What Seoul needs today are low-to-mid range Chinese takeout restaurants. There are very few here and students are begging for authentic North American-style grub, like sweet & sour chicken balls, egg foo yong, chicken chow mein. Somebody clearly needs to fill this void (or maybe not). There is a Chinese-Canadian restaurant in Itaewon, but it’s pricey and high-brow: Ho Lee Chow. Same branding, same menu, possibly the same owners of what was once a popular take-out and delivery chain in Toronto, but costs you an arm-and-a-leg to dine there. Oh, and they don’t deliver, unlike McDonalds or so many of the other franchises here. There are more burger franchises in Seoul than you can shake your buns at. I went to check out some of the better franchises today. I wanted to see how they executed their menu; how for instance, when McDonalds was pumping out millions of Big Macs a day, other burger joints were making patties more familiar to the native palate.
The two best franchises, albeit not on a grand scale, were BURGER HUNTER and LITTLE JAKOB’S. Both offered ground bulgogi burgers (one was really a sandwich), with pickled radishes or fries on the side. Alongside kalbi (short ribs)- which is really best served as a steak sandwich- it is something I had been thinking about for our restaurant. Korean-style burgers: will Torontonians go for it? They love bulgogi- that’s a given. (When it is listed at #23 on World’s 50 most delicious foods readers’ poll compiled by CNN in 2011, you know you are not being a genius when you put it on a menu.) Bulgogi is thinly-sliced cuts of sirloin, marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic and pepper for a few hours. There is some fat on the meat, but not much, which is why the marinating helps enhance the meat. It’s grilled on a flatiron or perforated dome griddles (hence the meaning of the name in English: “fire meat”), served on a searing iron pan with side dishes and rice. But if you grind it up, shape a patty out of it, and serve it on a bun with fries on the side, will people get it? Sure, my “foodie” and industry friends would say, “duh, that’s a no-brainer”, but they are not my customers, just disappointed support beams to lean on when it didn’t work out and we were all left tossing our heads like a salad and tearing the labels off beer bottles. Canadians love burgers. Canadians love bulgogi. Therefore Canadians love bulgogi burgers. Tautalogical reasoning, I found over the years, is better left to philosophers and not restaurateurs. I really liked this spicy one from Burger Hunter, with loads of carmelized onions on it, but thought it might be too spicy for the average Torontonian’s palate. The bun was all wrong- working too hard for textural contrast- but the meat was cooked perfectly and, yes, there was that beautiful residual sweetness that people have come to love about bulgogi. Hmm…
All that meat and deep-fried potatoes made me want to see something fresh, possibly alive. I had been preparing my stomach to eat live octopus (remember the movie, “OLD BOY”?) later in the week, so it was a good time to familiarize myself with fresh fish. With most of my professional life in Japanese restaurants, fish markets are my favourite places in the world. I prefer it over, um, reading Einstein’s General Theory of Relavitity and even last-call karaoke with college students. There was one that catered to high end clients (think Pusateri’s in Toronto), so off I went to see what kind of fish Korea’s well-heeled folk liked to eat.
Nothing out of the ordinary: beltfish, skate, giant prawns, orange roughy-like googly-eyed deep fish, corvina. Fish that are at the heart of some of the world’s greatest unknown seafood stews. We took some home to prepare our own version of my favourite spicy stew. It was pretty spectacular. Oh, and the Korean expression is “JO-TAH!” which means that it was so good, it might make it on the menu back in Toronto.