Posted On: 05/06/2011
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The 10 stools lining the counter at U-City Grill are the restaurant’s most valuable real estate. Maybe it’s the clear view of the menu, lit and hung above the bar, touting a concise list of classic Korean dishes like kimchi and bibimbob that makes the throngs of jeans-clad Wash. U. students attempt to claim the well-worn cushions most nights. Or maybe it’s Hyo Bae, the chef-owner who takes care of everything from the shopping to the chopping to the check at this tiny corner diner in The Loop.
For Bae, running a restaurant is about simplicity, and for the hungry diners lucky enough to nab a seat at the counter of this ever-bustling eatery, watching him work is a lesson in organization. Sit down and Bae hands you a glass of water – no ice. If you’ve been in before, he shoots you a small smile and graciously asks how you are before signaling you to order. Once you do, he begins calculating.
Timing is key here. Bae knows exactly how long he has to chop the fresh vegetables he bought at the market that morning before the beef he has sizzling away on the flattop needs tossing. He knows he has just moments after he cracks the egg for your bibimbob to head to the back and roll the kimbob — a Korean-style vegetable roll — for the diner next to you. And he counts the seconds it takes to cash out the customer at the other end of the bar before he needs to add the final elements to your dish – rice, sauce, seasoning – and toss it all into a bowl from below the counter.
Moments later, you receive your meal as it infuses the air with the aromas of salty soy and pungent Korean spices. The minimalism of this tiny diner is communicated perfectly through its food: no frills, no ornate plating and no fancy garnishes – just fresh, piping hot fare with a mélange of textures, vibrant colors and spot-on flavor.
And just like that, you’re stuffed, satisfied and scraping the bowl. Time to pay.
As you shuffle out the door, a new flock of diners shuffles in. They’re hungry for a bowl of their favorite dish and hoping – if they’re lucky – for a front-row seat to all the action.
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