While most Ottawans can confidently pronounce pho, Fuh, when it comes to Korean food, many of us don’t know our banchan from our gochujang. But that is quickly changing with Korean food carts and restaurants creating line-ups across town for the pungent and sometimes fiery flavours.
The ‘gateway’ menu item seems to be bulgogi, those chewy and flavourful strips of broiled beef marinated in a salty-sweet mix of soy, mirin, a touch of sugar, onion, and mushroom. When someone thought to put it in a taco with kimchi (the salty, sour, crunchy and tongue-tingling signature condiment of Korean food), we were hooked and looking for more.
For Ottawa, Alirang has been the Korean restaurant of record for close to 15 years, with cred built by large busses onloading Korean tourists in the parking lot, not to mention the classic dishes coming out of its kitchen. And now there is a second location on Merivale Avenue with barbecue tables where we can get a fix of Korean barbecue. Whether on Nelson Street or Merivale Avenue, Alirang continues to offer up great, meaty offerings of Korean dishes that sing with ginger, scallion, pear, and chili spice and are grounded with the pungent low notes fermented vegetables (kimchi).
As is custom in Korea, pickled, salted and fermented snacks, or banchan, arrive the moment you sit down, and without being ordered: roasted sweet potato, pickled pear, sprouts sprinkled with peanuts, scallions, lettuce with a soy-based citrus dressing and, of course, super spicy cabbage kimchi. You also get a big plastic pitcher with green tea infused with the grainy warmth of toasted rice. You’re just supposed to nibble and eat the banchan with the main dishes as they come out. The lettuce, for example, is to be wrapped around rice and a bit of meat or fish an then popped into the mouth. Don’t worry if you run out of banchan. They will bring you more.
Pajeon is a great appetizer: an eggy pancake that is golden and heavy with cabbage and scallions, or if you want, shrimp and seafood. It’s a mild intro into the flavours of Korea, but enhanced with a dipping sauce of soybean paste, garlic, and ginger.
At the Merivale location, staff light the round cooking surface and bring raw meat to the table and show us how to snip pork belly into bite-sized pieces with special scissors and put it on the grill. The morsels of meat top rice and are flavoured with the banchan, as well gochuchang, a hot pepper sauce sweetened and fermented, as well as salty kimchi. The barbecue option is a great way to control the spice.
Jajangmyeon is a dish of thick wheat noodles coated in a black soya bean sauce with grilled onions and lardons of pork. The thick noodles hold on to the satin, black sauce with the added delight of bits of meat in every other mouthful. Another dish of jaeyukbokum offers morsels of crispy grilled pork in a ginger, soy, and chili sauce cooled by additions of cabbage and zucchini and a side of sticky rice.
The service at both locations is inviting and efficient and there are always lots of happy customers. Alirang is a great place to discover Korean food. Before long, Gochuchang will be moving in next to Sriracha in Ottawa fridges, with Kimchi sitting comfortably next to our Kombucha.
Alirang on 134 Nelson (open every day, except Monday) 11:30 a.m to 10 p.m.
Alirang on 1485 Merivale (open everyday except Tuesday) lunch from 11:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.; dinner 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Parking at both locations