Feb. 13, 2013 - Issue #904: The Sugar Trade
A culinary go-to in the making
Or at least it won't be much longer, once the proprietorship of Won Jung Gak's new downtown premises gets around to changing the signage. For now, it's operating incognito, disguised as its predecessor, a fair-to-middlin' Vietnamese operation called Basil Leaf not far from The Brick on 100 Street.
The real cause for celebration is that Korean food has finally made its way across the North Saskatchewan River. By some weird turn of fate, all of Edmonton's purveyors of bulgogi and other Korean comestibles that I've ever patronized have been situated to the south, including Won Jung Gak's original location in some godforsaken industrial area just off Argyll Road. So to be able to straggle just a few blocks out of the downtown core and enjoy Chef Fu Chang Yang's lengthy bill of fare is a treat indeed.
The new digs are spacious and, to be honest, little altered from their Vietnamese incarnation, unless you take into account the greenish rings burned into the tabletops by teeming tureens of Korean soup. Things were slow but steady on a Friday night, which entitled the co-diner and me to friendly, attentive service above and beyond the call of duty. We certainly needed the help assembling our repast out of more than 100 menu selections of Korean and Chinese provenance.
My co-diner's imagination had been captured by ja jang myun ($9), a noodle dish topped with black bean sauce. After some wrangling, and a little advice from our server, we decided to try out the kitchen on the fundamentals: beef bulgogi ($14) and dol sot bibimbap ($13.50). Rest assured that you can order your preferred dishes by number, rather than humiliating yourself trying to verbally replicate the perplexing syllables of Anglicized Korean, which are replete with doubled B's and J's all over the place.
I ordered Cass ($4.50), a generic, but light n' fizzy Korean lager ideal for washing down the robust, savoury and sometimes spicy flavours we were expecting to encounter, then looked on perplexed as the co-diner asked for a glass of red wine, knowing as I did from harsh experience that there are just some places you don't order red wine. To be fair, it was a generous portion of wine for five bucks, but a whiff of it indicated it came from a bottle that had been open for some time and that, even at the peak of its freshness, it probably tasted a bit like fruit punch. My co-diner set it aside and made do with the provided green tea.
Things improved greatly from there. At once we were provided with banchan, the traditional assortment of crunchy pickles, salads and veggies that start off any Korean meal. But even in this, Won Jung Gak outdid itself, offering not just bean sprout salad and kim chi, but the yellow-tinted pickled daikon I usually associate with sushi, lightly blanched broccoli with chopped red pepper, fiery pickled turnip steeped in ginger, rice and black bean paste. But we didn't even get to sample the banchan before the rest of our food arrived, along with a sturdy pair of kitchen shears for dealing with recalcitrant noodles.
The bulgogi—shaggy masses of marinated beef tossed with carrots, shiitake mushrooms and green onions —came on a sizzling platter with a side of rice. The chef counterpoints the savouriness of soy sauce and sesame oil by adding fruit and honey to the marinade, which is every bit as delicious as it sounds. More quality control in keeping inedibly chewy rinds of gristle to a minimum would have enhanced the experience.
Bibimbap, if you're not familiar, is a preparation of sliced veggies—carrot, onion, mushroom, zucchini, spinach, sprouts—and, in this case, marinated beef served over rice with a fried egg on top. We had the "dol sot" version, with the above components served in a superhot stone bowl that causes the contents to become crispy, and I was surprised to see a layer of fresh chopped lettuce capping the dish. To eat, one squirts on a sweet and spicy condiment called gochujang, then mixes everything together—spreading around the creamy, soft egg in the process—to a very satisfying effect.
Last, but certainly not least, was the ja jang myun. Its long, spaghetti-like rice noodles were just barely discernible under a thick, light-absorbing layer of black bean sauce that also concealed slips of fried onion and chunks of roasted potato. If you're acquainted with Chinese black bean sauce, this is completely different, with a consistency a bit like hoisin, but much darker, and a complex, earthy flavour with just a hint of sweetness that my co-diner likened to molasses, while I thought it tasted a bit like cocoa. Either way, it was delicious and elevated an otherwise simple dish of noodles to memorable heights, though I found it a little troubling when I put the leftovers in the microwave the next day and the black bean sauce seemed to move across the plate and enfold everything in its inky embrace.
To be sure, there were lots of leftovers and, with the beverages, the tab still came in under $50. Chef Yang's son, who runs the front of house, cheerfully chatted us up at the till and promised to remember us so he could make sure we tried their most popular item, the seafood pancake, upon our return. Our return, I'll admit, is a foregone conclusion. I feel like my education in Korean cuisine—now more conveniently located than ever—is just beginning.
Won Jung Gak
10023 – 107 Ave
780.705.9953 vueweekly.com comments: powered by Disqus
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