St. Paul chef offers fresh takes on Korean classics


John Gleason, owner of Bap and Chicken, shows off the art in the dining area of the restaurant. Bap and Chicken melds Korean and Midwestern cuisines in a reflection of his identities. Photo by Ben White ’21.

Ben White, Staff Writer

You can imagine my surprise when, upon returning from study abroad, I found no fewer than four new restaurants in the Mac-Groveland neighborhood. Among them is Bap and Chicken, the brainchild of industry veteran John Gleason, serving made-from-scratch Korean fair with a Minnesotan twist.

With an updated menu on the way — along with weekly specials like the Monday Date Night — Bap and Chicken is proving itself to be one of the most exciting spots on Grand Avenue. Last Monday, I sat down with Gleason to learn more.

The first thing you notice walking into the restaurant is the design. The walls are splashed with the colors of the South Korean flag, a long bar sits in front of a shelf stacked high with various domestic and Korean spirits and a K-Pop soundtrack jams in the background. Together, these elements give the restaurant a modern vibe and contribute to a total sensory experience — one that Gleason explains is completely intentional.

“You know, when you go out to eat, the food can taste great, the drinks can taste great, but a lot of times, people don’t necessarily remember exactly what they ate or exactly what they drank,” Gleason said. “But they do remember that they had a really good time.”

Put simply, Bap and Chicken pays close attention to all aspects of the guests’ experience and strives to make the atmosphere just as great as the food — a tall order considering just how unforgettable its menu is.

As a South Korean adoptee raised in St. Paul, Gleason created a menu that reflects his unique identity and offers only the foods he loves to cook. His specialty is bibimbap, bibim is Korean for ‘mixing various ingredients’ and bap is ‘rice.’ Among the many bibimbap options included are Korean classics like the self-titled bap and chicken, along with some sporting surprising Minnesota twists like the Uff-dah, which combines cheese-curds with bacon wrapped fried spam. Equally as important on the menu is the K.F.C. (Korean Fried Chicken). The K.F.C. is twice fried in tempura batter to create a wonderfully crisp shell and it’s hand-painted with your choice of made-from-scratch sauce. Finally, there is a wide array of vegetarian Korean bar snacks (think house-made kimchi) which are perfect to share.

When asked about the variety on the menu, Gleason answered saying he hopes his guests will come to Bap and Chicken “expecting the unexpected” and strives to keep not only the ingredients, but also each visit fresh. On how he marries Korean and midwestern flavors, Gleason told me that the mild flavors of two culinary styles actually mix quite well together.

Regarding the fried chicken, Gleason joked, “Who doesn’t like fried chicken?”

Over my two visits to Bap and Chicken, I tried the signature bap and chicken bibimbap and the K.F.C. sandwich. The K.F.C. sandwich is a great deal, offering a gigantic chicken sandwich with a side of kimchi for just 10 dollars. I loved the hard tempura shell on the chicken which gave a satisfying crunch to each bite and paired really well with the soft bun. Adding to the mix was a tangy, refreshing cabbage-cucumber slaw and a spicy mayo, both complementing the sandwich without overpowering the true star of the show, that twice-fried Korean chicken.

As much as I liked the K.F.C. sandwich, the chicken bibimbap was even better. This time, the same Korean fried chicken was placed on a bed of rice along with caulini, kimchi, oyster mushrooms, bok choy and a soft poached egg. Tried individually, the ingredients were clearly fresh, with their mild flavors and distinct textures bouncing off each other to create something really interesting.

The caulini was my personal favorite, but tied for a close second was the bok choy and oyster mushrooms, each bringing a sense of coolness to the base of warm, fluffy rice. On the side, Gleason throws in a generous portion of gochujang sauce which gives the mild flavors of the veggies a much welcome kick. It was shockingly good.

With its focus on fresh, fun ingredients, Bap and Chicken has quickly become not only one of my favorite spots in the Twin Cities, but also one of the easiest restaurants for me to recommend. It should be approached with an open mind, and expectations of an experience totally unique. In fact, Gleason was quick to dismiss ideas that Bap and Chicken is just another Korean fusion restaurant.

“I don’t call it fusion, I just call it the food of who I am,” Gleason said. “It’s what I love to cook. It’s what I love to eat.”

In the dining room is a board with photos of other adoptees who come through Bap and Chicken — evidence that Gleason is not only interested in sharing his identity through his food, but also creating a welcoming community inside. Overall, Bap and Chicken is one of the best restaurants on Grand Avenue, and I cannot find a bad thing to say about it. Go embrace the K-Pop!

Bap and Chicken is located on 1328 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, MN and is open from 11:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday.