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:Baldwin Village:Yakitori Bar

A fedora and a pink cardigan.  That’s how owner Sang Kim is depicted on the website and that’s exactly how he appears in person as he stands behind the bar as music fills the air at the boisterous Yakitori bar in Baldwin village. I half expected to see a karaoke machine and wouldn’t have  surprised if Mr. Kim himself were first up with  a stunning rendition of Billy Joel’s “We didn’t Start the Fire” or “Mr. Roboto” by Styx .

Yakitori is a fusion of the izakaya and pop-up restaurant concepts taking Toronto by storm.  The drink menu includes 10 or so types of sake, some of which are also offered in a number of cocktails. I opted for a jubilee (sake/gin/muddled berries).  It’s nice to see a well conceived and tasty drink for less than $8 which can rival cocktails up to twice the price in other places.   There are a few beer on tap and some wine choices as well.

Jubilee Cocktail ($7.96)
Jubilee Cocktail ($7.96)

As for the food, the menu is presented in the format of a  Bad Boy furniture ad.  Daily specials and notifications of kimchi battles are plastered throughout the one pager.  As for content, the mainstays are bbq meats typical of the yakitori concept with a few korean infusions including bibimbap,  kimchi and mundoo.

Must

I skirted over the fact that the cheeseburger came with soup and salad and was pleasantly surprised to see a bowl of pumpkin carrot soup arrive.  It was presented at “perfect soup temperature”*. Despite the main ingredients, the soup was not over sweet, was seasoned beautifully and managed to keep the integrity of the fresh ingredients through both texture and taste.

*- Perfect soup temperature is defined as not mouth-burning yet hot enough to endure the time it takes to consume the last bite.

Pumpkin soup (served with cheeseburger)
Pumpkin soup (served with cheeseburger)

The  kimchi flight (see picture below) features 3 generations of kimchi (1 day, 2 weeks and 3 months old)  appeared to be a bit of a gimmick until you tried it.  Like a grandfather, father and son, each had similarities yet definite differences in taste.  The elder kimchi’s flavour  was smoky and full.  The middle offering had a modest bite but was still juicy and ripe.  The youngin’  was fresh and crispy yet still intense.  Despite the small quantities, the taste intensity made it next to impossible to finish all three even despite  my attempt to scatter it among my other dishes.

Maybe

In a city where burger shops seem to outnumber Starbucks, this mainstay needs something to stand out. Yakatori’s attempt is bulgogi (Korean beef)  served on a fresh roll and topped with a bit of caramelized kimchi and the more traditional, as far as burger’s go,  lettuce, tomato and cheese.   It wouldn’t rank among the best burgers in Toronto but it’s a solid sandwich.  The accompanying salad was pleasant although the dressing was a little flat.  A little more acid might have helped.

Kimchi Flight ($3.95) and Bulgogi Cheeseburger ($9.95)
Kimchi Flight ($3.95) and Bulgogi Cheeseburger ($9.95)

The BBQ eel off the grill was a nice few bites. It was moist and covered with a sweet sauce that nicely complemented the powerful taste of the eel.  I found it a little pricy at $6.25 but for a solo diner the quantity was sufficient.   Throw this in front of a group however, and the next thing you know singing battles to Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the Ceiling” may settle who gets the last piece.

BBQ Eel ($6.25)
BBQ Eel ($6.25)

My Take

 I like the vibe of Yakitori bar.  It maintains the ethnic flare of Baldwin village but not at the expense of drab and downtrodden decor.  It is fresh and clean and the food is fun. Although I went at down time, I imagine the night crowd can bring some energy without the need for half-naked wasabi fights or singing line cooks.   There is a variety of snacks that will appeal to most palates. There’s even some decent choices for vegetarians and gluten free eaters.  Cheapish cocktails, choices for the peckish and starving alike and kimchi older than Psy’s shelf life makes Yakatori a place with staying power….which may be more than I can say about a pink cardigan. Gun Bae, Mr. Kim!

Yakitori Bar and Seoul Food Co. on Urbanspoon