Korean Cowboy: Fried Spaghetti Westerns and a Mad Hatter Menu

Cowboys have always been a focal point in pop culture.   Bon Jovi is a cowboy…on a steel horse he rides.   Paula Cole asked us where have all the cowboys gone? after she does all the laundry.  Jon Favreau reminded us why Olivia Wilde should stick to television and Daniel Craig to James Bond when he directed Cowboys and Aliens (which only received 44% on rotten tomatoes).  Whether you watch American Idol or read Louis L’Amour, the cowboy is one of the quintessential symbols of Americana.

Korea on the other hand, elicits another series of thoughts and feelings.  Political pundits will cite the lovable Ban Ki-Moon of South Korea or the infamous Kim Jong-un of  the North.  Youtube junkies have hummed and danced to  Psy’s Gangnam Style behind closed doors since 2012.  Foodies hear Korean and think about  bibimbap, bulgogi and hot pots.

So, when thinking of a Korean Cowboy, any number of images come to mind. One may think of Glenn Rhee swapping out his ball cap for a Stetson in the Walking Dead or the purposely annoying Ken Jeong following the gang to the Alamo in the Hangover 15.  Regardless, I suspect the vision of such a cowboy would be more in line with wackiness and fun as opposed to a cameo in a somber scene from the Unforgiven. When looking at the rather insane offerings at Korean Cowboy in advance, I was reminded of the phrase mad hatter which originated from the overt symptoms hatters use to exhibit due to mercury poisoning from the felt used inside of hats and wondered if this menu was a side effect. However, when the website explained  that Koreans are fun people who enjoy lots of booze, fun food and general goofiness,  I figured the menu was a reflection of the fact that this establishment promised  a forum for all three.

Located on Yonge just north of Eglinton, Korean Cowboy had an exciting buzz from the minute I entered. I was greeted by a bubbly waitress and seated at a table with a good view of televisions and saloon-like surroundings. The bar was reminiscent of a scene from an old spaghetti western and offered craft beer, soju and a decent rail of spirits.   The name of the restaurant is painted across mirrors situated behind the shelved booze.  Speaking of spaghetti, I was intrigued by the first of many anju dishes available on the menu; fried spaghetti.  Anju, as I learned from the website, is a generic term given to snacks which are usually served and  enjoyed in the presence of alcohol. This fried spaghetti was not the traditional throw leftovers it in a pan and heat up type.  It was fried in its dry state, creating an odd but intriguing nibble.  For a buck, you can’t go wrong.

Fried Spaghetti $1
Fried Spaghetti $1

It was a Wednesday which happened to be oyster night, meaning you could get a dozen for $12. Instead of the traditional hot sauce and horseradish, they were served with a carousel of unique toppings which included among others Korean tabasco, chili vinegar, sesame, coffee and soju.  Each put a fun and unique spin on eating a plate full of the molluscs. The coffee was probably the most unique and the chili vinegar was one of the best.

Oyster Condiments
Oyster Condiments
Wednesday Night Oysters  12/$12
Wednesday Night Oysters 12/$12

There are no apologies on the menu for the lack of fine food.  Instead, the menu items looked like the product of an episode of Chopped held in a dorm room.  Take the hot dog stir fry ($3.99)for example.  The simple combination of chopped wieners, vegetables and a ketchup sauce result in a dish you want to hate but can’t. It’s tangy and sweet and something you would crave on a street corner after a few pints and allow you to go to bed confident that you’d wake up fine the next morning.

Hot Dog Stir Fry $3.99
Hot Dog Stir Fry $3.99

The cheesy spicy rice cakes were a cross between laffy taffy and ball game nachos with that repulsive yet delicious spicy cheese sauce. The chewy rice cakes may not appeal to everybody, but as a guy who loves tapioca and any kind of pudding I found the texture oddly appealing especially when hidden among the nostalgic stadium flavours. This dish was a home run.

