Wednesday, March 25, 2009

TTOWA Korean Dumpling House

Dempster Street cuts east/west from the lake out to where it splits into Rand and Miner just past the tollway. If you drive that straight shot east on Dempster, you'll whiz right by one of the most incredibly diverse selections of restaurants in the Chicago area as you make your way through Evanston, Skokie, Morton Grove, and Niles.

Seriously. It's one of the best food streets in Chicagoland. Here's a quick list of just *good* places I can personally vouch for:

American, Hot Dog Stands--Poochies, Wiener and Still Champion, Hub's (you like'a da juice?), Herm's Hot Dog Palace, Kappy's Pancake House, and Hot Dog Island.

Middle Eastern--Kabul House (Afghan), Pita Inn, Larsa's (Lebansese/Assyrian style pizza), and Bread 'n' Bowl (Georgian bakery and dumplings).

Jewish--Kaufman's, New York Bagel & Bialy.

Asian--Oh Bok Jung (Korean), Dempster Fish Market (Japanese. Check out their strangely minimalist website).

What's really interesting is that thousands of foodie-types like me have probably driven by these places dozens of times without even noticing them. Ok, the hot dog stands, everyone knows about (especially the ones known for their char salami sandwich), but most of the smaller, ethnic places occupy small, nondescript spots in strip malls that make it really easy to miss them as you whiz by (or sit in traffic).

This is certainly the case for TTOWA, a Korean Dumpling house located at 5844 Dempster in Morton Grove (just east of Austin). It's tucked away in a little strip mall along the north side of the street, and I probably drove by it a couple hundred times before I finally noticed it and decided to give it a try.

My first impression was to be impressed with just how nice the place is. The bar is set fairly low for small, independently-owned ethnic places, but TTOWA is a really roomy, well put-together, nicely designed, comfortable space. It's got a decidedly low-key Zen design aesthetic, with rice paper screens, lots of natural wood tones, and a very clean, sparse look, and as I walked in, it felt calm and welcoming. I don't usually mention the decor of restaurants, but I thought this one deserved a paragraph.

My friend Tom and I were seated promptly at a large four-top, and the energetic and upbeat server immediately plunked glasses of ice water and mugs of hot tea in front of us. I'm not a tea drinker, but I'm always game. I tried it, but this stuff was weird. It tasted like a malty, yeasty, hot, uncarbonated cola. Very strange.

Whatever. We were here for dumplings. We ordered the mandu combination, which would allow us to try an assortment of the delicate little dough packages--kimchee, chicken, and pork. The dish is pictured above, and it was really good. Really thin, tender wrappers around excellent fillings. I love dumplings.

Before they arrived, though, we received small green salads that were really quite tasty despite looking like what you'd get at a wedding at the Ramada Inn out by the airport. Plain iceberg lettuce with a beige dressing. I almost didn't even try it, but once I did, the lettuce was really fresh, cool, and crunchy, and the dressing packed a really nice ginger-sesame kick.

We were then showered with panchan. This is one of the really fun parts about Korean dining. Panchan are small side dishes that are traditionally served with Korean meals. The most famous is kimchee, the super-spicy, pickled and fermented cabbage dish that serves as a filling, side dish, condiment, and probably (somewhere) even appears in a dessert. Korean restaurants seek to distinguish themselves with their arrays of panchan, and so most places will hit you with five, seven, or nine little plates of interesting pickles, spicy veggies, mini pancakes, and all manner of other cool little things. It's a sweet deal because they don't charge for it, and it's a great way to try all sorts of weird stuff you'd never order.

We asked our server to tell us what all the various dishes were, and despite her very limited English, she did a darn good job. There was kimchee, spicy dandelion greens, some kind of potato salad thing, a pickled gourd or radish of some sort, and something with noodles that was pretty tasty.

What she lacked in language, she made up for with effort and energy. I think we opened a door by asking her some questions, because once she sensed we were interested in learning more, she really opened up. I'm thinking it was probably the same woman Mike Sula referred to as "hyperkinetic" in his recent Reader piece about TTOWA. She was, indeed, a trip.

Ordering our entrees was kind of an adventure. I knew I wanted some kind of hot pot, but wasn't sure what. I was kind of hoping they'd do the whole production of bringing a burner to the table, with that big earthenware crock type thing they use, but the lady wouldn't let me order that. Instead, she guided me towards a different dish, still a sizzling hotpot, but without the propane-fired porta-burner, because, she said, it was served with "wonderful black sticky rice". Ok, sure.

So we ordered that--it was, I believe, a jeongol--and I was quite happy that we did because she really put on a show putting it together. It came out boiling rapidly in its little earthenware crock, and Tom and I enjoyed watching her put together a plate for each of us--tossing the noodles with the broth, mixing everything up just so, placing some rice, some broth, some veggies, some meat, and some noodles in just the right amount in each of our bowls. It was like having a Jewish grandmother doting over us. Chattered the whole time, too, she did, although we barely understood a word of it. No matter--we felt cared for.

Our other entree choice was kind of a combo fried chicken deal. Pretty tasty little pieces of chicken, some still with bones in them, with a light batter, half of them tossed in a very spicy red sauce. The chicken was tasty--piping hot, lightly fried, not overly greasy, and nicely tender--but it wasn't memorable and I wouldn't order it again. To her credit, our server attempted to steer me away from this dish and into ordering some kind of pork stir-fry, but I didn't listen. Next time....

Still more freebies arrived after the plates cleared, as Ms. Perky suddenly materialized with a couple of sweet red bean paste buns--one steamed, the other baked--steaming hot from the oven. She appeared to take great pleasure in announcing them and explaining what they were as she placed them in front of me with a flourish (Tom was in the bathroom). The baked one was great.

So do go check this place out. It's a great bargain, the dumplings are enough of a draw all on their own, but you get tons of free add-ons with your meal, and the waitress is a bubblingly fun laugh riot who really knows a thing or two about the true meaning of hospitality. Places like this are why it's so great to live in major metropolitian areas that have such a wide variety of immigrants and ethnicities, and Dempster Street is really a microcosm of that; the delis and hot dog stands illustrate the food traditions of immigrants from a generation or two back, and the ever-increasing concentration of Middle Eastern and Asian (especially Korean) restaurants give a pretty clear picture of which immigrant groups have been settling in this area in more recent years.

And, hey, if you don't like your bibimbop, you can always go grab a char cheddar burger at Poochie's afterwards.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for you kind words. We will be closing our business on Oct. 30, 2010. Please stop by to enjoy some food before then.

Your Waitress

Anonymous said...

TTowa has moved to Arlington Heights. 161 W. Wing St.