an illustration of a Korean cook behind a diner counter in a white shirt and black apron, with two seated patrons in the foreground, one eating bibambap with chopsticks next to a guitar case leaning against the counter
Jim’s Grill chef Dave Choi expanded the menu of the former hot dog joint, adding Korean dishes and vegetarian options. Credit: Nguyen Tran for Chicago Reader

In the early 90s, Dead Rider guitarist Todd Rittmann moved into a three-bedroom apartment with an attic on the corner of Paulina and Grace in Lakeview. He’d recently left DeKalb, where he’d studied at Northern Illinois University. Rittmann shared his Lakeview apartment with three musicians, including Tom Mioducki and Pat Samson, who’d formed a noisy band called the Mercury Players with him in DeKalb. In 1995, Rittmann and Samson became founding members of noise-rock deconstructionists U.S. Maple. “We were living cheap,” Rittmann says. “Those two floors were $600 a month. We could have part-time jobs and live like regular people.” 

This arrangement left Rittmann ample time to work on music and freed him from the need to make money with it—especially fortunate given the confoundingly strange direction his bands were headed. Shortly after Rittmann moved to Lakeview, Mercury Players vocalist Rey Rehayem introduced him to a diner that fit his budget. Jim’s Grill was at 1429 W. Irving Park, a brisk ten-minute walk north and east from his apartment. Rittmann couldn’t know it at the time, in part because Jim’s was too small to be much use for fortuitous networking, but by becoming a regular at the diner he was participating in a ritual that linked many members of Chicago’s north-side underground rock scene.

“The food was cheap and we were broke,” Rittmann says. “Being a bachelor at the time, eating out for just a few bucks and getting delicious food was something I could actually do.”

Jim’s Grill was a typical hole-in-the-wall diner, with three tabletops that seated four people apiece and a long Formica counter in front of the kitchen that could fit ten. Service was quick, and according to a 1995 Tribune review, pancakes cost $2.20, omelets at most $3.95, and coffee 85 cents. By the time Rittmann first visited Jim’s Grill, chef Dave Choi had expanded the menu beyond American diner staples to include Korean food and a wide range of vegetarian options.

“I had never had any Korean food before then,” Rittmann says. “So trying kimchee, bibimbap, and the pancakes that he made—the veggie pancakes—those were just far-out new flavors for me.” 

According to a 2001 Reader story, Choi had moved to Chicago from California in 1984 to help his sister run Jim’s Grill, then a hot dog joint. There was no Jim at Jim’s Grill in the 90s—the Trib review says that was the name of a former tenant, while the Reader story identifies “Jim” as a previous owner (and Choi’s cousin). The diner closed in the mid-2000s—in 2006 the spot briefly became Nan’s Food Market—though by then, Choi and his brother and business partner Bill were focused on their vegan Korean restaurant, Amitabul. 

Back in the 1990s, though, Jim’s attracted lots of local musicians, and their cool cachet rubbed off on the diner. In 1993, Alternative Press profiled Smashing Pumpkins in advance of their major-label debut, Siamese Dream, and Billy Corgan took the writer to Jim’s Grill—it was a block and a half from his most recent fixed address. Regulars didn’t need an AltPress subscription to know the Pumpkins were fond of Jim’s: the diner’s rock-related decor included a signed poster for the band’s first album, Gish.

At the time, Chicago was the frequent subject of music-industry chatter that proposed it as “the next Seattle.” The rest of the country tended to see the city’s underground rock scene in terms of three albums released in summer ’93: the Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream (July 27), Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville (June 22), and Urge Overkill’s Saturation (June 8). That August, a Billboard cover story described Chicago as “Cutting Edge’s New Capital.” 

Trend chasers also tended to reduce the Chicago scene to the goings-on in Wicker Park, which was just as myopic as defining it by three success stories. The city’s underground rock community was and is wilder, richer, more varied, and more widely dispersed than that. In the 1990s, plenty of people involved in creating and maintaining it ended up at Jim’s Grill—but why? Musicians didn’t necessarily go there because other musicians went there. “There was an indie-rock sort of air floating around the place,” Rittmann says. “But that is not why we were there, and it’s not anything that I connected with.”

