Korean food takes its place at the table in Vancouver

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      People in Vancouver are lucky to have such easy access to so many Asian restaurants around town, especially Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Indian ones.

      Our city’s palate has evolved and progressed, and it seems like these days we can’t live without Thai-style noodles or Malaysian chicken rice or Taiwanese soup dumplings. There is one specific Asian cuisine that was once overshadowed by its more popular counterparts, but it is slowly and steadily establishing its presence in Metro Vancouver.

      Twenty years ago, you could probably count on one hand all the Korean restaurants that existed in the city. It didn’t help that the Korean population in Vancouver was minimal.

      Thanks to an influx of South Korean immigrants and international students, as well as the rise of South Korean pop culture (oppan gangnam–style) around the world, there is now an abundance of Korean food establishments scattered across the Lower Mainland.

      Jang Mo Jib Korean Restaurant (various locations) opened the doors to its first storefront on Kingsway in 1995, which made it one of the initial specialty Korean dining spots in the city. Elliot Moon, managing partner at the family-run business, emphasizes that there were limited Korean food choices in Vancouver back then.

      “As a family, we really enjoyed going out to eat,” Moon told the Straight in an interview at a Robson Street coffee shop. “We travelled and we ate at Korean restaurants in other cities and locally as well, and found that we weren’t quite satisfied with what was available here [in Vancouver].”

      Moon’s mother has a background in Korean cuisine, so they took it upon themselves to open a traditional Korean dining establishment after purchasing the rights to the business name—which means “mother-in-law”—from a Korean restaurant called Jang mo jib in Orange County, California.

      Michelle Lee/Flickr

      The dishes that they claim to have made famous in Vancouver include gamjatang (pork bone stew), soondubu jjigae (spicy soft-tofu stew), and haemul pajeon (seafood pancake).

      “We helped establish quite a few of the most popular Korean food items at our restaurant, and now in Vancouver,” said Moon. “There was no gamjatang in Vancouver before we began to offer it. No places would do tofu soup at the time in the city.”

      Besides the first generation of Korean restaurants in Vancouver (including Royal Seoul House Korean Restaurant, which was established in 1990), new and trendy Korean food places (such as Sura Korean Royal Cuisine, Midam Café & Bistro, and Damso Restaurant) that have opened in recent years are also catching the attention of the younger population.

      Ta Bom Korean Cuisine (1046 Austin Avenue) in Coquitlam is a dining hot spot that opened in June 2016. It may be located in the suburbs, but that doesn’t stop city dwellers from visiting and ordering its most popular dish: a hot plate that features your choice of marinated meats or seafood, such as dak-galbi (stir-fried spicy chicken), jeyuk-bokkeum (stir-fried spicy pork), or jukkumi-bokkeum (stir-fried spicy small octopus). Each hot plate is accompanied by sides like egg, cheese, and corn, which are used as dips for the meats—think sizzling pieces of chicken covered in molten cheese and sweet corn…delicious.

      Ta Bom's dak-galbi (stir-fried spicy chicken) hot plate with egg, cheese, and corn on the side.
      Tammy Kwan

      Owner Minji Won and her mother run the restaurant together and have plans to expand to a second location in downtown Vancouver later this year.

      “This is a family business, and my mother was actually a chef in Korea for over 30 years,” Won explained to the Straight in a phone interview. “When she came here, she worked at a Korean restaurant, and we opened [Ta Bom] last year.”

      The mother-daughter duo decided to open an eatery in Coquitlam because there is a large Korean community there. It may make sense to conclude that the majority of their customers are of Korean heritage, but that’s not the case.

      “Most of our customers are not Korean. They are Chinese, westerners, and people from other cultures and backgrounds,” explained Won.

      It’s the same at Jang Mo Jib: Moon stressed that the customers who dine at his restaurants are Chinese, Japanese, or Westerners. Koreans do visit, but a large portion of his targeted demographic is other ethnicities.

      Even if the local Korean population doesn’t frequent Korean eateries, it’s obvious that this culture’s restaurant scene in Vancouver has grown exponentially.

      The bibimbap (hot-stone rice bowl with toppings) at Jang Mo Jib.
      Jang Mo Jib Korean Restaurant

      Those who do enjoy Korean food will be familiar with the staple dishes such as japchae (stir-fried glass noodles), bulgogi (marinated and grilled meats), and bibimbap (hot-stone rice bowl with various toppings), among others.

      But less traditional culinary creations such as Korean hot-plate dishes and fried chicken (best paired with alcoholic drinks such as beer or soju, distilled rice liquor) are helping the city’s Korean kitchens gain popularity, because they appeal to younger customers and are more accessible to non-Korean guests.

      “Fifteen years ago, Korean restaurants served very traditional Korean foods,” said Won. “They weren’t really chefs, just Korean immigrants who needed to survive, so they opened a restaurant. The food they made didn’t taste really good.”

      Those times have passed, and now there are plenty of trained Korean chefs who are skilled and experienced in the kitchen—and who aren’t afraid to add a bit of modern flair to their creations.

      “There’s no question that the Korean restaurant scene in Vancouver has obviously improved,” said Moon. “It has grown, developed, and matured. In my opinion, we’re heading in the right direction—but there’s still a lot more room for growth.”

      Follow Tammy Kwan on Twitter @ch0c0tam and Instagram @ch0c0tam.