Cheesy Spicy Rice Cakes $5.99
Cheesy Spicy Rice Cakes $5.99

The steamed bun burger ($3.99) was a decent attempt at this classic Asian snack.  The Korean spiced beef sat nicely in the white folded bun riddled with black sesame seeds.  Green onions and cucumbers finished it off. It was messy, wonder bread fun.

BBQ Beef Buns $3.99
BBQ Beef Bun $3.99

Strategies to get kids to eat vegetables usually involves dousing them in cheese, sauce and/or butter.  This is usually the case with brussel sprouts and broccoli but Korean Cowboy does it with corn.  It tasted like one of Gramma’s casseroles before anybody gave a shit about butter or fat.   It was ridiculously but regretfully good, much like a vat of movie popcorn or a slice of greasy, deep dish pizza.

Skillet Corn $5.99
Skillet Corn $5.99

I’m always interested in a good taco so I ordered one of each of the korean beef, spicy pork and chicken.  Each was filled with a cabbage salad and the aforementioned meats in a rather large flour tortilla.  They were decent but in a city in which tacos have become a foodie staple, they fell a little short.  The shell was too much and swallowed instead of housing the taste of the proteins.  Retrospectively, I should have ordered ssam (lettuce wraps) instead to allow the filling to shine a little more.

Tacos $10.99 for 3
Tacos $10.99 for 3

The wings were also a bit disappointing.  They were “cooked the Korean way” and bathed in your choice of a number of sauces. After the anju, I expected a wing with a compilation of crunch, succulent sweet and sinister spice. They weren’t as crunchy nor sweet or spicy enough.  They had the texture of a M and M breaded wing that had been baked in the oven for 20 minutes. The fries were fresh cut and tasted especially good when dipped  in the hot dog or rice cake sauce.

K-wings and Fries $14.99
K-wings and Fries $14.99

My Take

Korean cowboy is a playful addition to mid-town Toronto dining.  Whether it is the decent choice of craft beer, a glass of soju or a variety of anju, malarkey ensues the minute you sit down.  The food is a mix of dorm room creations and campfire provisions developed through the delirium of a culinary mad hatter who wants to fuse Korean fare with edible Americana. The tacos and wings were average.  Despite the fact I tore through a good part of the menu, there are still things like sawdust chicken,G-PO (file fish), kimchi fries and squid and pear salad not to mention a number of pork dishes including mocha pork belly and the King Koink platter.  Maybe next time I visit I’ll throw on a mercury-free fedora and hum Kid Rock’s “I’m a cowboy baby….I can smell a pig from a mile away” as I strut up Yonge street and sniff the air.

Korean Cowboy on Urbanspoon

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Review:Toronto:Duke’s Refresher + Bar

I often stay at the Eaton Chelsea so I’ve been watching the completion of Duke’s Refresher and Bar with great anticipation. One of at least 3 restaurants associated with the Aura condo complex at Yonge and Gerrard, Duke’s promises a “Coyote Ugly” experience with good food and a great atmosphere.  I must admit, like any warm-blooded male, the thought of being drenched by a fire hose by a woman standing on top of a bar is somewhere on my bucket list.

I dropped in prior to another engagement I had to check out the place and all the elements were in place.  The music was loud, the beers were pouring, the decor was loud and the barkeeps looked like they could have been on the set of the movie itself. I planned to drop by later with a buddy of mine to grab a few drinks, eat a bit of food and catch the rest of the football game.

We got there a little after 10 and the place was packed.  The layout boasts  a number of tables and we were seated at a couple of chairs along the long bar.  We were immediately warmly greeted by a  bartender and manager who welcomed us to Duke’s. We were presented the menu which includes over 40 tap beer ranging from domestics to craft ales. One of the unique aspects of this place is the ability to order 3 ounce samplers of any of them for a dollar and change.  We did exactly that, ordering 7 or 8 craft beer to start.