I’ve been thinking about how this particular Chicago music ecosystem ended up linked to Jim’s Grill ever since I read Bruce Adams’s recent music-biz memoir, You’re With Stupid: Kranky, Chicago, and the Reinvention of Indie Music. The book opens in fall 1991, with Adams taking his first trip to Jim’s Grill with Joel Leoschke, a colleague from indie-music distributor Cargo. The two of them would found indie label Kranky in 1993. The epigraph at the top of the introduction comes from veteran Chicago bassist Matthew Lux: “I’m not sure which makes you more Post-Rock, having played on a Tortoise record, or having eaten at Jim’s Grill.”

The answer to “Why Jim’s?” (insofar as I found one) isn’t simple. Leoschke was quick to disabuse me of the notion that Jim’s was a place where people in the scene would meet up. “It did not function for me that way,” he wrote in an email. “If you are postulating that this was some sort of gathering space central to the early-90s Chicago independent music scene, I think that would be an exaggeration.”

Still, that’s not the same as saying that musicians could just as easily have ended up anywhere else. They picked Jim’s Grill for a reason. In 1995, Jim Magas moved to Chicago from Ann Arbor (where he’d fronted the band Couch), and within a couple weeks he was singing for no-wave supergroup Lake of Dracula. “The underground music community, being the adventurous group of people that we were, we wanted more adventurous food than, say, going to Denny’s or Olive Garden,” he says. “Everybody had a common interest in wanting to eat more interesting things. And Jim’s Grill provided a community meeting place.”

The other cheap restaurants from the 90s that Chicago artists brought up over and over in my interviews, the Busy Bee and Leo’s Lunchroom, were both in Wicker Park. I wanted to know more about Jim’s Grill partly because it was miles away from what was supposed to be the center of the action.

“It fit in both with the diner culture and with this underground scene of musicians and arty people,” says veteran engineer and guitarist Steve Albini. “It sort of reminded me of my first experience with underground culture, when I first came to Chicago.”

In the 1980s, Albini was a night owl, and he spent a lot of time around the intersection of Ashland and Irving Park, two blocks west of Jim’s Grill. Ten Cat Tavern, still open at 3931 N. Ashland, had a welcoming atmosphere and pool tables. Around the corner at 1461 W. Irving Park was El Gato Negro, a now-defunct Latinx queer bar with a rough-around-the-edges drag show. Albini often ended the night across Ashland at Diner Grill, a 24-hour joint housed in two converted streetcars at 1635 W. Irving Park.

Albini would visit Diner Grill with his bandmates in Big Black (usually after a show or a rehearsal) or on his own. He loves late-night diner culture, partly because it gives outsiders a place to feel at home. At Diner Grill, he felt he already knew the cast of characters: the drunk kids, the old folks grousing about them, the lonely guy in the corner with a cup of coffee. He liked the jukebox that barely worked, and he liked the fact that the restaurant proudly advertised itself as a place to buy lottery tickets. “They had the big sign over the door that said, ‘Be a millionaire,’” he says. “Which always seemed like an odd sales pitch for a diner: ‘Come here and gamble.’”

Most important, Albini knew he could go to Diner Grill and eat exactly what he wanted. “I absolutely loved every plate of food I had at the Diner Grill,” Albini says. “It’s not high cuisine, but it’s extremely satisfying. It’s ready in minutes, it doesn’t cost much, and it’s available at four in the morning. Those things right there put it in the absolute top tier of restaurants on earth.”

Diner Grill seems to have frequently inspired this sort of fierce loyalty. Matthew Lux grew up in the neighborhood, and he’d find any excuse to eat at Diner Grill. His mom worked at a restaurant across Irving Park called Biasetti’s Steak House, where as a kid in the 80s Lux sometimes spent his afternoons after school. “I wouldn’t eat there,” he says. “I would go and get a cheeseburger, because I loved the Diner Grill so much.”

