Inspired by the season finale of "Six Feet Under" in which Brenda is courted suavely by a French horn-playing new neighbor in a hip L.A. Korean BBQ place, my date and I made our way to Shin Jung in Mt. Prospect for some real-life soju-infused canoodling over the warm embers of a tabletop grill.
Did I say embers? The grills here were gas-fired--a minor disappointment, but a feature that assured a consistent heat as we tended to our bits of meat and seafood in relative languor. My dining companion, a confirmed seafood hater and all-around food Luddite, was in for an interesting evening as we scanned the buffet table offerings. Aside from the usual chicken, bulgogi (marinated beef), deaji bulgogi (marinated pork), and galbi (short ribs), there were pristine looking whole shrimp, thin slices of beef tongue, chicken and beef liver, strips of ivory colored octopus, chunks of sea cucumber and clams in shell. Hot table offerings included a house fried rice, potstickers, a nice selection of soups (including savory pumpkin, sweet and granular red soy, and a great noodle broth base) and ribbons of rice noodles lined up in warm bowls.
Back tableside, I busied myself with massing troops along the northern ridge of the cast iron grill grate, with beady-eyed shrimp casting thousand-yard stares across the DMZ toward my date's unimaginative and decidely horizontal slabs of beef. The shrimp were flanked in a classic Korean grill maneuver by regiments of chicken livers to the east and west while the octopus and beef tongue stayed in the rear with the gear. This would prove to be a lopsided victory for the North, as she beat a hasty retreat and removed her bulgogi to the relative safety of her plate. Victory was short lived, and the tables were turned dramatically in her favor as she enjoyed her meltingly tender strips of just-cooked beef while I fought in vain with blistering hot shrimp shells in a futile attempt to extract the meat within. The octopus was the exact consistency of weatherstripping. The sea cucumber was better than I wanted it to be given its politically sensitive status within the overfishing debate. The highlights were the perfectly marinated beef and marinated pork, but the galbi stole the show. Tender, with a rich pork flavor that was enhanced, not masked, by the delicate soy marinade, it may be the best I've ever had. Chicken and beef livers were also good, but the tongue seems like a generally poor choice for grilling, as it turned leathery after only a few seconds on the grate. Perhaps I missed a condiment intended for it. I had similarly poor luck with the clams. I wasn't sure what to do with them, but whatever I tried wasn't working.
The hot offerings were passable--the fried rice and potstsickers were average, but the noodles and broth were perfect, especially with a flourish of chopped green onion and spicy red chile sauce on top. The kimchee was a bummer...thin spiceless sauce clinging for dear life to thick, woody stalks of cabbage. These were quibbles, as these elements were designed to curb one's appetite for the meat offerings, much like Fogo de Chao's impressive salad bar is designed to accomplish.
The room was deep and narrow, dimensions that seem to be the the bane of every strip mall restaurant across this strip mall nation of ours, but the rich wood design elements and the exhaust ranges above each table lent a coziness to the place that could have been romantic if not for a table full of overserved patrons adjacent to us, whose OB Lager-soaked renditions of James Taylor songs (!) nearly made for a ruinous evening. The two bottles of soju we shared made their obnoxiousness merely amusing. The table also took generous advantage of the powerful exhaust hoods above by smoking early and often...cigarettes, cigars...I was convinced that one of them was about to roll up and light the linen table cloth.
Shin Jung does everything pretty well, and can hang with almost any Koreans I've been to in the city. The owners and staff are an extremely friendly bunch, who clearly took pains explaining everything to the uninitiated. A strong Korean clientele on the night we were there was also reassuring. The fact that they are tucked away in the NW 'burbs makes this a great out of the ordinary choice for people in the area. Buffet is $21.95 weekends and $16.95 Mon-Thurs.
Shin Jung Restaurant
1747 Gold Rd. (corner of Golf and Busse Roads)