Located in the shadow of the L in the middle of a concrete jungle, Belly Shack is the latest effort from Bill Kim, a heralded chef with much-publicized stints at some of the creme de la creme of Chicago restaurants including Le Lan and Charlie Trotter's.
His latest effort offers Asian/Latin fusion dishes that reflect the combined heritage of Kim and his Puerto Rican wife, and Belly Shack is also influenced by heralded eateries on both coasts.
While the seemingly disparate combination of Korean and Puerto Rican food might seem strange, in the hands of Kim it goes together like white on rice. The Spartan decor and street art style add a touch of whimsy to the Belly Shack.
Vegetarian items are noted on the menu with an asterisk. Choices include a Boricua sandwich, a quinoa ssam salad, tostones, roasted sweet potatoes and a couple of desserts (prepared by another heralded name in Chicago sweets, Mindy Segal).
I started with the tostones, twice-fried crispy plantains drowned in a garlicky chimichurri sauce. While chimichurri is more classically used as a meat or seafood sauce, it has similarities to mojo, the national condiment of Puerto Rico that often accompanies tostones, and it adds another layer of fresh flavor to the dish.
The Boricua sandwich shares its identity with the people of Puerto Rico, who refer to themselves as Boricua, the native Taino population of the island. In Chicago, a Boricua sandwich contains shredded pork between fried plantains. Belly Shack replaces the pork with tofu, adds black beans and brown rice, and serves the sandwich with an earthy red soy-based sauce. The taste is a beautiful marriage of Eastern and Western elements.
Chef Kim is on a roll with his restaurants (Urban Belly being the other). I never knew how much I would like Kor-ibbean (my clever combination of Korean and Caribbean) food before venturing to Belly Shack, but after eating it for the first time, I know that the fateful pairing was meant to be.