaw; like nearly all Korean dishes, they're topped with sesame seeds.
You'll see plenty of sesame on the expertly-fried chicken at Crisp in Lake View as well. Their "Korean-style" birds are twice-fried, then coated with a choice of a few of different sauces, including a Korean chili-inspired gojujang, as well as a sesame-garlic-soy version.
"I think the Korean fried chicken thing is lost on Americans partly because of the time-intensive nature of Korean fried chicken; and in part, that has limited the number of Korean fried chicken places in the U.S," said Douglas Funke, owner of Crisp.
In Evanston, as well as a new Rogers Park location, burgers are the driving force on the menu at bopNgrill, where Korean fast food meets American familiarity.
"Bop means rice in Korean; so, we kind of wanted to infuse, because I'm Korean so I wanted to do a little bit of Korean and American kind of thing going," said BopNgrill owner Will Song.
Certified angus beef is grilled, then topped with sauteed kimchi embedded with bacon. Sharp cheddar returns it to America, but then it's tugged back to Korea with an egg and a brioche bun slathered in kimchi mayo and finely-shredded cabbage. Song also offers standard Korean fast food, like grilled short ribs with rice and kimchi.. but his kimchi fries are one-of-a-kind. The perfect marriage of two cultures.
"I kind of wanted to fuse my heritage and my culture kind of together," Song said.
And yet another newcomer in Albany Park - Taco Chino - which features Korean-style tacos.
2568 N. Clark St.
6604 N. Sheridan Rd.
1903 Church St., Evanston
1912 N. Western Ave.
2940 N. Broadway
4712 N. Kimball Ave.