Korean kimbap rolls out of sushi's shadow

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      Korean food in Vancouver is a lot like Julia Roberts in the movie America's Sweethearts . Roberts plays the homely sister of a Hollywood star (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whose fame relegates Roberts's character to the shadows. It's obvious that she's equally stunning–she's Julia Roberts, for God's sake–but she's ignored nonetheless.

      So it is with Korean restaurants, which are overlooked in the rush to the newest izakaya . It's puzzling: Vancouverites have been in love with sushi for so long you'd think that kimbap would have caught on by now.

      Kimbap, if we must compare it to its Japanese sibling, is Korean sushi. And while it's part of the same family, it's got a whole different personality. It's more aromatic, better textured with a good crunch, and, dare we say it–tastier. It doesn't need a soy-sauce bath to spruce it up; it holds its own, unadorned. And it's addictive.

      Like Japanese maki sushi, kimbap is made of rice rolled in seaweed around a filling. But the rice is seasoned with sesame oil, not rice vinegar, and the seaweed is also brushed with sesame oil. It's a subtle but flavour-changing difference.

      The biggest difference, of course, is the filling itself. There's no raw fish in kimbap. A typical roll is a fat, futomaki -sized cylinder stuffed with a smorgasbord of vegetables, some kind of protein, and a bit of rice. Possible ingredients include carrots, pickled cucumber, and daikon in combination with ham, cooked beef, canned tuna, chicken, or even cheese. Before passing judgment, think about how North Americans viewed raw fish before it got its break. Ham may not sound like it belongs in sushi, but try it, it works.

      Seymour Street has become a mecca for kimbap cravers, with several joints catering to hungry Korean students. Those in a hurry can pop in to H-Mart (590 Robson Street) for a takeout fix; the deli there packages two long, plump, sliced rolls for $6.99, almost lunch enough for two. But for a quick bite with some authentic atmosphere, try Kimbob E Ramyun at East Hastings and Seymour.

      This welcoming place feels like it's straight out of Seoul, where casual mom-and-pops cater to weary shoppers and office workers. It bills itself as a Korean fast-food restaurant; indeed, I've never waited more than 10 minutes for takeout. But it's got a comforting atmosphere that makes you want to linger. A wall of windows throws light on the plank floors, sleek black tables and chairs add a bit of style, and poster-sized shots of Korean dishes stimulate the appetite. Order at the register, help yourself to some tea, and wait for the friendly servers clad in cutesy smock aprons to bring your food. K-pop bops while students gossip or catch up with the Korean papers. An Internet kiosk awaits the homesick.

      Ramen (spelled ramyun by the restaurant) figures largely in the menu, as one would expect from the restaurant's name. The squiggly noodles languish in a spicy broth and can be ordered in myriad combinations, including beef, seafood, and mandu dumplings ($3.95 to $5.95). The restaurant also does a brisk trade in dukbokgi , stubby tubes of steamed rice cakes smothered in a red-hot sauce, stalls of which pepper the streets of Seoul, and which every table here seems to order ($6.45 as part of a ramen or kimbap combo).

      I come here for the kimbap ( kimbob , as the restaurant spells it), 14 neat slices per order, served with a bowl of fish-cake-based–not miso–soup, as in Korea, and a tiny side of overly dressed tossed salad. The basic kimbap brings together tidy strips of yellow radish, omelette, lightly pickled cucumber, carrot, fish cake, imitation crab, and ham, with a dusting of sesame seeds. It's a steal at $3.95. For a buck or two more, chicken, seasoned beef, kimchi, or cheese can be added to the mix.

      After sampling several versions, I now stick to the basics. The kimchi kimbap has but a wisp of fire to it, so if you want a lot of kimchi, order a side instead. And although the menu promises Cheddar, the cheese in the cheese kimbap is processed. I'm tempted, however, to try the nude kimbap next time, an inside-out roll named for its pale, exposed exterior.

      No need for soy sauce, wasabi, or pickled ginger: kimbap stands alone. It's a star waiting to be discovered.