One Of These Things Is Not Like The Other...

Fusion cuisine can be a polarizing thing. Some critics have dubbed it, "confusion cuisine," and consider it an over-used culinary device that relies more on novelty than taste in attracting diners. Much like molecular gastronomy, which also has its share of detractors, I don't have anything against fusion cuisine. I might not want to eat it every day, but I think it's a positive, enriching experience to expose myself to new flavor combinations and to expand my ideas about what food can be.

When Caitlin invited me to try Belly Shack, the latest "fast-casual" concept from acclaimed Chicago chef, Bill Kim (whose previous venture, Urban Belly, lent part of its name to the new restaurant), I agreed right away. I'd been wanting to try Urban Belly for ages, but its location in Avondale makes it more or less inaccessible without a car. Belly Shack, however, is located directed under the Western station on the Blue Line. Its accessibility would give me the chance to sample chef Kim's food, but my excitement was quelled when I did further reconnaissance on the weeks-old restaurant: Belly Shack features Korean/Puerto Rican fusion.

First of all, Korean and Puerto Rican food seemed to have nothing in common that would suggest that they could create a harmonious blend. The two countries are more or less on opposite sides of the planet. Plus, my only experience with Korean food was the odoriferous kimchi that my college roommate, Jena, used to eat for breakfast, the smell of which almost always put me off of eating mine. I ultimately decided that a little culinary adventure would be good for me, and that if Belly Shack could pull off a mash-up of Korean and Puerto Rican cooking, then perhaps Urban Belly would be worth the odyssey it would take to get there.

Tonight, Caitlin and I met up after work at Belly Shack, which, true to its word, was directly underneath the El station. Thankfully, the building seemed to have some impressive sound insulation, as I only noticed the passing of the trains overhead when incoming patrons opened the door. The atmosphere was minimal: there was minimal lighting, there was minimal seating (no chairs, only stools clustered around a handful of two person tables and a large communal table), and the decor was limited to some Latin-themed wall murals. Caitlin and I both ordered the same meal: the Asian Meatball "Sammich," a shared side-dish of tostones with chimichurri sauce, and soft-serve ice cream with bacon and chocolate chip topping.

The food turned out not to be quite the train wreck I had anticipated, but I'm not sure I'd be motivated to return to have it again. The meatballs in my "sammich" were tasty enough; they were coated in a sweet glaze of which I believe one of the primary components was plum sauce. However, it came in a pita that was so overstuffed with meat, noodles (yes, on a sandwich, go figure), and hot sauce (which wasn't advertised on the menu) that it was impossible to eat with your hands. I had to use a knife and fork, which made it difficult to get a little bit of each component in every bite. I will say though, that the homemade pita bread was fantastic. The tostones were also acceptable, although I think it's hard to go wrong with fried starchy vegetables. I was not a fan of the chimichurri sauce, but I knew in advance from prior experience that it is not one of my favorite flavors. I had been hoping that it would come on the side, but no such luck.

In all the reviews I had read of Belly Shack, the bacon-chocolate soft serve seemed to receive the most universal acclaim, but again, I thought it was just okay. Unlike the rest of the food blogosphere, I don't really understand what all the bacon-in-dessert hype is all about, but I figured I would try it anyway. I think the dish would have been more successful had it been chocolate soft serve with bacon crumbles, but I found the cloying sweetness of the vanilla soft serve overpowering against the backdrop of bacon and chocolate -- I scarcely noticed that the topping was there.

In my opinion, the clash of cultures occurring at Belly Shack proved to be somewhat of a non-event. The highlight of my evening there turned out to be the chance to hang out with an old friend, and to complete one of my longstanding Chicago-based goals: I have now ridden every CTA train line. For months, the Blue Line had stood as the only route I had never had an occasion to take. I had thought about riding it a few stops just so I could scratch it off my list, but I felt that it would be cheating if I wasn't riding it to get somewhere I needed to go. I'm glad that I was able to finish my quest before the end of 2009; now I just need to come up with a new goal for 2010...

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