Before this Won Jung Gak opened at 10023-107th, making your way to the original location in the concrete bowels of a south side industrial area required the combined forces of a homing pigeon and a Sherpa guide – or at the very least, a GPS. And even when you found yourself on its doorstep, you still wondered if you had indeed arrived. Finding the second location is a bit easier although the sign above the door says Basil Leaf and has been that way since Won Jung Gak opened last fall (not a few weeks ago as I stated on CBC Radio). The posters on the door let you know you’ve arrived.
For those familiar with Won Jung Gak, you won’t find much in the way of surprises; the menu is more or less the same as the 62 Avenue location. The interior, however, is most definitely different. The obvious difference is the space: bright and open with no where to hide, unlike the south-side location where diners sit tucked-away in booths and dark corners.
You will have no choice but to notice the Korean pop music videos playing on several large-screen TVs, and you will either be horrified or captivated by what shows up on those screens. Your appetite for something more than food may be whetted before your order is even taken.
Right, then. Now that I’ve got your attention, let’s get back to the menu:
If you’re a fan of Korean food, you’re probably familiar with dishes like beef bulgogi (grilled, marinated beef, chicken or pork) or galbi (grilled, marinated beef or pork short ribs) and the folks at Won Jung Gak do both of those dishes in very fine style. If I were to go back, I’d order the galbi and not share it. The meat was a bit sinewy in parts but had a wonderful flavour of garlic and sesame with just a smidgen of sweetness. Four of us devoured these ribs in two minutes flat making it an expensive dish at a consumable rate of $10.75/minute.
I love Korean food–been eating it for years–but I always find myself ordering a few tried and true favourites. I was ready for something new: enter Gamjatang, a hot pot of pork meat attached to vertebrae and simmered in a chilli-enhanced broth. The portion serves 2 to 3 people with a bowl piled high of meaty spine bits, stringy green vegetable and a couple of hunks of potato bathing in a menacing-looking broth. It was an unwieldily adventure, having to pick and poke at the bones to stab and grab at the meat. Overall, the soup was bland and the meat was dry. It was a surprisingly unsatisfying dish, and for $35, an expensive one to boot.
Thankfully the kimchi mandu turned things around. These dumplings were delicate parcels of kimchi-spiked, gingery ground pork, and served with a sweet vinegar for dipping.
Haemul pajeon is a seafood and green onion pancake, and at Won Jung Gak, they make theirs 14 inches across at an $18.50 price tag. There was an overabundance of green onions and grease, and a very sad showing of seafood.
I returned the following day to order one of my favourite Korean dishes, bibimbap. The name means “mixed rice” and the dish is comprised of short-grain rice topped with artfully arranged vegetables, grilled meat and a sunny-side egg. The usual condiment of gochujang is provided to add a slightly sweet and spicy flavour to the dish. This is one of the best creations known to man but what makes a bibimbap a really great bibimbap is 1) the egg, and 2) the meat to vegetable ratio. The egg yolk should always be soft because it is meant to be mixed in with the rest of the ingredients, coating everything with silky goodness, and Won Jung Gak did a stellar job with the egg. The meat though, like the seafood in the pancake, was in short supply. The marinated beef tasted lovely, what little there was.
Service was friendly but unhelpful to a large extent. Space is clean, prices high. Go for the kimchi mandu.
To listen to my CBC Edmonton Radio review about Won Jung Gak, click here.