K Pop Jo chef Chini Bilokur at Lindberg's Tavern in Springfield, Missouri
Chini Bilokur has started serving Korean dishes every Monday at Lindberg's Tavern on historic Commercial Street. (Photo by Ryan Collins)

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Springfield's oldest bar, Lindberg's Tavern, has re-opened on Mondays to take customers on a culinary journey straight to the streets of Seoul, Korea.

Lindberg's Kitchen Manager Chini Bilokur runs the Korean food pop-up, called K Bop Jo. Under her control, the kitchen transforms to dish out traditional plates that she grew up eating in Seoul, where she lived until she was 17, she said. The pop-up runs from 5 to 8 p.m. every Monday night at the bar and restaurant, located at 318 W. Commercial St.

Lindberg's Tavern, which has sat on the corner of Commercial Street and North Campbell Avenue in some form since the late-1800s, has been closed on Mondays since 2015, said co-owner Eric Weiler. Weiler and his business partner, Ryan Dock, purchased the Springfield staple in 2009 and started serving food at the tavern in August 2015.

The owners have specifically reopened the bar and restaurant Monday nights to support Bilokur in this new endeavor. Weiler and his fiancé, Cacey Ball, are even developing a Korea-inspired cocktail menu.

All of the food will have “love in there,” Bilokur said, “I just want to feed some people. Let them leave here happy with a full belly.”

Lindberg's Tavern, the oldest tavern in Springfield, sits at the corner of Commercial Street and North Campbell Avenue. (Photo by Ryan Collins)

The pop-up is a switch-up for Springfield's oldest tavern with a list of traditions as long as its history. In the late-1800s, the building where the bar stands got its start as a brothel, with seven tenants that were referred to as “inmates” by the census of the time, according to the company history printed on its menu. It was around that time that the mahogany and oak bar was built and installed.

J.C. “Carl” Lindberg started the bar during prohibition. After prohibition, Lindberg ran the business for decades, through the Roaring '20s and the Great Depression. When Weiler and Dock took over Lindberg's Tavern in 2009, they set out to embrace the rich history of the building. With the pop-up Monday evenings, the business pair are somewhat handing the torch to Bilokur to make new history, and they feel it's in safe hands.

“We wouldn't allow just anyone to do this at our restaurant,” Weiler said in a text message. “(Bilokur) is a gifted chef.”

It's all about the soups and the side-fixings

When it comes to Korean food, it boils down to three main components, Bilokur said.

“A lot of Korean food has like rice, a whole bunch of side dishes and soup is like the main” part, Bilokur said. “We don't always have meat because we grew up poor.”

The menu will change every week, highlighting meals of Bilokur's childhood, the chef said. One of the first dishes she is trying to perfect is Tteokbokki, which is basically a simmered rice cake, and she hopes to serve it to customers soon.

The version Bilokur makes has rice cakes, chili paste, fish cake and cabbage. The real treat of the dish is the sides it comes with, like boiled eggs and dumplings, that can be combined with the main dish for the ultimate flavor.

Bulgogi, thinly sliced meat marinated in soy sauce, served at Lindberg's Tavern Korean food pop-up, K Bop Jo. (Photo provided by Lindberg's Tavern)

Bilokur had the idea to transform Lindberg's for a Korean pop-up about a month ago, and the first test-run was May 6, she said. The chef and staff served more than 30 customers that evening. She's aiming for about three main entrees each week, but once she gets in the kitchen, there's no telling how many dishes she will come up with.

“Once I have an open kitchen and I got all these ingredients, you just cook, you know?” Bilokur said.

Forced into the kitchen? Might as well cook

The specialty on the menu for the premier was Bilokur's Sweet Potato Noodles with vegetables. The noodles were gluten-free, and it was served with bulgogi, or thinly sliced beef marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, onion, garlic and more.

Bilokur's culinary prowess, surprisingly, is something fairly new for her. She never planned to be in a kitchen until she was forced to. Her mother was the cook of the household, and everything Bilokur does now is an effort of imitation.