Lux graduated high school in 1991 and got a job at the new Tower Records in Lincoln Park. By the time he got fired a few months later, he’d befriended a coworker named Jeff Parker. (In 1997, they’d both become founding members of the group Isotope 217.) In 1992, Parker moved into an apartment behind Biasetti’s. Lux liked his routines, but soon Parker talked him into visiting a neighborhood restaurant he’d never bothered to try: Jim’s Grill. 

“I might have even complained when Parker wanted to go there,” Lux says. “I’m like, ‘What do you want to go there for?’ But then it was wonderful.” One of Lux’s best friends in high school was Korean, so Lux already had a taste for the food. Bibimbap became his go-to order. “I’ve always been disappointed at every bibimbap I’ve ever had since,” he says. “What he did there was magnificent.”

“The underground music community, being the adventurous group of people that we were, we wanted more adventurous food than, say, going to Denny’s or Olive Garden.” 

Lake of Dracula front man Jim Magas

Chicago has had many other neighborhood joints serving a mix of American diner food and Southeast Asian fare, of course. In 1990, when engineer and multi-instrumentalist Dave Trumfio lived in Rogers Park, he began frequenting C&E Grill at 6205 N. Broadway. (The Noon Hour Grill, whose menu also combines diner classics and Korean dishes, is still open around a mile north at 6930 N. Glenwood.) One day Trumfio was sitting at the counter at C&E when he noticed two staffers eating veggies and rice out of big silver bowls. He didn’t know it was bibimbap, but the sight and smell whetted his appetite.

“I’m like, ‘Can I get some of that?’ They were like, ‘Yeah, no problem!’” Trumfio says. “It became kind of a thing where me and a bunch of my friends would go there and just get the Korean food.”

In the mid-1980s, engineer Brad Wood happened upon Hamburger King at 3435 N. Sheffield, around the corner from his friend and future Idful Studios cofounder, Brian Deck. Hamburger King (which became Rice ’n Bread in 2013) had been serving a mix of Japanese and American food since 1959. It was one of about 150 Japanese-owned businesses in Lakeview’s Japanese American enclave, which thrived in the 60s and 70s. Among its signature dishes was akutagawa, a scramble of eggs, hamburger meat, bean sprouts, and other veggies served with rice and usually gravy; according to local food journalist and historian David Hammond, owner Tom Yamauchi devised it at the request of his friend George Akutagawa, who’d asked for “something special.” 

One fateful morning, Wood noticed another Hamburger King customer eating akutagawa. “I liked the look of it, and I ordered it and instantly fell in love,” he says. “I love gravy, and I love rice. If you include gravy and rice with almost anything, I’m gonna at least eat it and I’m gonna enjoy it.”

Wood moved to Wicker Park in 1987. He had a motorcycle, which he used to get to rehearsals in Pilsen for his band Shrimp Boat. After practice he’d often go to Chinatown for a late-night meal. Despite the distance, he also made frequent morning trips to Wrigleyville for akutagawa. In the late 80s, a friend told him that Jim’s Grill also served it. “I can say that at times in my life while I lived in Chicago, I mostly subsisted on that dish from either Jim’s or Hamburger King,” Wood says.

Few of Wood’s friends shared his enthusiasm for akutagawa, but Deck was an exception. “It was one of the things that Brian Deck and I would eat before we would go to work at the moving company called Student Movers,” Wood says. “We’d briefly worked there just to make money while we were building the recording studio. And that’s a great, fortifying meal.” 

Wood and Deck opened Idful in a Wicker Park strip mall at 1520 N. Damen in 1989. In late 1990, a local band called Dog booked Idful for its first sessions, and guitarist and vocalist Casey Rice befriended Wood. Wood introduced Rice to Jim’s Grill and passed along his enthusiasm for his favorite dish. 

“We would go up there for breakfast sometimes. We both had motorcycles—it was a nice cruise up there,” Rice says. “I don’t think I ever ordered anything except akutagawa.”

