Soy & Pepper: Modern Korean Food?

After the reform of Canadian immigration laws in 1966, Canada’s Korean population grew from 2,000 in 1969 to almost 20,000 by 1980.  Naturally, the émigrés brought with them the flavours of their world and Canada was introduced to the exotic flavours of bulgogi and spicy, fermented cabbage called kim chi.  For the past 40 years, those two items have been the mainstays of Korean menus but a new generation of restaurateurs is set on changing that. Take Nongbu, an eatery with a focus on Korean street food, for example—just named Avenue magazine’s Best New Restaurant—with not a whiff of bulgogi to be found on the menu. Suddenly Korean food is hip, hot, and interesting again. It’s not surprising, then, to see another Korean restaurant open—this one proudly proclaiming “Modern Korean Eatery” on the signage.

Soy Pepper ext

A lovely family, originally from Seoul, opened Soy & Pepper in February. The mother is cooking, the daughter is serving, sometimes dad helps out. They’ve done a nice job on the space, creating an inviting ambiance with warm wood tones, light coloured walls, soft light, and live-edge tables.

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The menu features some items similar to Nongbu: jeon (pancake), ddeok (rice sticks) but also some dishes that are on the menus of every other Korean restaurant in Edmonton: hot pots, galbi, bibimbap, and yes, bulgogi.  The heat is manageable in the dishes, unlike Nongbu where some items, even for spice lovers, will have you crying and swearing at the same time.

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Cutting to the quick: Soy & Pepper’s dishes were big on price, small on amount and shy on flavour. Here’s what we ordered:

Top: Bulgogi $22    Bottom: Mandu (Potstickers) – 4 for $7.75

The potstickers are nicely made with thin, delicate dough and packed with a fair amount of pork, chive and onion filling. The flavour is similar to a thousand dumplings out there. Very typical, and nothing that really screamed modern or different.

The bulgogi (pictured above in background) is a good example of that ‘small, pricey and flavourless’ issue I mentioned. The $22 price tag raised eyebrows all around the table.

Royal Ddeok Pokki $9.50
Royal Ddeok Pokki $9.50

Soft rice sticks called ddeok are served with beef, vegetables, mushrooms in ganjang, a uniquely Korean soy sauce-like condiment made of fermented soy beans. The ganjang helps give the dish flavour and the vegetables are crisp. Tasty yes, but, again, small and pricey.

Three varieties of jeon (pancake) are offered: kabocha squash, beef, and kim chi. The beef pancake (yuk jeon) was not what I expected—that being a pancake like the more familiar haemul pajeon (seafood pancake). Rather, this dish consisted of 10 small pieces of beef, dipped in egg, then fried. It tasted like it looked: lacklustre.

Yuk Jeon $15
Yuk Jeon $15

Galbi are usually presented as ribs marinated in ganjang, in fact, the menu states they’re “grilled marinated beef short-ribs, Chef’s soy sauce based Galbi seasoning”, but our galbi came as a seasoned, ground pork, beef and rice stick mixture, formed into a log shape, grilled and cut into pieces.  Maybe the presentation is modern, because the dish itself is age-old. The ganjang is responsible for all the flavour here, which was a refreshing change. You get 12 pieces of meat, about the size of a large marshmallow. At $32 though? Very steep.

Ddeouk Galbi $32
Dduk Galbi $32

Wang don gasu is a fried, breaded pork loin in a sauce. The good news? It’s very tender; the bad news? It comes swimming in a nondescript gravy.

Wang don gasu $22
Wang don gasu $22

I wanted to avoid typical dishes because, after all, this restaurant is touting modernized food but I couldn’t say no to bibimbap,  a dish I’ve enjoyed for as long as I can remember and one that I’ve eaten at almost every Korean restaurant in Edmonton.

Bibimbap $22
Bibimbap $22

A bowl of rice is topped with sautéed seasonal items called namul  (flower root, bean sprout, carrot and zucchini) and usually bulgogi. There was no meat here and the rice comes topped with a hard egg, which doesn’t make sense because it’s the runny yolk, combined with gochujang ( a red child-based condiment), that unites all ingredients in a silky, rich flavouring. They did oblige us upon request of a soft yolk. The overall verdict on this bibimbap was not great; with no bulgogi, the dish lacked texture and umami, and too much gochujang overpowered everything else in the bowl.

We wanted to try the bossam, slow-roasted, marinated pork belly, but at 6 p.m., it wasn’t ready. We got excited to see Korean Fried chicken on the menu but then were told it’s only available Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Those two dishes may have saved us.

The biggest (and best) surprise came at the end of the meal in the ho ddeok, a warm, chewy pancake stuffed with sugar, honey, butter, cinnamon, nuts and topped with ice cream.

(R) pot-bingsoo and ho ddeok (L)
(R) pot-bingsoo and ho ddeok (L)

The pot-bingsoo is a pile of shaved ice topped with sweet red bean, sweetened condensed milk, chocolate and strawberry syrup, canned fruit cocktail (ugh)—so, basically, ice with sugar and more sugar. It might be an acquired taste.

The drinks are an odd assortment of this and that. There are a few rice wine-based bottled drinks available (Chum Churum, Chamisul and Makguli), and a Korean beer called Cass but then the list goes downhill with the addition of big production, bland brews like Coors Lite and Kokanee, and even weirder, Corona. The cocktails show potential with the use of soju and fermented juices but then fall off the rails by using Sprite as the mixer of choice in four out of eight drinks. The wines appear chosen for their price point; nothing more.

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I am perplexed by Soy & Pepper’s ‘modern Korean eatery’ claim. There was no big flavour revelation, not much new, nothing to really shock or excite us—except the staggering amount of our bill.

Where they shine: Service was fantastic. The server was very knowledgeable—a trait that is hard to find these days. And, the pancake dessert was a delicious surprise.

Soy & Pepper is at 11212 Jasper Ave. The website is half under construction and the other half doesn’t work, so check their Facebook page for more information.

[Although I reviewed this restaurant on CBC Edmonton AM, there has been a technical glitch and the audio file is unavailable at this time.]