When her mother had to retire to a care facility, Bilokur said she was forced to pick up the reins and start figuring out her mother's Korean dishes. Her kids wouldn't eat anything else.

“I brought them, like, Burger King and they were like, ‘No, I’m not having this,'” Bilokur said. “So, I had to learn right there.”

Sweet Soy New Potatoes at K Bop Jo, a Korean food pop-up at Lindberg's Tavern every Monday night. (Photo provided by Lindberg's Tavern)

That was about a decade ago, and Bilokur, who said she always found cooking unappealing prior, discovered her niche. She's spent time in the kitchen since perfecting the art of Korean cooking. She was born and raised in Seoul, moving to the United States, and after a few other stops, landing in Springfield at the age of 17.

“My mom only had, like, limited seasonings,” Bilokur said. “I just had to imitate what I was eating growing up. And I guess I got fed really good food because I can imitate hers okay.”

A decade ago, “I didn't even know what boiling water was,” the chef said.

The kitchen manager is coming up on her three-year anniversary at Lindberg's in June 2024. Her bosses praise her work ethic and culinary skills, key reasons they're both willing to support her in this new endeavor, Weiler said.

“She's an amazing coworker, leader,” Weiler said. “She does not stop working when she's here. So, anything we can do to help her out, we're gonna go for it.”

“I got the best bosses in the world,” Bilokur said with a smile. “Their support is just awesome.”

Korea-inspired cocktail menu

Weiler and his fiancée, seasoned Springfield bartender Cacey Ball, are in the process of setting a specialty cocktail menu only available during the Monday night Korean pop-up.

There's the Lost Seoul, featuring the Korean rice liquor Soju, with pineapple, lime, ginger syrup and gochujang, or chili paste. The delicate drink is garnished with brûléed pineapple, berries and mint.

The K Bop Jo pop-up at Lindberg's Tavern serves the Lost Seoul, featuring Soju, pineapple, lime, ginger syrup and Gochujang, or chili paste. (Photo provided by Lindberg's Tavern)

“Her food is really sweet and savory a lot of the time and these cocktails kind of matched up with it a little bit,” Weiler said.

The bartending pair also came up with their own take on a Korean margarita. Called the Kimchini, the drink has Korean rice wine, lime juice, tequila and kimchi, or salted and fermented vegetables.

The Kimchini “was kind of a riff on a spicy margarita, but it had Korean ingredients as well,” Weiler said. “So, it was a fusion drink.”

Weiler and Ball plan to have about five set cocktails for the pop-up. The process has been fun for the two bartenders, giving them the opportunity to dabble in Korean liquor and wine. You can find them slinging drinks behind the bar on Monday nights for now, but Weiler believes Bilokur's pop-up will be self-sufficient soon.

“We wanted to support her,” Weiler said. “We’re helping out right now, but I think it will be self-sustainable in a little while and we can step back completely and just let her do her thing.”

First steps in a chef's dream of a food truck and her own business

Lindberg's Tavern is the oldest tavern in Springfield. The building dates back to the late-1800's, when it was a brothel. (Photo by Ryan Collins)

Ever since her mother died, Bilokur said she has had the dream of owning her own food truck, serving up traditional Korean dishes to the Springfield metro. K Bop Jo is her first step in making that dream a reality.

The pop-up at Lindberg's will allow her to hone in on customer preferences and perfect dishes that she has spent years imitating, she said. While the food truck is still a long way off, K Bop Jo will help get her name out there.

Even though she's spent years cooking for customers at Lindberg's, Bilokur still gets so nervous she can't watch them eat, she said.

“I'm a shy cook,” Bilokur said. “I can't watch them eat. I'm always scared. So, this is to build my confidence, too.”

Ryan Collins

Ryan Collins is the business and economic development reporter for the Hauxeda. Collins graduated from Glendale High School in 2011 before studying journalism and economics at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He previously worked for Bloomberg News. Contact him at (417) 849-2570 or rcollins@hauxeda.com. More by Ryan Collins