CHINATOWN — Asked to name some of the signature dishes at Ahjoomah's Apron, owner Mickie Lee thumbed through the menu and couldn't answer right away.
"Oh my. There's so many. I could go on and on and on," she said.
Lee, a Bridgeport resident and mother of two, opened the restaurant at 218 W. Cermak in February as a way to bring traditional Korean food closer to home. Many of the better Korean spots up on Lawrence Avenue closed, she said, and driving to the suburbs for dinner proved to be a pain.
So Lee, a native of Gongju, South Korea, brought the cuisine to Chinatown.
Although the restaurant's interior is modern and hip — all low-back benches, dark hues and pop music — the menu is filled with traditional Korean dishes.
"I love fusion, I love modern and the idea of it but you can't beat this," she said. "Everything is darker and rich the way we eat it instead of lightening it up. It's spicy. Some people can't take it. They'll ask for it mild and we'll do that that but it typically comes out the way we [Koreans] eat it," she said.
Kimchi, the spicy fermented vegetable concoction growing in popularity at restaurants across the city, is used in abundance. Here, it's served in soups and stews, formed into pancakes and offered on its own as a cold side.
Also on the menu are sliced and marinated chicken and beef bulgogi entrees, and a handful of fish dishes, like the stir-fried squid and pan-broiled salted mackerel.
"Dinner for two" entrees, priced from $21.95 to $24.95, are offered in the form of a hot pot, brought to the table in a stone pot and kept piping hot by a portable gas stove. One of the shareable meals, Boodae Jun-Gol, is made of Spam, hot dogs, kimchi and vegetables in a spicy broth, a nod to the dish's roots as a favorite of American soldiers during the Korean War.
To cool things down, a number of sides are served cold with entrees, including soy-marinated potatoes, cucumbers tossed in red chili paste and fried tofu in a soy glaze.
Not familiar with a dish? Don't worry. Lining the walls are short lessons on dishes like kimchi, japchae and bulgogi.
Asked again about her favorite dishes, Lee started to rattle off a handful of the items from the menu. Chicken wings. Rice cakes. Fish cakes. Bulgogi. Squid-and-pork stir fry. Japchae made with sweet potato noodles and stir fried with beef and vegetables.
It's a lot of food, and it's all meant to be shared.
That's part of the reason why Lee named her first restaurant after an ahjoomah, a Korean term of endearment for a married, middle-age woman — in this case, one who politely and motherly nags you to keep eating.
"I find myself doing that to my family and friends," she said.
Ahjoomah's Apron, 218 W. Cermak Road, is open from 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily. The restaurant is BYOB, and carry-out is offered.