What the Food! serves authentic Asian dishes

Dan Hill

Sandwiched between Sherman and Benson avenues, restaurants at 822 Clark St. have notoriously suffered from bad luck and quick exits from the Evanston dining scene. The site’s newest incarnation, an Asian bistro called What the Food!, is the sixth restaurant in the last 10 years to call the space home.Tacos Del Lago and Big Ka Hoo Na Hawaiian BBQ, the last two eateries to take over the location, each survived less than a year before going out of business. Meanwhile, neighboring Jimmy John’s has lasted more than a decade.When David and Janice Lee established What the Food! three months ago, they knew there would be challenges. Marketing Asian cuisine can be difficult because it is a diverse discipline often overlooked by American customers, Janice said. Yet according to their new neighbors, the Lees had more to worry about than the standard difficulties of opening a new restaurant. There were even rumors of a curse. “I’m already cursed, maybe two negatives will make a positive,” said What the Food! Co-owner Janice Lee. “We’ve heard from everybody that there’s a curse on this place, but it was our only option.” While franchise stores like Jimmy John’s, Buffalo Joe’s and Papa John’s have survived, family-owned restaurants have struggled on the farthest west block of Clark.”We kind of made up the curse, but it’s true,” said Jimmy John’s Night Manager Michelle Ludwig. “Business has never been the same since the Japanese place left.”Sushi Arigato lasted three years before closing its doors in 2006.”It’s the location,” Ludwig said. “No business has been able to stay open longer than nine months.”The dining room fits six tables and is modest compared to the establishments the Lees have operated in the past, they said.What the Food! is the sixth restaurant operated by the Lees, whose Chinoiserie Cafe in Wilmette seated about 150 people. The cafe closed recently after 14 years in business.While their new restaurant’s standard menu includes items inspired by the tastes of China, Korea, Singapore and the Philippines, co-owner David Lee said he encourages visitors to make special orders.”It’s special for Chinese and Korean students who get homesick because I can cook their hometown (favorites),” he said. “The best chef in the world is your mama.”Weinberg freshman Soo Ho Ahn said that since starting at Northwestern, she has struggled to find home-style cooking comparable to that from her native Korea.”The food is all Americanized; it’s kind of greasy and with more vegetables ,” she said. “I love spicy food, but here ‘spicy’ is just chili and Mexican. I can’t get Korean here.”Though Ahn said she would consider trying the authentic specials at What the Food!, the restaurant has so far struggled to appeal to students in Evanston, the owners said. What the Food! served fewer than 100 customers and few students in its first month of operation.Most guests were curious professors and followers from the Wilmette location, the couple said.The Lees said they thought the restaurant name has discouraged older customers. Janice chose the name “What the Food!” after listening to her teenage daughters speak in Internet slang, she said. The name also avoids labeling the diverse cooking with an Asian moniker, which David said allows him greater freedom to make a variety of dishes.What the Food! offers a 20 percent discount to all Wildcats, and the Lees said they hope to attract more student visitors soon.danielhill2013@u.northwestern.edu