Review: Gangnam Food Hall isn’t Korean, but serves Asian American style and substance in Chicago

When I heard through the grapevine that an independently owned grocery store in the River West neighborhood would transform into Gangnam Market and Food Hall, of course, I thought it would be Korean.

After all, the Gangnam District in Seoul was made famous by “Gangnam Style,” the global hit song and music video by South Korean rapper Psy.

The space’s transformation took a while, but it was worth the wait.

Gangnam Food Hall serves fantastical Asian American Chicagoan food and drinks with surprising style and substance.

Despite its name, it is, in fact, not Korean. Even though there’s a bulgogi steak burrito stuffed with kimchi fried rice. Nor is it a food hall with various vendors.

“Gangnam Food Hall is a mix of things I truly love,” said Kenny Yang. The designer and restaurateur owns all seven stalls and Gangnam Market, the attached grocery store. He held a grand opening weekend for the food hall last December.

Yang may be best known for his Strings Ramen shops. The food hall, however, offers far more of his favorite foods.

“Ramen, tacos, sushi and breakfast sandwiches,” he said. “Growing up in Chicago, I was influenced by every culture.”

That includes his own as a Chinese immigrant kid.

Yang does have a business partner with one of the food hall stalls, he said. Matthew Chiu is the namesake and co-owner of Matt Bakes, a micro bakery. His parents founded Chiu Quon, the oldest bakery in Chinatown. He took over the family business with his sister Joyce Chiu.

At Matt Bakes, the best-selling item has become not the classic Portuguese egg tart, but their take on the 554 from Seven Treasures.

They grew up in Chinatown going to the now-closed restaurant a lot, Yang said. He added that former owner Ben Au is a good friend of Chiu, and had no problem with them making the 554. It was once simply char siu and fried eggs over steamed rice drizzled with soy sauce.

At Matt Bakes, the 554 is very different. Like the food hall, it’s intense with a neon glow. Thick cut chunks of char siu and sunny side up eggs cover a bed of garlic jasmine rice, with tiny concentrated cups of dark soy sauce and tart pickled vegetables on the side.

I was curious about why they made a Gangnam-style 554.

“People like pork belly with a little bit of fattiness now,” Yang said. “We use the shoulder and neck instead of the lean pork loin.”

They also use fruit juice to marinate the meat instead of a traditional sauce, then sous vide and slow bake instead of fire roasting, he said. They even bake garlic dry to make a powder that’s mixed into the rice, he added.

Speaking of rice, what’s behind the name Workout Rice, another food hall stall? One of the featured items is gyudon, the Japanese beef and rice bowl, theirs made with thinly sliced braised wagyu.

“Just because I’ve worked out all my life,” Yang said laughing. “I was on the basketball team, baseball team and swim team.”

He was born in Guangdong Province in China, moved to Chicago at 11 years old with his father, and grew up in Bridgeport, but went to grade school in Chinatown.

“And then I went to Harper High School by Ford City,” said Yang, followed by the University of Illinois at Chicago. “After I graduated from UIC, I went back to Asia.”

“I was working in Japan for about four, five years,” he said, at a design firm, which kept hours until around 10 p.m. every night. “The only thing open on my street then was a little shop with an old guy doing ramen.”

The older man saw that the young Yang liked his ramen and asked if he’d like to help at the shop.

“‘Oh, I would love to,’” the new student said to his teacher. “So every day after work, I worked there from around 10 p.m. to about 3 a.m.”

The shop master specialized in tonkotsu ramen, prized for its broth made with pork bones.

“But after a while he starts showing me chicken ramen and beef ramen,” Yang said. “Like anything could be ramen.”

And turkey is one of his favorite proteins. So Yang eventually worked on his turkey ramen for a year or two before having his friends taste-test it.

“Seven Faced Bird is such a weird name,” he said of another food hall stall. “But it actually means turkey in Japanese.”

The fan-favorite item there is the spicy miso turkey ramen. I had wondered if he used turkey, from the broth to char siu, to accommodate religious restrictions on pork.

“I just love turkey,” he said. “I think it’s like a better tasting chicken.”

Speaking of chicken, a Hainanese chicken rice bowl special (buy one, get one for 50% off) back at Workout Rice is such a good deal. It’s like the Costco rotisserie chicken loss leader of the food hall. Yang said they don’t make any money on the special, but he offers the discount to get more people to eat another of his favorite foods. It takes hours to make the poached chicken and golden rice.

And it takes extra effort to make coconut milk at Stringria Coffee and Tea Bar.

“That’s my bubble milk tea shop,” Yang said. They use fresh coconuts from the market for his daily coffee drink. “I just go in and order my hot coconut latte in the morning, but most people like it ice cold.”

There’s no dish of greens at the food hall yet. Even though the produce section at the market offers a solid selection. Recently that included Chinese broccoli, which was great quality and on sale at a price that rivaled Chinatown.

Greens are coming to the food hall, Yang said. It was a matter of finding the right cooks to work under chef Ryan Cai. He’s worked at the Strings Ramen shops for 10 years, and trained as a master chef in Shanghai, Yang said.

