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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Home of the Brave: A Celebration of the American Culinary Trinity of Cheese, Gravy and Sauce

Perhaps it’s fitting I’m typing this as I fly over the Western plains toward San Francisco.   Home of the Brave are the four words which tell you the Star-Spangled banner is over and is usually held for about 16 bars while some celebrity exercises their creative right to make the song their own. It is also the title of a 1988 Toto song, perhaps a patriotic attmept to recreate the success they had in the early 80’s with the Grammy winning album IV featuring the song of the year Rosanna as well as Africa.  The phrase is synomonous with the USA, so it seems an appropriate name for a snack bar which celebrates Amercian culture and cuisine. Such a concept may be a daunting task however. There is nothing universally consistant with American food. Each region adheres to a philosophy and a stubbornness which is much an identity as an local accent. That said, gravy is pretty close.

Toronto’s homage to our southern neighbours sits hidden among King Street favourites Lou Dawg’s, Lee and Wurst.  Relative to other eateries, it about the size of Vermont, boasting a reasonably sized bar, a number of tablesand booths and even a few “patio” seats which overlook the King Street scene.  I was quickly greeting by the bartender who offered me a bar seat.  I sat and looked around.  A bustling open kitchen was nestled in the corner.  The bar area was decorated with American paraphernalia including references to many of the urban centres which make the USA the diverse and interesting country it is. From a drink perspective, they adhere to the American way.  They feature beer, wine and cocktails all produced or inspired by America. There are even a few cocktails created through feedback from the guestbook of American visitors. I was in the mood for a pint, so I opted for an $8 Sam Adam’s Boston lager which was frankly the only palatable beer on the draught list.  They do carry a few bottles from the historic Anchor brewery in the city I was in flight towards. The vibrant beer scene in the USA is misunderstood by so many Canadians who simply say “All American beer is water” and HOTB reinforces this misconception by offering crap like Coors Light  and Rolling Rock as essential American suds.

The menu is everything you would expect in a stereotypical American eatery, offering eats like Philly steak sandwiches, chicken and waffles and Maryland Crab Cakes.  In addition, almost every dish, including vegetables, contains one of the three components of the America culinary trilogy: Gravy, sauce, cheese or a combination of two or three.  In celebration of Napoleon Dynamite and his home state of Idaho, I was obliged to try the tater tots complete with the obligatory cheese AND gravy.  They were nasty, delicious chunks of what seemed like deep fried mashed potatoes which sitting in  a shallow pool of fat.

Tater Tots
Tater Tots $7

It was wing night (which means they serve wings…not the fact you get them for $0.36 each or whatever the going discount rate is) and I thought nothing could be more American than sucking back a pound of chicken parts.  The flavour of the night was Tex-Mex mole, a celebration of the Mexican influence on United States cuisine.  They came out quickly, doused in the promised spicy chocolate sauce and yes….topped with another sauce (sauce on sauce is Amercian food porn at its best).  The taste was quite acceptable and manged to marry the two southern flavours quite effectively. My only issue was the heavy breading on the wings.  Perhaps it’s a dedication to American art of deep frying everything, but I would have prefered the naked wing approach, especially with the rich flavour  of the abundant sauce.  My plasma might have been a little happier with me without the breading as well.

Home of the Brave Tex-Mex Mole Wings $12
Tex-Mex Mole Wings $12

 

I was feeling a little guilty so decided to try and balance things out with a little dose of a vegetable. Asparagus was in season, so I got an order.  Surprise… it was served with cheese and mushroom gravy.  I can’t complain about the taste or the cook on the asparagus..both were terrific but my guilt was hardly stifled as the nutritional value of the green spears  was negated by the other ingredients. The portion size, however, was not American because there was no way I could feed 4 people with this serving of “veggies”.

Asparagus with cheese and gravy
Asparagus with cheese and gravy $7

I passed on dessert even though two of my biggest vices were being offered; ice cream sandwiches and funnel cakes. I also passed on a very intriguing cobb salad served with a whole egg served in a half avocado, a concept I have since adopted into my homemade Cobb.

