Tucked in off of Highland Road just around the corner…
Korean BBQ Restaurant
Unit 204-265 King Street E, Kitchener
Lunch for two with tea before taxes: $28
Korean food is making headway into the general restaurant scene, food trendologists tell us. That’s apparent if you look at its popularity in Toronto, for instance.
In Waterloo Region, it’s less obvious unless you look really hard. In downtown Kitchener, rapidly becoming a delectable hotbed of ethnic foods and cooking ingredients, Korean BBQ Restaurant is tucked just off King Street in the east end in three-storey, balconied Hong Kong Plaza beneath a non-functioning fountain and behind wrought-iron railings. It’s the kind of quirky architecture that makes a downtown wonderfully gritty and diverse.
Inside the place is an unadorned, simple table and chairs mom and pop enterprise—Won Seok Chung and Mae Ji Chung (Mae Ji does the cooking) came from Seoul, South Korea about a decade ago and opened Korean BBQ about five years ago.
They bring you an order slip and pen and a first cup of roasted corn tea from a large urn; after that, it’s self-serve. The tea is musty, heady, rich: delicious.
The couple serve what they call “the taste of original Korean dishes,” and are ahead of the game when it comes to the current wave of Korean cooking. Lunch specials are value-laden, packed with flavour, and served with chopsticks and a traditional long spoon.
Also traditional are four Korean banchan side dishes that accompany: chunks of potato in a hoisin-like sauce, mild strips of fish cake, refreshing vegetables like bean sprouts and cucumber and carrots cut into matchsticks with seaweed in a slightly tangy vinaigrette, and kimchi, the Korean fermented cabbage with onions and chillies which is a national dish that has a bit of a spicy-heat kick to it and which appears on Korean tables regularly. I love its blending of spice and refrigerator cool.
Korean pajeon is a dense seafood “pancake” that is packed with shrimp, squid, and the clean, crisp flavour of scallions that combined come together to make a very filling appetizer that two could share.
There are steaming soups and stews, galbi ribs and bulgogi—thin strips of barbequed marinated beef and vegetable that sizzles and spits on cast iron while it delivers a complex balance of sweet and sour, and sharp spices. A chicken barbecue with thick udon noodles comes similarly sizzling on cast iron and is an excellent dish that can be quite spicy (but inconsistently so) depending on the day you order it.
My favourite is bibimbap. At $10, it’s a superb rice meal in a bowl—a rocking hot stone dolsot bowl. Tender thin-shaved beef, spinach, daikon, carrot, and heady mushrooms are topped with a sunny-side up egg. Squirt in some thick ketchup-like red-pepper sauce that is not too hot at all and mix the lot together and you’ve got a divine lunch indeed. It’s probably one of my favourites.
For me, bibimbap is perfection in a bowl. Dig deep: beneath the layers the sweet sticky rice hugs the stone and, aided by sesame oil, cooks to wonderfully golden crispiness. It’s like candy for lunch.