For most of my life, I could never understand the fixation many people have on comfort food, a dish from one’s past that invokes serenity and nostalgia. After our family first moved to America, my parents found solace in Korean food as a means of coping with having to adjust quickly to a new culture, language, job, and schools. My brother and I never understood this: in terms of food, my brother and I only wanted the food to be good, whether it was Korean, Italian, French, whatever. It wasn’t until the first bite of the roasted rice cakes (dukboki) at Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York that I realized that I never really had comfort food before. In fact, I never had a meal that had so much of a personal stamp from a chef — a Korean-American with disparate experiences and passions, whose vision I could identify with so strongly. I finally felt all that nostalgia and solace in a cuisine that was at once both new and familiar.
A few months after my first Momofuku experience, I found myself at Star Karaoke in Savoy for the first time upon the strong recommendation of a fellow Korean friend. I ordered the jae yuk bokeum, a spicy pan-fried pork dish, and jja jang myun, a favorite pork and roasted bean paste noodle dish of mine. They brought out two plates of ban chan — kimchi and pickled radishes. I sighed. For my entire life, I have disliked anything pickled, even going thirty years without eating my mom’s kimchi. However, I decided to try it so as to not draw attention to myself. Surprisingly, this kimchi’s pickle quality didn’t offend me like it normally would. In fact, the spice from the gochugaru (Korean chili powder), the crunch, and bite from the cabbage balanced perfectly with its pickleness. I finally liked kimchi. This was a great omen for the rest of the meal.
One bite of the jae yuk bokeum made me realize that I had found the Korean restaurant in town whose food is the closest to my mom’s cooking. My mom’s preparation of similar dishes has the same very distinctive blend of spicy and sweet. The delicious jja jang myun thrilled me to no end. Every once in a while, I get an intense craving for certain dishes: fried chicken, ramen, pho, carnitas, shawarma, and of course, jja jang myun. If I have a bad version of one of these dishes, it fills me with rage. This jja jang myun had good noodles, tasty bits of perfectly cooked pork, and a surprisingly smoky and complex sauce. It was one of the best renditions of this dish I’ve had in over ten years. Recently, I brought my fiancée, Jessica, and friends with me to several trips back to Star Karaoke to confirm initial impressions. I made a point to bring friends. Jessica confirmed how similar the food is to my mom’s cooking.
Almost two-thirds of Star Karaoke’s appetizer menu is taken up by mandoo, Korean dumplings. In size and preparation, they are very similar to the Japanese gyoza. One can get them fried or steamed. I prefer fried, but both were quite good here — delicious meat filling seasoned properly, and the dumpling wrapper was cooked perfectly in both cases. Overcooked steamed dumplings are a sin against the entire continent of Asia. At Star, they were cooked so perfectly that I felt like we need to invent a term that would be the Asian dumpling equivalent to al dente. We had the pork and the pork/kimchi mandoos. There are a few other options, including two vegetarian choices.
Due to the striking similarity to my mom’s cooking, I began gravitating toward my mom’s best dishes. There are two main types of savory pancakes that my mom makes really well: pa joun and bin dae dduk. Star Karaoke offers a potato (gam ja ya chae pa joun) and a seafood version (hae mul pa joun). These were much thinner and crispier than my mom’s, but we loved them just the same.
During one of my most recent visits, I really wanted to test out my hypothesis that Star Karaoke is an unwitting gastronomic portal into my mom’s kitchen by ordering one of my mom’s specialties, oh jing uh bokeum, spicy stir fried squid. Since this is one of the few dishes I have made with my mom, I am very particular about oh jing uh bokeum. This instantly became one of my favorite entrees to eat in the C-U area! Who the fuck needs to eat another bite of calamari when you could bite into a spicy, complex, perfectly tender piece of squid?
This also meant that I inadvertently avoided the dishes on the Ji Gae page. While my mom can make a great stew, she really shines in the pan-fried realm of bokeum dishes. Also, B-Won absolutely owns the realm of Korean stews and soups. After quickly surmising how well Star cooks their grill/bokeum items, I really haven’t had much motivation to venture too far into the Ji Gae page. Be that as it may, we tried a couple different soon dubu jigaes — pork and the seafood ones — on our last two trips to Star. While they weren’t as “tongue-searing, ass-burning” as the one Bourdain had in Koreatown on his new show, Parts Unknown, I enjoyed this subtler take on this spicy tofu stew, though I’m with Bourdain — I really want my soon dubu “tongue-searing” and “ass-burning” along with a raw egg to pour into this cauldron of fiery yumminess. I have yet to have a soon dubu in C-U that is as transcendent as this dish can be.
The bokeum jjam pong was the only disappointing meal we had at Star. It did not have that magical balance of flavors that every other dish we’ve had there has. When I mentioned this to a Korean friend who joined us for dinner there recently, she gave me a funny look and insisted that we must have gotten the dish on an off night. Just from the look I got from her, I am determined to give the jjam pong another shot. The bulgogi, the thinly sliced marinated pan fried beef, and the sam gyup sal kimchi bokeum, a spicy pan fried dish with pork belly and kimchi, were quite good, just not as delicious as many of the other entrees we had. The jae yuk bokeum at Star Karaoke is the much better option from their grill page of the menu.
For the most part, Star Karaoke’s entrees are small enough to be eaten by one fairly hungry person, which sets them apart from places like B-Won. The appetizers, on the other hand, are meant to be shared. Only the jjam pong and their delectable dukboki were too large for one person. For this reason, I have eaten here alone on many occasions.
I could eat dishes like the jja jang myun, oh jing uh bokeum and jae yuk bokeum for the rest of my life if I wanted to. There are plenty of items on the menu that I am dying to try, but, honestly, it will be these three dishes that will keep bringing me back. As life gets more complicated, and loved ones get older, I am starting to find solace in things like Korean food just like my parents did during our early years in America. Star Karaoke has become one of my favorite restaurants in town.
Star Karaoke is located at 1503 Lyndhurst Alley, Savoy, IL 61874. They’re open 11–2 a.m. everyday.