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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.