Saturday, April 24, 2010

Urban Belly and Belly Shack…A Multiple Addiction

I came across this restaurant tucked underneath the L Tracks at Western and Milwaukee (1912 N Western Avenue) when I was out exploring the Polish section of Chicago. With a strong mix of Asian/Korean and Latin flavors, this little place made it well worth my trip.

Don’t be taken back by the very limited menu. Only 5 items on the “Sammich” menu although I must admit that every one them looked great. They also make a special of the day, have sopa and a great combination of sides including Brussels Sprouts and Chorizo and Roasted Squash with Maple Syrup and Pho Spices. You could live on the sides in this place.

I ordered Lemongrass Chicken which was a chicken thigh marinated in sweet chili sauce and garnished with toasted coconut (which I thought might be overwhelming but was not), peanuts, lemon zest and lemongrass. They served it with a pickled green papaya salad and a Raqi - a Samoon flatbread that they get from Eastern Breadstone Bakery in Roger’s Park (2818 West Devon).

If I lived anywhere near this place I would consider it dangerous because I would eat here every day. This was the best lunch I have had in a very long time (next to the Purple Pig) and I have already picked out my menu for when I come back. How’s that for planning?

The staff was remarkable and the service outstanding.

I have to try the “U KUD LIK DIS (Soft Serve)” next trip, too. Everything from Huckleberry-Lime to Bacon Chocolate Chip to Vietnamese Cinnamon Caramel. I usually don’t do desserts at lunch but this place could be the exception.

Belly Shack's sister restaurant, the Urban Belly, is at 3053 N California (Nelson Street and California Avenue) and was selected by Travel and Leisure as one of the 50 best new US restaurants 2009.

Bill Kim delivers “belly bites” in an exquisite art form that requires sampling a selection of the dumplings, noodles and rice.

I had the Lamb and Brandy Dumplings and the Short Rib and Scallion Rice and both of these dishes won me over on the first bite. Bill Kim is now on my short list of Chicago chefs I simply can’t live without.

I especially liked the flavor of the fried shallots with the short ribs. Some of the reviews whispered that the portions were small. Mine was huge – 3 pieces but I did finish every bite.

The space is minimalist – like the Belly Shack – and lends itself to the communal dining concept whereby you’ll be best friends with the stranger sitting next to you by the time you finish your meal. Even the Kim’s are surprised at the bonding that is taking place between strangers at their tables.

Thanks to Kristin Lokvicic, the manager of Urban Belly/Belly Shack, who treated every customer like a friend coming to her house for dinner. She really paid attention to what was going on with all of the guests. A real hands-on manager…and I like that.

Several days later, I decided to try my hand at the Belly Shack chicken recipe and here is what I did…and did wrong.
I bought a sweet chili sauce called Roland Thai Style Spicy Chili Sweet Sauce because it was the cheapest one in the grocery store ($1.99). As it turned out, it was very good and perfect for the recipe. I marinated the chicken thighs in the sauce for about an hour.

In the mean time, I toasted a little coconut on top of the stove until browned (next time I’ll use a little more). I then put in sliced lemongrass, lemon zest and some crushed peanuts (Belly Shack crushed their peanuts very fine which is what I will have to do next time because I liked their texture much better.)

I then cooked the marinated chicken breast on my indoor grill. When it was done, I put the peanut mixture on top of the chicken along with a little chili sauce.

Although it was not quite like I remembered the Belly Shacks recipe to be, it was close enough for me to be satisfied that with a little work, this could be a “keeper” recipe.

Next time I make it, I promise I’ll measure ingredients so I have a recipe that will work for you.

In the mean time, I am sure that the Belly Shack is now on the top of my “to go” list. Have to try that Korean BBQ Kogi with Ssam Paste.

Do you suppose that the Belly Shack will make a Korean food fan out of me yet? Challenge: ON!

Bon Appetit!