The first time I had Korean food was around 15 years ago. Jim’s Grill was a little greasy spoon not far from Wrigleyville, in Chicago. It was tiny, just a handful of tables with bright orange swivel seats and chipped counters. The menu was simple: Noodles, soups, bibimbap, bulgogi. It was the first place I’d go on every trip to Chicago that followed.
I always got pajeon.
The pancakes were crisp-edged and chewy, stacked on a pile of steamed rice. Each cake had a tangle of bean sprouts, scallions, sweet potato and carrot. I’d grab a squeeze bottle and smother them in the house chili sauce. It was my first experience with gochujang: Earthy and sweet, tangy and spicy, love at first bite. I once convinced the owner to jar some up for me to bring it home. One of the great regrets of my life is forgetting that jar in my friend’s fridge. I never forgot that flavour, though.
Jim’s eventually closed but Korean restaurants started popping up in Halifax with more regularity. I can’t name a single one that has been a real disappointment. I am particularly fond of Arirang because its banchan side dishes tend to include my favourites: Gamja jorim, potatoes braised in sweetened soy sauce, and musaengchae, a crunchy daikon salad spiced with hot pepper flakes.
This past spring added Gangnam Korean BBQ to the mix when it opened on Barrington Street next door to Bearly’s, taking over the old space that housed Pars Restaurant and before that Talay Thai. The decor has not changed much. The warm wood panelling on the walls reflects a sort of golden warmth into the space. Plants fill up the window that run across the front of the room. There is a quiet soundtrack of K-Pop punctuated by sizzles from the table-top grills and a little chime that twinkles whenever the door to the restaurant opens.
I drop in on a whim, by myself. The menu makes it clear that the best experience would be had with a group; the hot pot menu alone would be worthy of several trips.
Never having met a rice cake I didn’t want to eat, I start my meal with the royal rice cake ($8.99), or gungjung-tteokbokki, a stir-fried rice cake dish served in a sweet, thickened soy sauce. It’s soupier than I expect, everything is swimming in a cloudy sheen of thickened soy sauce. The fat cylindrical rice cakes give heft and chew while ribbons of zucchini and carrot, mushrooms, fatty strips of beef bulgogi and fish cake triangles—Korean fish cakes are thin and floppy, almost like big noodles, generally made with some combination of potato, wheat and fish paste—round out the dish. I will always prefer the spicier tteokbokki given heat from gochujang and gochugaru pepper flakes, but there is sweet comfort here.
A bowl of steamed rice and a trio of banchan accompany the rice cakes. There is cabbage kimchi, gamjachae bokkeum, a simple dish of julienned potato and doljaban-muchim, a seasoned seaweed salad. I am not even on my second bite when the hot stone bibimbap ($13.95) arrives.
It’s a standard issue bibimbap, rays of vegetables—bean sprouts, carrots, zucchini, mushroom, daikon—and thin strips of tenderized meat fanning out from a sunny egg that sits on the rice. The rice buried at the bottom of the dish shatters with crispness from the sear of the bowl. The gochujang sauce, which I use like a toddler uses ketchup, adds that familiar note of fermented honeyed heat.
My server stops by to see if I’d like more kimchi. Having eaten all of my banchan and the bibimbap I am unable to return to that second bite of the royal rice cake so my server helps me pack it up to take home. When I pack up the rice, I give the gochujang bottle a tight squeeze, soaking it in sauce before snapping the lid on the container. No regrets.
Gangnam Korean BBQ
1261 Barrington Street