After Wood moved to California in 2000, he taught himself to cook akutagawa at home. “I reverse-engineered it here in LA many many times, and I think I do a pretty passable job of it,” he says. “It’s funny to make it, because nobody in my family will even try it. They recoil in horror, because, like Casey said, it looks like dog’s vomit.”

Brad’s akutagawa

By Brad Wood

a plate of akutagawa with rice and gravy accompanied by a mug of coffee and a smaller plate of buttered toast
This is arguably not a serving suggestion but a serving requirement. Credit: Brad Wood

Serves three
– 1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper
– 1/4 cup chopped white onion
– 2 cups mung bean sprouts
– 2T vegetable oil
– 1/2 lb ground beef
– 5 eggs, whisked
– 3 cups steamed white rice
– 1 package of brown gravy
– toasted bread with butter
– strong coffee
– soy sauce, salt, and pepper to taste

I created this breakfast recipe from memory. The goal is to make a dish in the style of the Japanese American short-order cooks of Chicago, so prepping the ingredients beforehand is essential. In our house, steamed rice is always ready in the rice cooker, so go buy a Zojirushi machine if you don’t have one already and get the rice made. Any gravy from a packet will do, but IKEA’s gravy is pretty agreeable, as is McCormick Brown. Cook according to directions on the package. The gravy is not optional; I do not make the rules.

In a skillet, brown the ground beef (I add salt and pepper) and set aside.

In the same skillet under medium heat, add a small amount of vegetable oil and sauté the green bell peppers, onion, and sprouts until semi-firm.

Increase the heat to medium-high and add the whisked eggs and browned beef to the skillet and fry it in the way of a real short-order cook—quickly and with distraction.

Place on a plate with the steamed rice and gravy and marvel at the simple beauty of it all. Serve with buttered toast, coffee, and soy sauce.

In 1992, Rice became an Idful engineer after Deck withdrew from the studio. Rice also played on sessions Wood was producing for Liz Phair, then a local singer-songwriter with three promising cassette demos to her name. Wood and Rice not only contributed to Exile in Guyville but also became part of Phair’s live band.

Wicker Park was an artistic hub long before summer 1993, when Guyville helped put it on everyone’s map. Trumfio had been visiting the neighborhood since the late 80s, drawn by hot spots such as Club Dreamerz and Phyllis’ Musical Inn. He moved there in late 1991, founding Kingsize Sound Labs with engineer Mike Hagler. He also heard about Jim’s, which reminded him of C&E Grill. “Jim’s Grill was the next level of that,” Trumfio says. “And there was kind of a hip factor.”

Wicker Park got the lion’s share of the attention that the national music press paid to Chicago, but the city’s indie infrastructure set up shop wherever it could. In 1989, foundational label and distributor Touch and Go moved into a warehouse near Western and Irving Park. The following year, UK label Southern Records opened a North American headquarters for its distribution operation in the same building. Soon thereafter, Cargo Records America owner Phil Hertz expanded the Canadian company’s Chicago-based U.S. distributor by moving to a space about a mile south at 3058 N. Clybourn. 

In late 1991, Bruce Adams took a job at Cargo, where he met domestic buyer Joel Leoschke. Jim’s Grill was a short drive northeast of Cargo’s headquarters, and lots of Adams’s new coworkers liked the place. Leoschke introduced Adams to the diner on a lunch break, and they often went as a group of two, using Jim’s as a space to discuss the music business apart from their colleagues. Adams shared the knowledge of indie label infrastructure that he’d picked up working part-time at Touch and Go. 

“We already knew we were on the same wavelength,” Adams says. “It was really just a way of sort of aligning ourselves together and becoming familiar with each other and comfortable.”

As Adams and Leoschke hashed out what they wanted from their label—its voice or lack thereof, its musical sensibilities, its direction—many of those conversations happened at Jim’s Grill or at Ten Cat Tavern, where they’d talk shop and shoot pool. In November 1993, Adams and Leoschke launched Kranky by releasing the album Prazision from Virginia ambient group Labradford, but because they kept working at Cargo for a while, they’d still go to Jim’s for lunch. 

