No Korean meal is complete without banchan. These little plates – a wide array of braised, fermented, pan-fried, steamed, stir-fried and stewed dishes – are at every meal. In the West, they are considered side dishes, but no matter how many dishes are served, they are key to the communal nature of the kitchen. Aside from individual rice bowls, other dishes are shared, helping people around the table bond around the same tastes and flavors. For some, banchan is the meal.
Four banchan accompany many dishes at Kitchener’s Korean BBQ Restaurant. It’s a changing selection – for this review’s take-out, the lids are lifted to reveal contrasting and complementary tastes and textures that highlight a meal marked by rich, sweet and spicy dishes. Gamja jorim – firm but productive cubes of potatoes braised in a sweet soy sauce liqueur. Kimchee – funky, salty and spicy fermented cabbage. Odeng – slices of chewy fish cake and sweet onions, simmered in a brine speckled with gochugaru with an underlying sweetness. Sookju namul – blanched, tender and crunchy bean sprouts kissed with sesame oil.
“I always buy bean sprouts from the Chinese market every morning,” said Chesong Yang, during a short lull in a comfortably busy early afternoon. “Because bean sprouts have to be very fresh, they are prepared every day. By the time we close, it’s done.
About seven years ago, Yang and his wife Bokhyeon Yang Ki bought the small restaurant on the second floor of Hong Kong Plaza in King and Eby. Hailing from Seoul, South Korea, they owned a sushi restaurant in Waterloo for 13 years before taking over one in downtown Kitchener.
Their a la carte menu offers nearly three dozen dishes, drawn from recipes supplied with the restaurant and from their own. Each week, they process about 13 kilograms of cabbage to ferment into kimchee. The dumpling dough is kneaded and rolled. There is a nice balance in their cooking sauces and marinades – no matter how hard I try, few secrets are disclosed.
“My wife does everything,” Yang said. And everything at the Korean BBQ restaurant is fine.
Slices of green onion float in the carmine-red gamjatang. The six-hour simmer of this pork bone soup ($ 11.99) brings out the goodness of the bones, creating a rich, salty broth. The tender meat comes off at the slightest nudge. There is a little fire in this bowl, but not too much – the rice can dampen the heat, for those who need it.
Plump mushroom slices, crunchy vegetable fillets, and thinly sliced beef skin in a stretchy, slippery glass sweet potato noodle tangle ($ 11.49). It is a tasty japchae with hints of sweetness and nutty sesame.
Korean BBQ offers several combination plates for groups of two to six, allowing you to choose from many dishes on the menu. Combination A ($ 30.99) includes three options, two sides of rice and the banchan set. Our selections – Steamed Dumplings, Galbi and the Pork and Kimchee, Fried with Hot Sauce (there’s an extra $ 1 for each of the latter two) – rounded out a good sample of the restaurant’s offerings.
Their juicy ravioli are stuffed with pork sprinkled with green onions, wrapped in a delicately folded dough. They are steamed before being sizzled in a skillet and arrive with a sweet and tangy dipping sauce.
Each of the galbi’s well-marbled grilled prime rib is rich and succulent. They perfectly combine the flavors of the sweet and salty marinade with those that can only come from the grill.
The slices of pork belly and kimchee – well balanced fat and meat – contrast well with the crunchiness and crispness of the kimchee. Add the restaurant’s special house sauce to the pan and it makes my nose vibrate. A good tingling.
Most of their business since the pandemic has been take out and delivery, with a growing number of regulars finding them through DoorDash. It is true that we find good and tasty things in small places that are often overlooked. As a family-friendly place that serves delicious favorite dishes, Korean barbecue shouldn’t be overlooked.
Korean barbecue restaurant
265 King Street East, Suite 204, Kitchener, ON
Hours: Tuesday to Sunday: 11:30 am – 9:00 pm; Monday: closed.
Menu: Casual Korean restaurant offering well-known dishes, from noodles and pancakes to rice dishes, stews and grilled meats. Noodle dishes include japchae and naengmyeon. Rice dishes include bibimbap, pork and kimchee and bulgogi. Combination plates for two to six people. Banchan accompanies most dishes. Some Chinese and Japanese dishes. Some vegetarian options. Menus on the site. Those who eat out may want to take advantage of the table grills.
Payment: Cash, debit, Mastercard, Visa
How to get your food: Walk-in, pre-ordered pickup and dinner on site.
Accessibility: Limit. The restaurant is on the second floor, accessible by several sets of stairs. The entrance to the restaurant does not have automatic opening. The dining rooms are bright and well-lit. Bilingual illustrated menu (English and Korean). A few blocks from the Kitchener Market light rail stop. Large street and paid parking a few blocks away.
The law project: $ 63.81 for one each: soup, noodle dish, Combo A (for two: three selections, two sides of rice, four banchan)
Ordering food in the time of the coronavirus: As restaurants make day-to-day decisions, check their social networks or call them for updates. Lists of restaurants open while dining halls are closed can be found at bit.ly/3d2JV74 and wilmotstrongertogether.ca; a crowdsourced list is on Facebook’s Food In The Waterloo Region at bit.ly/3d1cKAX.