“Korean dive bar,” “karaoke,” “porn” – these are the descriptors that prompt my visit to Edgewater’s Cafe Bong Ho. I’m not sure what I expect, but after very little coaxing, if any, the party of a friend of a brother of a friend’s roommate has catapulted to the zenith the evening’s social dance card.
There are indeed Korans, an older mother and daughter it would appear, amicably tending the bar and gently nudging the karaoke songbook in your direction. They get wind of the birthday occasion, and before I have even stomped the lingering snow from my boots shots are being poured on the house. I down a few servings of Soju, essentially a Korean rice vodka with lime, toasting to the birthday boy whom I have not even met yet and soaking in the divey delight.
The single, narrow room is packed with what appear to be Loyola or post-Loyola kids railing defiantly against the typical Hamilton’s scene, the dog-eared beige walls their backdrop. Examining their thrifted fedoras, their carefully assembled vests, “effortless” vintage design tees, and devil-may-care scarves I think, “Ok, sure I feel that.” Not really certain who is and isn’t part of our party, I observe the ebb and flow from pool table to karaoke mic chatting with whomever is at hand.
The two best things about a dive bar are a no frills atmosphere and cheap drinks, and I prefer mine heavy on the second. Aside from the overly gracious shots gesture at the door, the booze pricing is disappointingly noncompetitive. I am never a karaoke performer and seldom a satisfied listener (with one exception), and as the merrymakers warble on, the tv screens display lyrics and a Korean pageant/gameshow/melodrama mashup of some sort. That kind of thing isn’t cute for long and I start wondering about the porn I was promised.
Not soon enough, the screens are filled with salacious barely-there imagery…from the early 1990’s. Teased platinum perms, strategically ripped denim, fluorescent underthings peeking through, it’s like you ripped Elizabeth Berkley’s character from Showgirls and thrust her back into Bayside. The old Korean man posted up on an automated gambling game in the corner finally perks up after seeming oblivious to all surrounding antics. “You haven’t stopped staring at the screen for five minutes,” I’m told.”It’s getting creepy; are you into porn?” Well no, not usually but how can you not be mesmerized by the use of cutout clothing and oversized acrylic jewelry as innuendo? Answer me that.
I’m still not sure what warrants “cafe” status, but I enjoy my first Bong Ho encounter. Like any dive bar worth its salt there are super fans, regulars who quietly rave its praises, but I’m not ready to convert just yet. Maybe I would drink more pre-Bong Ho, maybe I would bring more cash, but I would definitely return if the right fringe associate of a friend’s soiree came up. Plus I’ve always had a thing for Lisa Turtle.
Cafe Bong Ho
5706 N. Clark St.
Chicago, IL 60660