The debut Kranky release, Labradford’s Prazision, came about due to scheming that went down at Jim’s Grill.

“It was really a place for us to talk, maybe summarize what we were doing,” Adams says. “For whatever reason, I knew a lot of my musician friends ate there, but they never seemed to eat there when I was there.”

The ideal diner is open 24/7, but Jim’s Grill had conspicuously short hours. In February 1996, Leah Eskin wrote a Reader story on Jim’s that says it opened at 7 AM and closed at 3:30 PM on weekdays (and an hour or two earlier on weekends). If you lived across town and stayed up late, like lots of underground musicians did, Jim’s Grill was hardly convenient. 

“I don’t think Jim’s Grill was as much within our sphere as maybe some other groups of musicians, or other people who maybe lived a little bit further north,” says engineer Ken Brown. Under the name Bundy K. Brown, he played in the initial lineups of Gastr del Sol and Tortoise in the early 90s. “We were all clustering around Wicker Park, Humboldt Park, and Ukrainian Village, which was very different.”

It was easier to get to Jim’s if you had a day job that wasn’t too far. In the 1990s, engineer and musician Mark Greenberg (who now plays in Eleventh Dream Day) lived in a loft space near Lake and Halsted with his bandmates in cheeky garage-lounge outfit the Coctails. By day, he worked as a booking assistant for Sue Miller at beloved Lincoln Park venue Lounge Ax. 

“We would listen to demo tapes every Monday, and we would often order and get those pancakes—the delicious vegetable pancakes—from Jim’s Grill,” Greenberg says. “I’m not even positive I had anything else but those. They were so good.”

In June 1992, Jillian Matson opened Blackout Records at 3729 N. Southport, next to the Music Box and a few blocks south of Jim’s Grill. For the previous year, that location had been home to the Pravda Records shop, which Matson managed, after it lost its lease at a space attached to Metro. When Pravda cofounder Kenn Goodman decided to sell off the label’s retail business, Matson bought much of his remaining inventory to launch Blackout. 

She knew the location wasn’t optimal—at that point, Wicker Park would’ve been better—but she stuck it out, buying stock directly from the Cargo and Touch and Go offices. Occasionally, she’d go to Jim’s Grill, which she’d heard about through friends in the scene. “I was young and I had to work all the time, and I’ve never had any money,” Matson says. “So it would be more of a treat.”

Blackout stuck out like a sore thumb in that gentrifying stretch of Lakeview, right up till it closed in 1997. To an extent, though, indie music fans would go where the records were. The shop hosted in-store performances by the likes of Eleventh Dream Day, Low, and Smashing Pumpkins. Matson employed local musicians as well. Jeff Tweedy worked a few shifts between bands, and she found a reliable, creative employee in Damon Locks, who at the time fronted Trenchmouth. “I still tell him he was my best employee,” Matson says.

Smashing Pumpkins perform at Blackout Records on July 11, 1992. This audio recording, hosted by the Internet Archive, was transferred by Henry Bent and uploaded by Spaldz. It includes six songs and part of a seventh.

Locks frequented Jim’s Grill with his bandmate Wayne Montana, Tortoise bassist Doug McCombs (who founded Brokeback in 1995), and Reader editor Kiki Yablon. “That was our four-top,” Montana says. “We used to go there all the time—like, almost every weekend, for years.” Montana and Locks lived in Logan Square at the time, and they’d catch a ride to brunch with McCombs and Yablon. “It was one of those tiny little spots that was not particularly easy to get to from where most of us lived,” Montana says. “It was definitely a destination place.”

Montana found plenty to love about Jim’s Grill: the fresh ingredients in the bibimbap, the squirt bottles for white vinegar and chili paste, the waitress who liked to tell him his order when he walked in the door. He suspects that years of bad road food sharpened his affection for tiny neighborhood restaurants like Jim’s. “Everyone likes to have their secret special little spot that not everyone goes to, and it’s a tiny little spot that’s really charming,” Montana says.

