Kimchi is a traditional Korean food made of vegetables (usually Napa cabbage, cucumber or radish) fermented with a variety of spices (ginger, horseradish, garlic and chili peppers number among them). Although it may be a side dish, it is also the national dish of Korea and considered to have magical health-inducing properties. Like the ability to ward off diseases, or to balance your intestinal flora. When eating Korean BBQ, kimchi is often the most exciting part, as the waiter offers your party little dishes of fermented and pickled bits for you to sample. Being a fermented food, kimchi conveys a whiff of danger and rot to the picky eater who is afraid of shriveled-up looking things, especially ones covered in what is clearly a hot sauce. But the best thing kimchi has done lately is that it has been adopted by the fusion community and used to adorn French fries.
Now for a brief word about French fries. Every mighty food blog, every list-happy Chicago-based web publication and every foodie in town has created their top French fry list. The humble but delicious potato has undergone a glamorous if slow transformation from streetfood you dip in ketchup or melted cheese to things you adorn with complex flavors—poutine and truffle fries are a few wonderful examples, but for the really adventurous eater, there are kimchi fries. And it takes a dedicated human such as myself to carouse the many wards of Chicago sussing out the good options to present to you the facts. I am not infallible. There may be kimchi fries I have not yet heard of and if so, send forth your own evidence. Meanwhile, the history of kimchi fries themselves only goes back to 2010 or so in Austin, Texas, when chefs at the Korean BBQ spot Chi’lantro BBQ accidentally whipped up a winner.
Join me and my group of converts (my kids and Third Coast Review writers Nancy and Tracie) on the quest to sample and sometimes share (for they are often daunting heaps of food) the kimchi fries of Chicago, and to perfect my own home recipe.
Originally a hidden gem in Evanston, bopNgrill now has two locations, Rogers Park and Lakeview. It’s one of those fusion restaurants that blends American and Korean comfort foods. You could get full on bolkogi and BBQ’d chicken but their kimchi fries are absolutely addictive, and that might be because their special ingredient is pork fat—with which their kimchi is caramelized. With all of that flavor, they don’t need too much sauce to win people over, so there’s just a bit of cheese sauce, some crumbled bacon and some sesame seeds on top. It’s hard to share them with others because of the precise blend of fat, salt, umami and spiciness that causes eye rolls of enjoyment. Food Blogger Jeff at Purple is a Flavor thinks the fries do it better than competitor Del Seoul for several reasons, one being that they sauté the kimchi in sesame oil. Sesame oil makes everything alright! “This definitely makes a huge difference in both taste and texture. If you go here (and by if, I mean when), GET THESE,” Jeff insists in his review.
It’s a gastgropub in Oak Park with an organic heart and some exciting menu items to accompany their microbrewed selection of beers. For example, I once enjoyed a warm Burratta Muffaletta there al fresco, while a more meatcentric family member enjoyed a nice Scotch egg. But that is not the reason one goes to Kinderhook Tap when there are kimchi fries to be had. The portion size can feed a table of four for an evening of beer guzzling. The fries are hand cut, sprinkled with grass-fed beef, slathered in sriracha mayo and topped with a fried egg— the good kind that isn’t cooked quite thru, and I bet they’re from free-range chickens too.
Big and Littles
They are known for their awesome tiny tacos, and a nice selection of artisan fries ranging from Cajun to “Foie gras and fries,” but at Big and Littles we consider the kimchi fries the main course and simply order a tiny taco or two to wash it down. Although on the simpler side—just kimchi, hoisin special sauce and fries, it’s the generous portions of their double fried handcut fries drenched in delicious caramelized kimchi that makes the flavor, so no need to add anything but a few sesame seeds for seasoning.
Inspiration? Korean street foods! Through some terrible clerical error, I have not yet been to Del Seoul, so I have never had the joy of consuming their blackened tofu Korean BBQ tacos with succotash and shishito-aji salsa verde! Or their Bento Box dinner! But, the thing that really bums me out is that I have never had the kimchi fries, which are purported to have sautéed kimchi and onions, pork belly, scallions, melted Cheddar & Jack, and sour cream. I will remedy that soon. Until then, Del Seoul, I put you in 4th place only until I have sampled your fries and can rank them accordingly.
Kim’s Kimchi Fries
There may come a day when you don’t feel like muscling through traffic to experience a French fry covered in hot sauce, sesame oil, cheese and sesame seeds, wrapped in a wilted bit of well-aged cabbage. But you may really want to eat it nonetheless, and if so, you can always whip together this homage to the fries you love:
Baked Trader Joe’s Handsome Cut French Fries (half a package)
Mother In Laws Vegan KimChi ( ¼ to ½ a jar)
Kewpie Mayonnaise (optional) (1 tsp)
Green onions or scallions chopped thin (2 tbsp)
Sesame seeds (1 tsp)
Sesame oil (1 tsp)
Trader Joes Sriracha Sauce ( 1tsp)
Fried egg (optional)
Directions: Bake the fries as directed, season lightly with salt and pepper. Sauté the kimchi lightly in sesame oil and sprinkle sesame seeds on top. Arrange fries in a bowl, cover with kimchi, lightly stripe with Kewpie mayo, then lightly stripe with Sriracha, top with a fried egg and toss a handful of green onions or scallions overall.
Serves 2-4 people.