Situated just off the main drag of downtown Arlington Heights, Ttowa Korean restaurant is a gem of a storefront. The name means come again in Korean, and the food, prepped by trained veteran Dong Ju Park, should indeed keep customers coming back.
Ttowa's intimate space -- punctuated with dark wood table seating -- is decorated with funky geometric and nature prints and has a small sushi bar in back. Meanwhile, jazzy, adult contemporary tunes set a conversation-friendly tone.
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Ttowa161 W. Wing St., Arlington Heights, (847) 749-4493
Setting: Casual storefront with sushi bar in back
Cuisine: Korean and Pan-Asian
Entrees: $9 to $18
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
The menu is small but inviting: full of items both interesting and (relatively) familiar -- at least to those who have sampled Korean cuisine.
Because it's a dumpling house at heart -- the original was in Morton Grove -- meals should definitely begin with mandoo, tender, potsticker-like packets available fried or steamed. We particularly liked the chive-flecked beef and pork, especially when plunked into the zingy, sesame-laced dipping sauce brought to the table. There are grilled chicken-shiitake, lemon-laced shrimp and pork-beef with cabbage versions as well. Alternately, there's a tasty, green onion-packed panjeon (pancake) flecked with squid and shrimp to start things off.
But even before these nibbles arrive, you'll receive a delicate, milky-looking bowl of bone marrow soup as well as panchan, a series of dishes to snack on. We particularly enjoyed the condimented kimchee and the lightly pickled mung bean and cucumber salad, one brow-mopping hot, the other flame-taming.
From there, meals can certainly be made of the soups, from one with a fish stock base buoyed with soft tofu, squid and shrimp to a porridge-like version with abalone, broccoli and mushrooms.
The menu showcases bibimbap, a Korean rice dish, of three kinds as well, including a vegetable version with beans, radishes, spinach, sprouts and mushrooms; it's one of a handful of options for non-meat-eaters.
We opted for the full-flavored, marinated beef rice bowl instead and were surprised to find this version dotted with corn and cilantro. Looking at the rest of the eclectic menu, though, it makes sense: This place is really blazing its own trails.
Nowhere is that more evident than in what comes from the "kimbop" Korean sushi bar.
You'll find the basics -- California and cucumber rolls -- but here, the spicy tuna maki has a different tinge of heat, and the stunning signature Ttowa roll is full of surprises. Filled with pork belly, sticks of jalapeño, sesame leaf and cucumber, it's wrapped with avocado slivers and the sweet heat of a kimchee purée. Moreover, it's beautiful: The plate is finished with frizzles of beets and ribbons of fried carrots.
Although less showy, the "Kimpop" roll stuffed with meat, sweet egg, fish cake, carrots and spinach is really interesting and fresh as well.
Separate of that, you'll find a handful of entrees, including ubiquitous bulgogi, marinated grilled beef that comes with a rice potato pancake.
Dessert options are limited to creamy but crowd-pleasing green tea ice cream and a sweet rice cake pastry. That said, you may just be satisfied with what arrives at meal's end -- a free, sippable container of Korean yogurt. Refreshing and tangy at once, it's the perfect cap to an interesting meal.
Dining at Ttowa is a pleasant experience. The servers are both genuine and informative, making what could be an intimidating experience to those unfamiliar with such fare seem as comfortable as the every day. Just remember to BYOB.