His read on Jim’s Grill as a secret is apt. The musicians I spoke to largely found it through word of mouth, and even if they’d heard about it, they might not bother to go. Brad Wood’s former Shrimp Boat bandmate Sam Prekop, for example, never made it to Jim’s Grill despite Wood’s akutagawa infatuation. Magas thought he’d gone to Jim’s Grill with his first set of Chicago roommates, engineer Elliot Dicks and Scissor Girls bassist and front woman Azita Youssefi, but Youssefi can’t remember setting foot in the place.

Poi Dog Pondering bandleader Frank Orrall says he went just once, in 1995, at the invitation of Cargo employee and Carrot Top Records founder Patrick Monaghan. Orrall signed his Carrot Top distribution deal in Jim’s Grill. 

Engineer and musician Jeremy Lemos first went to Jim’s Grill in the late 90s with his roommate at the time, avant-garde multi-instrumentalist Jim O’Rourke (half of the core duo of Gastr del Sol). Both musicians were vegetarians, and Lemos had trouble finding restaurants. “There were three places in the city where you could go eat anything off the menu,” he says. “That was one of the first places.”

In summer 1990, chef Joel Nickson opened his first Wishbone restaurant at 1800 W. Grand. It attracted lots of vegetarian musicians, including Elliot Dicks (one of Rice’s bandmates in Dog). “That was a regular spot,” Dicks says. “It was right across the street from the loft the Tortoise guys lived in. We were always all over there all the time.”

In the late 1990s, Dicks played in garage-rock trio the Nerves with another vegetarian, guitarist-singer Rob Datum. He introduced Dicks to Jim’s Grill. “All the punk rockers, all the musicians, and all the art people, they all knew the cheap spots—and especially there was a fair amount of vegetarians, so they kind of all knew where to go,” Dicks says.

And vegetarian musicians brought their nonvegetarian friends too. Albini first went to Jim’s Grill in the mid-1990s, during the construction of his current studio, Electrical Audio. He’d contracted engineer Bill Skibbe to help, and Skibbe and his wife, Jessica Ruffins, took him to Jim’s. (Magas thinks Skibbe and Ruffins introduced him to Jim’s too.) Albini guesses that he ate at Jim’s Grill about a dozen times. “I just went there because my friends liked it,” he says. “And I became fond of the food after eating there.”

“It fit in both with the diner culture and with this underground scene of musicians and arty people. It sort of reminded me of my first experience with underground culture, when I first came to Chicago.” 

Engineer and musician Steve Albini

For Lemos, Jim’s Grill was more than just a place where he didn’t have to settle for a meal of side orders; it became one of the anchors that helped orient him in Chicago. Shortly before graduating from Columbia College in 1999, he’d moved to O’Rourke’s Logan Square apartment from the suburbs. 

“I started making records with him,” Lemos says. “And that definitely got my foot in the door to working on cooler stuff with Drag City.” Within a few years, Lemos’s rapidly lengthening resumé would include a credit for engineering the final U.S. Maple album, Purple on Time, released by Drag City in 2003.

On weekends, Lemos and O’Rourke would often head to Jim’s to eat and then spend hours digging through records at half a dozen shops in the area. Lemos didn’t have much money, but if he chose carefully, he could afford lunch and an armful of records. “Sometimes we’d just spend all day going up and down Broadway, just record shopping,” he says. “The day usually started at Jim’s Grill.”

Ken Brown thinks he only ate at Jim’s Grill a couple times. In the mid-90s, he lived in various spots around Humboldt Park, Wicker Park, and Ukrainian Village, so he frequently visited Wishbone on weekends (he briefly lived nearby in the Tortoise loft) or hung out at Leo’s Lunchroom to linger over a late breakfast and recover from the previous night’s show. Brown loved diner food. “That was kind of what I lived off of for a long time,” he says. “I considered myself kind of an aficionado of greasy spoons in Chicago. You get Matt Lux and I in a room, and we’ll talk about corner diners for a long time.”

