Toronto’s best Korean food: Chris Nuttall-Smith makes his picks
Move over, sushi. Now there’s something sexier. The new Korean cuisine is exciting, modern and worth crossing town for
National cuisines, like drunk-driving starlets, get the reputations they deserve. Korean food—dependably rough-edged, cheap and fiery in Toronto’s first-wave Korean restaurants—has suffered a serious perception problem since it first appeared near Christie Pits in the early 1970s. Korean expats ate Korean food. Starving, steel-gutted U of T students ate Korean food. The rest of humanity got along quite happily without it.
That started to change about 10 years ago, when South Korea launched a sustained and successful campaign to become a major cultural exporter. What began with film and TV—including several food-obsessed soap operas that drew massive audiences across Asia—soon trickled down to dinner, and as a new, more cosmopolitan generation of Korean chefs began to refine the cuisine, the gastro-weenies of the world took notice. In London, Korean went high-end, and in New York, David Chang, of Momofuku fame, created a hybrid Korean–French–Southeast Asian style that has become one of the most influential forces in the business. Over the past few years, this culinary renaissance set down in Toronto, too, hidden—or hidden to non-Koreans, at least—in plain sight between the all-you-can-eat bulgogi joints and bibimbap houses where serious foodies would never have dared to dine.
Tofu Village-House of Soon Tofu opened a few months ago on Bloor ’s Koreatown strip, just east of Christie, tucked innocently between a cellphone store and the Metro Theatre, the city’s crumbling home of vintage porn. The restaurant’s simple decor is cleaner and fresher than its competitors’, and its culinary aspirations are significantly higher, as well. Where much of the food on the strip caters to a quantity-focused crowd (nearly everything at a place a few doors down, for example, costs exactly $8 after tax), at Tofu Village the owners have thrown presentation and quality into the mix.
We start with thin, golden haemul pajeon—seafood and scallion pancakes stuffed with chopped octopus and shrimp—that come crisp and sizzling on a cast iron plate. The flavours and textures are exhilarating: the meaty, chewy-tender octopus, the slap of onions, the savoury depth from the seared egg and rice flour batter, the liquid-centred crunch of the just-picked watercress served with them. The kimchee is made fresh every day, so it’s gentler than the usual, and the spicing is geared more to western palates than gojujang-accustomed ones. We eat clear, nutty, refreshing chapchay—sweet potato noodles—stir-fried with vegetables and sesame oil, and an incredible cold soup served in a stainless steel bowl with buckwheat noodles. It’s the best Korean on the block.
A week later, I’m driving with a couple Korean friends up Yonge Street north of Steeles, where the strips of half-empty hookah lounges and over-illuminated kebab shops give way to ESL schools, bars filled with jet-setting Asian kids, and long stretches of tiny restaurants fronted only with blocky Hangul script. Every new immigrant community moves out to the suburbs over time, and in the case of Korean-Canadians, north Toronto and Thornhill have been the beneficiaries of the demographic rule. The GTA’s 60,000-strong Korean population is growing far faster than the overall average, and the Korean restaurant scene in the city’s north, like the people, is hybridizing and modernizing. The area is an enormous lab, with new micro-restaurants opening too quickly for even the most hard-core Korean junkies to keep up.
We pass a shop that specializes in tiny grilled squid, and another that does buckwheat soup. There’s a ginseng chicken stew joint, a hand-cut noodle shop, a seafood pancake place, a storefront advertising bacon-style grilled pork belly, a couple of shops that do only Korean bar food—izakayas, sort of—and another where people go for the tabletop charcoal grills. A few of the restaurants here serve Korean moonshine from plastic jugs, if you know how to ask (it’s called makali; best to go with a Korean). Turbo Lounge plays CFL and UFC matches and serves green tea cocktails and Chivas, creamed corn and kimchee. There’s a sports bar called Hell’s Chicken that’s known for its Korean fried wings. Most of the best places are less than two years old.
We stop at Janguh Plus, a modern grilled eel specialist. The food doesn’t come heaped the way it does at old-guard restaurants, and instead of long-simmered mash-ups, the colours, flavours and textures here are fresh, nuanced and distinct. We have the pork first: it’s been brushed with a sweet chili barbecue sauce, sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and set, like a minimalist still life, on a large square white plate with a delicate daikon and carrot salad, plus steamed Chinese cabbage leaves that we use to roll up the works. The barbecued eel comes sauced and sliced with the same care. It’s just fatty enough, gorgeous tasting, striped with tidy grill marks and served with a stack of palm-sized perilla leaves to use as wraps.
We ask the owner, a friendly middle-aged man, who’s doing the cooking. His wife is the cook, he announces. She taught herself. She was a computer programmer until they opened the restaurant last June.
My favourite place by far, and the restaurant where I ate one of the most satisfying meals of the past year, mixes a casual mom and pop aesthetic with a made-from-scratch ethos that few top-tier western chefs could be bothered to match. Cho Dang Soon Tofu, set in a former sushi shop in an out-of-the-way strip mall near Islington station, makes its own soft tofu in-house every day. The difference between Cho Dang Soon’s fresh tofu and its competitors’ store bought stuff is a little like the difference between Kraft Dinner and handmade duck-egg tagliatelle, particularly when it’s just breaking the surface of the deep red, mellow and still boiling soon tofu jiggae—tofu and kimchee stew. Soon tofu is a national dish of Korea, and though the broth is made by reducing well-aged kimchee and water, the taste of the best ones is profound: meaty depth, chili heat, a nick of sourness, a brilliant, warming base made only more complex when you crack in a raw egg, which turns it voluptuous and creamy-rich as it cooks.
