Gang­nam BBQ gets saucy

Com­fort­ing sweet­ness and ad­dic­tive heat make Gang­nam Korean BBQ’s flavour un­for­get­table.

The Coast - - FRONT PAGE - BY MELISSA BUOTE

Gang­nam Korean BBQ 1261 Bar­ring­ton Street Mon-Sat 11am-10pm Sun 12-9pm

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.

A bon­chan trio and hot stone bibim­bap.

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