Nuthin’ But a Galbi Thang

In 2015, an American presidential candidate named Deez Nuts polled at 9% in North Carolina. Donald Trump rated 24% in this same poll. You know how that worked out. A nut was elected President. Though inconceivable then, I pine for the possibilities of a Deez Nuts administration now.

I would have especially welcomed such a candidacy if it had been led by the first popularizer of the Deez Nuts meme, the rapper Warren G. Warren G is the stepbrother of Dr. Dre and the best friend of Nate Dogg. Mr. Dogg is responsible for introducing Calvin Broadus, aka Snoop Dogg, to Dr. Dre. So, we probably have Warren G to thank for The Chronic (where he did the Deez Nuts skit), Beats headphones, Eminem, etc.. Those accomplishments alone elevate Mr. G above the current Cheeto-in-Chief. Though, to be fair and balanced, the lyrics of Mr. G’s 1994 single, “Regulate”, suggest Mr. G may have a Trumpian-streak for unsentimental vigilantism and unchecked misogyny.

I did not think of these things in the 1990s. Then, I was a teenage tempest of testosterone and tactlessness, basically only capable of chortling every time someone said the phrase Deez Nuts. It will probably not surprise you that the person behind the 2015 Deez Nutz candidacy was a 15-year-old boy from Wallingford, Iowa. Unlike teenage me, this boy, Brady C. Olson was obviously much more sophisticated, wielding the phrase as a very intelligent bit of satire.

The Deez Nuts meme has a lot of other history. My favorite viral form of the phenomenon is probably the YouTube clip of Steve from Blue’s Clues singing about how he received a letter and wonders who it’s from? When he opens the letter, he is told that it’s from, you guessed it: Deez Nuts! As a parent of young boys, I see this surprising, and likely horrifying to Steve, twist of events as a cathartic justice for having to endure Steve’s annoying sing song for so many episodes.

At this point, you are wondering why I am talking about Deez Nuts? It is because, one of the current incarnations of the meme is a line of t-shirts sporting the phrase “Save Deez Nuts” that benefit a non-profit men’s health organization which raises awareness for things like testicular cancer. I am aware of this, because the Save Deez Nuts t-shirt kiosk was planted firmly in front of my window-side table at the new upscale Korean spot Passerotto during Andersonville’s Midsommarfest.

You could argue that I’ve wasted a ton of paragraphs talking about a childish meme which has nothing to do with the restaurant. I appreciate that. However, if you’re still with me, I think the fact that a testicle-themed t-shirt stand coexists next to a restaurant says a lot about that restaurant. Which is to say if you planted such a stand across from many other restaurants, an army of aldermen and priests might be summoned to remove such a thing.

But Jennifer Kim, owner of Passerotto, is an independent bad ass. If you want to know the whole story, you should check out Fooditor’s profile. But, in summary, she was previously the co-owner of Snaggletooth which was built around transforming classic old man Jewish-style food like lox and bagels through modern techniques and with local ingredients. Now, she’s serving modern Korean food at a place with an Italian name (Passerotto means little sparrow, a nickname Kim’s father gave her as a kid). Kim’s mom questioned if she was Korean enough to make Korean food, and as anyone knows, you don’t cross a Korean mom, or any mom really. But, like I said, Kim is fearless. I saw the Deez Nuts thing as a metaphor. She doesn’t have time to worry, nor does she care, about such juvenile things as temporary novelty t-shirt stands clouding the view of her diners.

Kim has things to do, like starting where she left off at Snaggletooth by offering an array of raw and lightly-cured seafood plates. Quivering bay scallops, which look like mini-marshmallows, swim in a sweet, salty, and funky, mix of citron, XO, and soy onion puree. The plate is spiked with purple chive blossoms. It looks like modern art, a pre-fixe-menu-worthy course, and has the soul of an Italian crudo, but the umami punch of Asian cuisine. It is not a particularly Korean dish.

A golden circle of kimchi stuffed pajeon or custardy scallion pancake swirled with pesto and spiked with bright pickled shallots, however, is a refined cousin of something you’d find at the traditional Korean-restaurant San Soo Gab San. Served on a black clay platter and crowned with bitter spiky lettuces, it is the perfect plate for the person who loves to spend the weekend at the farmer’s market and the ceramics wing of the art institute.

Though I now worship my new Japanese kamado-style charcoal grill and work the smoke with the same seriousness of Lang Lang tickling the ivories, I am, as I have revealed before, the worst Korean BBQ restaurant griller of all time. I have either drunk too many forties of OB lager or am too caught up sucking down banchan (the array of tiny side dishes filled with gojuchang-spiked vegetables and dried seafood served at any great Korean joint) to remember that I have a short rib on hot coals which is about to cause a four-alarm fire.

So, I express my deep gratitude that Kim’s kalbi for two, a gigantic platter of banchan, beef, chili paste, and perilla leaves (for making tiny impromptu verdant burritos) requires no cooking whatsoever. The short-rib is already well-charred, sprinkled with glinting huge crystals of salt, dripping with fat, and chopped in tiny slices which are reassembled on top of the bone in the manner of a fine ribeye served at a downtown steak house. It’s basically Korean BBQ with none of the hard work. The meat is succulent. The bone itself is flecked with blackened burnt ends, that, if you have no shame like me, you will go full pitbull (I like to think Pitbull the rapper, and not just the vicious breed of dog, likes Korean BBQ too, so I debated whether I should capitalize here) on it when no one is looking. The chili paste is not the sugary red stuff you find in a plastic tub at any Korean grocery, but a rusty orange-colored dab with a fermented miso-onion-like complexity.

If you’ve ever been to a traditional Korean BBQ restaurant, it can feel like you’re in the middle of a Luftwaffe bombing raid, where the Germans, flush with a surplus of noodles, red chili, and radishes, decide to drop tiny side dishes instead of explosives. I once counted 27 different plates at one Korean joint I ate at years ago. Kim’s banchan selection is well-curated handful of radishes, kimchi, pickles and mashed potato salad. At traditional Korean spots where they’re dropping off full sheet pans of side dishes, there’s usually a mix of really good stuff and a lot of soggy or under-salted choices. Kim’s banchan is perfectly seasoned and the textures are appropriately crisp or, in the case of the mashed potato salad, whipped.

People often ask why certain food, often European, like Italian or French, can command top dollar, while other cuisines, like Puerto Rican or Chinese, continue to be mired in cheap eats purgatory? I believe there is certainly an element of racism at play in the answer. But, I also believe so many of those spots continue to under-season, use cheap cuts of subpar protein, and offer crummy carbs. There is no overt demand for this kind of commodity offering – except maybe in the form of Taco Bell. A place like Spiaggia which hand-cuts its noodles and gilds things with shaved truffles and rare funghi is offering something no one else has. And that is what we have at Passerotto. Jennifer Kim’s food is not only Korean enough, but it’s executed at a level and quality that is worth every American dollar she charges.

Passerotto is located at 5420 N. Clark St., Chicago, IL

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