 

My Take 

Despite horror stories I had heard about the service being similar to the treatment of a gay couple at a misguided and ignorant Rick Perry rally, I found the service prompt and friendly.  The atmosphere was fun and vibrant and I loved the open kitchen concept.  Given the shitty beer selection and the pledge of allegiance  to cheese and gravy, I’m still trying to figure out if the owners intend  HOTB to be an reasonable facsimile of the American eatery or a parody of the plated gluttony which plagues our neighbours to the south. If it’s the latter I think it’s a brilliant joke.  If it’s the former, it’s a stereotype worse than Canadians living in igloos. I mean, not everybody in American puts added fat on everything, right?  Sure, a rib-sucking Texan may cherish the menu but  I’m sure a clean eating Californian would cringe at the fact that this place even manages to make asparagus unhealthy.    In the end, Home of the Brave is a fun rendition of American food.  I wouldn’t, however, bring your vegan sister, a skinny first date or your dad if he’s on a statin. I would, however, bring a good old Ontario health card just in case. I don’t think Obamacare is ready for this place.

 

Home of the Brave on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Downtown: Momofuku

I arrived in Toronto around 10:20 on Thursday night, parked and headed down the road to Momofuku noodle house, the much discussed David Chang restaurant in the Shangri-La Hotel on University Ave.  Open for only a few days, the place was packed.  I was greeted at the entrance and was able to bypass the crowd, not because I’m a famous food blogger but because I was solo and they had a single spot at the bar.

I was seated beside a rather distraught guy who seemed utterly confused by the hype of the place  given the small menu, which offered a mere five bowls with some buns and sides and no dessert.  He eventually had his many questions answered and settled on something.  I was quickly greeting by a pleasant waitress who offered me a glass of water (which wasn’t empty for the rest of the night) and a quick explanation of the menu.  I  immediately noticed  the precision and efficiency of the open kitchen which,  like the service,  ran like a symphony.

I settled on a seven spice sour slushie  (sake, togarashi, yuzu, lime ($10))…say that 5 times fast or you get cut off… to start.  A bit off the wall but a decent cocktail despite a few episodes of  brain freeze due to the large straw and the fact that I drink like an eight-year old. I ordered pork buns, the ramen bowl, pickles and smoked wings.  Within 15 minutes, the pickles arrived, followed by the buns and noodles.  There was a mixup with the wings so I didn’t get them until for a while after the rest of the order came.

Must

The steamed pork buns ($10) were the highlight. A bit of a twist on the popular dim sum item, they were presented open-faced and filled with a tender pork belly and seasoned with a sweet sauce.  Good thing I was dining alone because I might of fought somebody if they went for the second one.

Steamed pork buns ($10)

 Maybe 

The ramen itself was beautiful and traditionally presented, complete with nori, pork two ways (shoulder and belly), and a soft egg.  There  was also a fish cake and a chinese cabbage.  The pork, egg and ramen were cooked perfectly and the cabbage had a briny taste which contrasted the richness of the belly nicely.  The broth, however, was a bit confusing. Quite dark  in colour, it had an almost burnt taste which overpowered the other components of the bowl.   I normally expect a broth to bring it all together, not stand out on its own.  Perhaps I’m not as familiar with Chef’s Chang’s flavour profile, but I was left scratching my head.

Momofuku Ramen ($14)

I love pickles and will order them whenever I can.  Momofuku’s version were presented in a small jar and mainly consisted of onions, carrots and cauliflower.  It took me a bit to realize the bottom of the jar was lined with a mushroom cap as well.  The vegetables were still crisp and tasty if you really like vinegar.  On the other hand, I didn’t get the mushroom.  After what seemed like an eternity, I finally pried it loose and could only manage a bite or two before giving up.

Pickle Jar ($6)

 Mundane

I got roped in by the smoked chicken wings with pickled chili, garlic and scallion.  As mentioned above, I didn’t get them right away but had a good opportunity to watch the preparation  method in the open kitchen.  They are browned on the griddle, broiled, seasoned and served.   They were a good size and well seasoned but still contained a lot of unrendered fat which made them a bit too greasy. There’s no way I could eat anymore than two.

Smoked Wings ($12)

My Take

The opening of Shangra-La will bring some solid New York inspired dining along University avenue, an area in need of more eateries.  Momofuku noodle bar is the first stab and comes with the backing of David Chang and his Michelin stars.  As a result, there will be a lot of hype and a few people may be disappointed, especially given the fact it can be considered a bit on the pricy side.  At the same time, this place will succeed and promise to offer a constantly evolving menu. Whether it is a few growing pains or just a bit of confusion in my understanding of the preparation, at the end I was left feeling a bit like the guy sitting beside me.

Momofuku on Urbanspoon