But the tofu is what really grabs you—here it’s as white and pillowy as fog, quivering and custardy and impossibly delicate, but still big-flavoured, and it dissipates almost instantly in your mouth. I can hardly think of a more perfect winter food. We ate plenty else there: impeccable little yellow croaker fish that arrived straight out of the fryer, so molten and delicious that we had to exhale madly to cool them as we chewed; a seafood stew of clear vegetable broth, jammed with mussels, shrimp, tufts of enokis and hunks of pine mushrooms. They would steal the show at a lesser place, but I couldn’t get my composure back after the stew.
The bill for dinner came to $62 for three people, with drinks, tax and a generous tip, and as I paid, I couldn’t help thinking that while this old-school, rough-and-ready-looking place, which opened a couple of years ago, was the best of them, each of the dozen Korean places I’d been to, from modest to modern, had been pretty great. And all of a sudden I wasn’t sure what had changed more over the past decade: Korean food or the rest of humanity’s willingness to give it a try.
681 Bloor St. W., 647-345-3836
9625 Yonge St., 647-258-1000
Cho Dang Soon
5130 Dundas St. W., 416-234-1161
17 thoughts on “Toronto’s best Korean food: Chris Nuttall-Smith makes his picks”
Turbo has been opened for more than 2 yrs. the manager is a prick
I’ve been long hoping for some GREAT Korean food to reach our city! Too long we’ve had to endure mediocre Korean food. Thank you for introducing me to Cho Dang Soon. I must take my parents there ASAP
Pork Bone Soup mmmmmmmmmm
Korean food is not only tasty but it’s also pretty healthy. As a second gen Korean and the daughter of Korean restauranteurs I am glad there’s an article about Korean cuisine. However, you should know that most of the dining establishments on Bloor and between Yonge and Sheppard/Finch are considered fast food or student establishments. Although there is usually an expansive menu, most of these places specialize in one to two dishes. For example The Owl of Minerva specializes in Pork Bone Soup. There are some good proper Korean restaurants out there where you get the traditional Korean dining experience. Meaning you get proper side dishes or pan chan in Korean. As well as either the fruit or sweet cold drink at the end of the meal. If the writer of this article would like a proper Korean dining experience I’d be more than happy to help.
Can you list any of these “proper korean restaurants”? My girlfriend’s mom is first gen korean and she won’t go to any of the places on the yonge strip for various reasons. Do you know of any good places that aren’t fast-food/student food?
i’m just wondering when the korean taco trend is going to make its way to our streets. So very good, mmmm… bulogi tacos…
Try this place. My parents used to own it and the quality of food is still quite good. Also, the owners are super nice. The only bad thing about this place is the location. It is just south of Steeles on Dufferin in a plaza.
They have table top Korean BBQ, table top cooking of soups (che gaes or Jung gols), sushi and more.
Kum Kang San
5050 Dufferin St
Toronto, ON M3H5T5
@Alice & @Mark
It would be hard pressed to call Kum Kang San the best place to take a first gen Korean mom. Yes, the tabletop grill is definitely better than most as they use charcoal that’s already burning hot and prepared in the back. However, the atmosphere is depressing at best with beige washed walls that are sparsely decorated with Soju or other Korean spirit posters.
There is supposed to be (I have not been there myself)a korean resto on Yonge north(ish) of 16th ave called Kazan (sp?) that’s supposed to have pretty decent food with much more relaxing atmostphere.
As for going to these “generalist” korean joints, that is not the way we eat in Korea. When you go to Korea, what you’re struck with right away is the sheer number of restaurants dotting every street. But soon you will notice that these are “specialty” restos that pride themselves in doing 1 or 2 things really well. Most “generalist” restos fail miserably at this and end up doing a barely mediocre job for all (usually over 50+ items) items on their menu. Be ware of any restaurant that offers you everything from sushi, korean to chinese all from the same kitchen. It does not work.
And one more thing, it irritates me to hear people say that Korean is “healthy.” It may be a healthier option than some other cuisine but let’s be honest here, steamed white short grain rice: way up there on your GI scale, kimchee and other ban chans, all seasoned individually: high in fibre, yes, but SKY HIGH
in sodium. If you have high blood pressure, be ware. Those jiggaes, jungols, ban chans, soups and bbq meat contains ridiculous amount of sodium. I’m not sure if you can call that “healthy.”
Indeed CS. Koreans have the highest rates of stomach cancer in the world. High intakes of salt and proven cancer-causing compounds found on grilled foods.
@Alice @ C S: I heard Kum Gang San is bad, and as for Kazan, it doesn’t get the approval of older Koreans who like the real Korean stuff.
SEOUL HOUSE ON DUFFURIN BESIDE YORKDALE MALL IS THE BEST> TRUST ME
You make it sound as if good Korean food suddenly appeared in Toronto, when the truth is it has always been here. It’s just that the restaurants are now being made (visually) palatable to hipsters and foodies.
Also, it’s spelled ‘kimchi’ and please stop calling it ‘fiery’. Kimchi and Korean food in general has always had many different flavours. Resorting to the same adjective makes you sound like a hack.
“Rest of humanity’s willingness to give it a try” is what has changed and not Korean food. Unfortunately many non-Koreans were not aware or exposed to Korean food in the past so the present popularity stems from a openness to experience new things. This applies to all forms of cuisine that isn’t considered mainstream or Western.
korean food is o.k. byah heh jeong goog sticks out as a real winner.where people get off calling it healthy, i’ll never know. highly processed white rice, sodium levels through the roof and fake meats galore make it an occasional treat at best. as for spice? the koreans seem to thinks it’s a lot spicier than it actually is. korean chilies barely make a blip on the scoville scale. it’s a shame really, this massive attempt by the korean government to make korean food “global”, definitely comes off as inorganic and will surely make korean cuisine come off as a trend more than a mainstay.
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