When asked about the Gangnam name, he said it was indeed inspired by the district in Seoul. But Yang chose the name for its international influence, and its translation meaning south of the river. The market and food hall are south of the North Branch of the Chicago River. It’s personal and poetic, but a bit confusing.

As is trying to find your way inside. Look for tiny red signs outside the apartment building. You get free parking for 90 minutes in the garage with a validation.

At the market, follow the neon lights to the wonderful whimsical world of the food hall.

Here are all seven stalls at the Gangnam Food Hall with what to get, and skip. Stringria stands at the entrance, where you should get a drink first, even if it’s just a cup of free fruit-infused water. Then head to the back and start at Matt Bakes. Work your way around to each stall. And yes, you’ll probably hear in your head, “Oppa Gangnam style.”

Stringria Coffee and Tea Bar

Get the coconut latte with house-made coconut milk, hot like Yang or lightly iced, which I loved with its strong and smooth espresso flavor. The brown sugar boba was also absolutely perfect, with impeccable tapioca pearls, made-to-order half-sweet with soy milk (an additional charge). The friendly staff behind the counter are such bubble tea pros. They said the watermelon jasmine tea with coconut milk crystal boba is popular too, but I say skip it, and those hard konjac pearls, for something else on the extensive menu.

Matt Bakes

Get the chicken sando, a golden fried chicken thigh with crunchy pickle coins, sweet and spicy zing sauce plus aioli in a thick and toasted custom Chinese pineapple bun. Or try its cousin, a pork chop sandwich, like a katsu sando (not bone-in Maxwell Street style), also in a pineapple bao. The 554, iconic with its char siu and two fried eggs on rice, had barbecue pork that was just too tough on my tasting, so you may want to skip it and honor the memory of Seven Treasures.

Gangnam Taco

Get the bulgogi steak burrito, fat and stuffed with thinly sliced beef, kimchi fried rice, a gochujang mayo sauce and more. Somehow it remains extraordinarily restrained and elegant. The skilled staff behind the counter said the bulgogi bibimbap was another top dish, and for good reason. It’s a classic bowl, but with a fried egg and that gochujang mayo. Skip the taste of three signature tacos with beef, pork and chicken, a super salty mess that gets lost in translation.

Workout Rice

Get the gyudon, or better yet the three toppings combo donburi with the same sliced wagyu plus beef chunks and tender tongue, all on rice with braised daikon and a side of miso soup. And remember the Hainanese chicken rice deal (buy one, get one at 50% off), Mom Chu’s new favorite, for the silky deboned, skin-on bird, but we do wish the seasoned rice was fattier.

Seven Faced Bird Ramen

Get the spicy shrimp yakisoba, which is not that spicy, made with stir-fried ramen noodles and topped with fluttering bonito flakes. Try the spicy miso turkey ramen if you really love turkey, also not so spicy, but I’m not convinced that it’s the better bird. It is a deal at less than $9 plus tax and tip, especially finished with turkey char siu. Skip the deep-fried turkey wonton, six poorly wrapped dumplings filled with shrimp too.

Market Sushi

Get the salmon Dragon Roll that’s just lovely, topped with Norwegian salmon and avocado, rolled with imitation crab and cucumber. Skip the Godzilla roll, a deep-fried kaiju with salmon, white tuna, red snapper, eel, cream cheese, avocado, jalapeno and topped with masago, eel sauce, spicy mayo and scallions. And forget about the Fire Dragon Roll, baked with shrimp tempura and cream cheese, and topped with salmon, white tuna and too much sauce.

Market Bar

You can get a refreshing Japanese whisky highball, or a few signature cocktails including a Yuzu 75, which you can sip at the bar or throughout the food hall and market. Let’s hope they add nonalcoholic drinks beyond spirit-free cans and bottles too.

This May, to celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, four stalls at Gangnam Food Hall will take turns offering 30% off everything: Mondays at Matt Bakes, Tuesdays at Gangnam Taco, Wednesdays at Workout Rice and Thursdays at Seven Faced Bird Ramen.

Gangnam Food Hall

1001 W. Chicago Ave.

Open: Stringria Coffee and Tea Bar weekdays from 9:30 a.m., weekends from 8:30 a.m., daily to 8:30 p.m.; Matt Bakes daily 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Gangnam Taco and Workout Rice daily 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Seven Faced Bird Ramen daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Market Sushi and Market Bar daily 10 a.m. to 8:45 p.m.

Prices: $4.95 (iced coconut latte at Stringria Coffee and Tea Bar), $8.37 (spicy miso turkey ramen at Seven Faced Bird Ramen), $11.95 (salmon Dragon Roll at Market Sushi), $12.95 (bulgogi steak burrito at Gangnam Taco), $12.95 (Hainanese chicken rice bowl at Workout Rice), $14.88 (554 at Matt Bakes).

Noise: Conversation-friendly

Accessibility: Wheelchair accessible with restrooms on single level

Tribune rating: Excellent, three stars

Ratings key: Four stars, outstanding; three stars, excellent; two stars, very good; one star, good; no stars, unsatisfactory. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.

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