Lux’s knowledge of Chicago’s Korean restaurants also helped him bond with Brown. “My mom is Korean,” Brown says. “I lived in Korea for four years. I feel like I have a slightly informed palate with regard to that.” For Korean food, Brown favored San Soo Gab San at 5247 N. Western; he first went there with his Korean martial arts instructor at the time.

Growing up, Brown had a complicated relationship to his Korean heritage. “My mom basically didn’t cook Korean food because my dad didn’t like it,” he says. “She gave up eating kimchi for years because we weren’t allowed to have stinky shit in our fridge. So as a young adult, living in a city where there was a Korean American community was an interesting way for me to relearn about this thing that was missing in my upbringing.” As of 2019, Chicago had the fifth-largest Korean population among U.S. cities. 

In August 1992, two members of North Carolina band Seam—guitarist-vocalist Sooyoung Park and bassist Lexi Mitchell—moved to Chicago and put together a new lineup. (Mitchell was in grad school at UIC.) Brown joined the band for a brief stint, contributing to the 1993 EP Kernel, recorded with Wood at Idful. Brown remained friends with Park, continuing to appear on Seam releases for a few years. 

Park soon began to foreground his Asian American identity in his art. In 1994, after Mitchell left Seam and she and Park broke up, Park went to live in Seoul for a few months. There he met William Shin, who moved to Chicago and joined Seam on bass. In 1995, Shin and Park teamed up with Newcity music critic Ben Kim to compile and release a CD called Ear of the Dragon: 19 Asian-American Bands. It included respected indie acts from around the country (among them Versus from New York, aMiniature from San Diego, J Church from San Francisco, and Kicking Giant from Olympia, Washington) as well as Chicago acts such as Seam and Dolomite. Brown contributed a song under the name Slowpoke. 

YouTube video
Kicking Giant’s contribution to the 1995 compilation Ear of the Dragon.

The year Ear of the Dragon came out, Dave and Bill Choi opened Amitabul at 3418 N. Southport. Brown’s former Tortoise bandmate John Herndon became an instant fan, and so did Brown: “I was in love with that food,” he says.

Two important voices are missing from this story: Dave and Bill Choi. When I called Amitabul, Bill told me his brother had retired from the restaurant industry and was unlikely to talk. Bill declined to be interviewed as well. Jim’s Grill had been his brother’s restaurant, he explained, and he didn’t want to speak for Dave. Besides, Bill said, these days he’s focused on Amitabul.

No one I spoke to knew exactly when Jim’s Grill had closed. I found only one piece of documentary evidence about it online: in March 2006, Lemos had noticed Jim’s was gone and started a thread on the Electrical Audio forums. Unfortunately, given Lemos’s tendency to tour for long stretches, not even that dismayed post allows me to say with confidence that Jim’s closed in 2006 rather than, say, the last half of 2005.

Most of my interviewees loved Amitabul too. “We would take bands there,” Bruce Adams says. “Especially the first location in Lincoln Park, which was reasonably close to Lounge Ax. We were really enamored with the food.” 

Anthony Bourdain’s posthumous 2021 book, World Travel: An Irreverent Guide, includes a section about Chicago. Steve Albini contributed an essay of restaurant recommendations titled “Where I’d Take Tony, If He Were Still Here.” Among the hot dog joints, taquerias, and other meat-focused restaurants, Albini praised Amitabul. “Very wide menu, something for every palate,” he wrote. “It’s delicious.”

The first Amitabul was vegetarian, but its current incarnation, at 6207 N. Milwaukee, is explicitly vegan. I visited earlier this month and tried the mushroom bibimbap with brown rice, which lived up to all the praise I’d heard heaped on the restaurant. On my way out, in the building’s tiny vestibule, I noticed a collection of old photos of customers eating at Amitabul. I didn’t recognize any faces.