If you take a seat at the bar in Hola, your eye will be drawn to a row of meat cabinets occupying one wall. Top-notch ribs and dry-aged New York stripes inside, while a massive loin of bluefin tuna dangles from hooks. Above the cabinets on a slate along the wall is a message: “Aging enriches the taste of life. Wine intoxicates the soul.
My eyes keep returning to those ghostly pieces of cow and the curious slogan as we spend a good half hour at the bar waiting for the occupants of our reserved table to flee. Surprisingly delicious cocktails, prepared by an exhausted lone bartender, help pass the time. Here and there bizarre spotlights of chiaroscuro shine: on the meat in the cabinets, on the smooth black tables with grates with bronze rings, and on us. Nothing about this place says we’ve entered Chicago’s most intriguing new steakhouse. It won’t be clear until the meat hits the table.
Holu Restaurant, located on Jefferson Square, in the East Pilsen Shopping Center, home to a number of high-end Chinese catering establishments, combines sumptuous ingredients from premium American steakhouses with an Asian BBQ format. While there is plenty of seafood and one big piece of pork, the menu is a beef eater’s dream. Specifically, it offers a world tour of wagyu, the marbled pieces of Japanese cattle breeds that are changing the way we eat beef.
A brief history lesson: Wagyu (literally “Japanese cows”) is one of four breeds of cattle bred for use in paddy plows. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Japanese populace began to eat meat and discovered that this cattle stored a wonderful amount of delicious fat. The A5 marbling grade Miyazaki (Holu offers both ribs and fillets) is the gold standard among imported commodities. American and Australian Wagyu cows tend to be hybrids, less fat but still with that melt-in-the-mouth fleshiness.
Holu, which means “fire pit” in Chinese, is the first restaurant of owner Jason Song, who grew up in Shenyang, China and came to Illinois while studying finance. It is indebted to Cote, the New York restaurant that pioneered this clever combination of aged jerky, gourmet drinks and downdraft grill. But while Cote takes a Korean BBQ tradition when it comes to food packaging, Holu takes a more pan-Asian approach to choosing garnishes and sauces. Although these accompaniments taste like disposables, and Son is in dire need of an editor to help him realize his vision, he has stumbled upon something great – the main meat pieces are a thrill.
When we finally sit down at the table, we are given more handouts than at a corporate party. There is menu after menu, liquor and sake, “carnival packs” and “meat packs”. We serve set menus and order one or two ounce portions of meat from the menu. There are eight different varieties of wagyu on offer from Japan, Australia and the US, and we want them all. After we place an order, we are brought several complimentary supplements: a bowl of rice with some salmon roe, a green salad in a dressing sweet enough to be used as a honey bun icing, and a shallow bowl of miso soup that is served. with a stupid golden teaspoon. It’s a strange start to a meal, but things improve dramatically when our waiter fires up the grill and brings out our meat board, each piece of which glows like a fat-striped ruby in the table’s spotlight. As veterans of many Korean kebabs, we naturally grab the tongs, put a couple of pieces of meat on the grill and – “No!” yells the waiter, snatching the tongs from my wife’s hand. “We are cooking. How do you like it? Medium rare?
Complex issue. The Australian Wagyu top sirloin is a fine half-roasted cap, as is the 45-day dry-aged Premier New York Strip. But the ribeye hat should be cooked until you see a strip of grain, closer to the middle one. I have no idea how much I love fried tongue. (After trying it here, I went with the medium one.) That incredible Miyazaki A5 ribbed eye should just be a sparse hair. Our waiters do an excellent job of preparing different cuts and cutting them into pieces so that we can dip them in either finishing salt or sweet fruit sauce.
I loved these appetizers, but I wanted traditional Japanese ponzu, a mixture of soy sauce and citrus juice that cuts through the richness of fatty meat. I also wanted to wrest control of the tongs. The reason why table grills and hot pots are so popular in Asia isn’t because they’re hand-fed with diced meat, but because they cook their own food. This is a fun group activity and a kind of jam session. Flip, move, dip, eat, sip. Everyone gets into a rhythm.
On our second visit, we arrived with a game plan. First, we provide a semi-private booth in the back, not in the front room of the disco. We then order cocktails from this bartender, Todd Crummy, who uses small-batch spirits and Asian ingredients to great effect. We order six ounces of meat apiece, and when we need to add a few bites to complete the meal, we examine the appetizers. We order otoro (bluefin belly) sashimi, and although the $28 price tag makes me want to swallow, these two gorgeous pieces of fish are the size of dominoes. Wagyu dumplings look amazing, with lacy dough wings that rise from the plate like the Sydney Opera House, but burst with melted fat rather than broth.
While we don’t have the nerve to grab tongs (next time), we ask for soy sauce and slice lemons to make our own ponza. As we fire up the grill, we start with half a live eel, one of my favorite bites in Hola. The inch-long pieces curl and sizzle, and the skin turns crispy, like slightly charred potato chips. Also great: Secreto Iberian Pork, the butcher’s “secret” shoulder made from the world’s most delicious pork breed.
This makes me think that in steakhouses I love not only steaks. It’s a waste of money, a menu filled with top-notch ingredients, and a silent promise that the kitchen will prepare them simply and with care. What Song does so brilliantly at Holu is swapping out the luxuries of the past — shrimp cocktail, veal chops, vintage bordeaux — with what is typically used for an omakase sushi or tasting menu. Uni, caviar, toro, all wagyu. You can find a profitable path through this menu and enjoy the experience, or you can make a nervous joke about getting a second mortgage and go for it. I say come on.