The beer were served quickly and in the correct order.  Other than that, the conversation was a bit painful.  At this point I need to clarify something.  If you’re picturing the bartender looking  like Penny from the Big Bang Theory, you’d be wrong. Instead, he was like Zack Johnson, her on and off boyfriend on the show. Every beer I liked was his favorite and with every comment I made about the beer (for example, the hoppiness  of the Amsterdam Boneshaker) was answered with one word…”Interesting”.

While looking at the menu, I noticed the Einstein club, which allows patrons to buy a 24 oz stein for $20 which stays on the shelf ready to be filled anytime they come in.  They are also made privy to future special engagements available only to club members. It’s a concept I’ve seen in a number of Michigan bars, so I wondered if Duke’s  was based on this American model.  So, I asked Zack about this and he said  “I thought it was Detroit but you might be right, I think it was Michigan”.   In the end,  despite being opened less than a week, the Einstein club was full and I was unable to reserve one of the many glasses on the shelves behind the bar.

Looking around, about 75% of the staff were male.  I have no problem with male waitstaff, but my  bucket list dream of being doused by water in a bar was…well…extinguished.  Unfortunately, it didn’t mean that other aspects of Coyote Ugly wouldn’t come into play later.

After settling on a pint of Beau’s Tom Green Milk Stout (which is quite delicious), we ordered a couple of things to get a feel for the food menu. The menu focuses on traditional bar foods such as wings, nachos and burgers but also throws in trendy Toronto foods such as fried chicken, sliders and bibimbap.  As per normal, I am drawn to anything with a fried egg, so the Pig & The Egg ($12.95) sandwich seemed like a good call, described as a bacon focaccia sandwich with a fried egg, sausage, bacon, pulled pork, American cheese and braised onions.  The bread would have been divine even if two slices of bacon weren’t etched into it. The egg was cooked properly…giving me a yolkasm (meaning the feeling you get when you pierce a yolk and get the perfect drip).  The triple hit of pork worked as well.  It was a gimmicky sandwich but one I’d order again. We asked for the fries to be upgraded to the infamous garlic ones which they gladly did for a couple of bucks. They were well seasoned, unique and perhaps infamous but  I think the bar has been raised for terrific fries  and these fell a little short, tasting more cafeteria than downtown Toronto bar.

The pig and the egg $12.95 with infamous garlic fries ($2 upcharge)
The pig and the egg $12.95 with infamous garlic fries ($2 upcharge)

Sticking with the egg theme, we decided to give the bacon and shrimp bibimbap a try.  Garnished with avocado, kimchi and egg planted  atop a bed of rice,  it was a noble attempt at this signature Korean dish. The avocado was ripe, the kimchi was decent and the shrimp were cooked perfectly and in reasonable number and the egg produced another yolkasm (this could be my first multiple).  The accompanying hot sauce was thick and delicious, a nice change from the Frank’s that dominates many other menus around the city. If anything the bacon was scarce and almost absent and the dish could have used the saltiness from a seasoning perspective.

Bacon and Shrimp Bibimbap $14.25
Bacon and Shrimp Bibimbap $14.25

Back to the Coyote Ugly thing.  The water spray was out of the question. Unfortunately, the dancing wasn’t.  Halfway through a bite of sandwich, the manager (also a dude) hopped on the bar and greeted the crowd.  A chant of “Dance, Dance” ensued and I hoped something would prevent what was about to happen. Instead, Zack joined him on the bar and a Dance, Dance revolution session broke out. I was speechless.

My Take

Duke’s Refresher + Bar is more a bar than a restaurant located in an area which is desperate from nightlife other than strip joints and pubs. They offer unique drink options like taster size beer for less than $1.50 and the Einstein club. It likely won’t win a slew of culinary awards, but the food (at least what I tried) was decent bar food that matched the overall theme of the place. The staff is friendly,courteous and fun although this may be a bit a crap shoot depending on your expectations. In my case, maybe I expected walking onto the set of Coyote Ugly but instead ended up as  an extra in an odd episode of the Big Bang Theory meets From Dusk Till Dawn.

Duke's Refresher + Bar on Urbanspoon