Dae Jang Geum
1324 10 Ave. S.W.
Foodosopher: If you look at how ethnic foods are introduced to a market, you’ll see a similar kind of cycle. The first few restaurants usually provide the “Cole’s Notes” version of the cuisine – a very general, “best of the best” overview. As a cuisine gets more popular, more and more of these restaurants start to follow. The diner gets a bit more sophisticated, and starts to expect better quality from their meals. Often times, this is as far as a cuisine gets – the next phase, which brings specialized restaurants that serve one specific kind of cuisine (Japanese and sushi, ramen, izakaya, tempura bar, for example), requires a certain amount of demand and sophistication before being able to support specialized restaurants. While it is exciting that specialized Japanese cuisine is starting to take hold, Korean food in Calgary seems forever doomed to be a big melting pot of dishes. From pajeon, to BBQ, to soondubu, most restaurants carry all diverse types of korean cuisine. So in order to fairly assess Korean food in Calgary, we focus on a couple aspects – quality, and value.
Shokutsu: The all-encompassing format that prevails in many ethnic restaurants in North America, as noted above by Foodosopher, has its pros and cons. Without the wide variety, the base introduction for many customers would never be achieved. As their tastes and interest progress, I’ve found from working in actual restaurant kitchen environments that regular customers tend to find what they like and continue to eat their favorite dish, time and time again – despite the array of other menu choices they could branch out to if they so desired. In the absence of specialized, one-type restaurants, I suppose this predictable ordering by those regular customers of a restaurant (which are so essential to its operational well-being), does become a quasi-specialized restaurant for them, in that they only get what they really want, every single time they dine there. When it comes to Korean cuisine, from what I can discern in this day and age, this is quite limited to either barbecue or hot pots, as the only two singular dishes that are able to stand alone on an entire menu and potentially be the only item a bold enough restaurant could serve and specialize in. Whether we’ll see more of these, remains to be seen.
Foodosopher: Dae Jang Geum is a relatively new entry to the restaurant scene in Calgary. Named after a Korean television show, it’s general claim to fame is as the restaurant that is “next to the Korean+Japanese grocery store”. Occupying the corner space of a small strip mall, it is quite easy to miss. A small frontage actually conceals a very large restaurant on the inside – this place can hold a LOT of people.
The decor is dated – which i find surprising considering the restaurant itself is only a few years old. Struggle as i might, I am unable to remember what restaurant preceded Dae Jang Geum. If i had to guess, i’d say a Korean Denny’s. My biggest complaint with the restaurant itself is the layout – everything is structured into private booths, with entrances that point away from each other. This in itself is fine, except with the high backed banquettes, it is impossible for a server to notice you . This would be fine, if servers actually checked on you once in a while. In a couple visits, service has been atrociously slow. And extremely poor in terms of remembering to bring out all the dishes that have been ordered. If you go, don’t be in a rush – you have no idea when you’ll be able to leave.
Shokutsu: For some reason, in contrast to Foodosopher, the seclusion and relative sense of privacy the booths provide, was a welcome change for me whenever I ate here. Perhaps its just a Western’s mindset and the fact that it is in stark contrast to the dominant, open seating (no walls) set up of most casual restaurants in South Korea (and even those Korean restaurants in North America), but I find this somehow refreshing. Though it does probably have a negative impact on visibility with the wait staff – I’ve also experienced the service issue described earlier – but perhaps its also the prevailing style of Korean restaurants where once you are served, don’t expect much brown-nosing and chatter from the waiters. This is the case when I’ve been with Korean speakers and not – there has rarely been a pronounced difference in attitude – so no bias here.
As someone who’s very familiar with the area where Dae Jang Geum is located and a frequent shopper of that next door grocery for some Asian ingredients I enjoy, I was always drawn by the overwhelming, amazing scent of barbecuing meat that would escape from the vents on the side of the building, cascading into the parkade. As well, I do believe that the owners have positioned themselves well with the tourism industry as well as the local Korean community, as I’ve often seen huge tour buses stopping there and letting out loads of visitors to dine inside after a day out in the nearby Rockies. [Note: Ginseng in Edmonton had the same cozy relationship with the major Korean tour companies, and this phenomena was seen a few times there as well]. And on weekends, inside I’d see groups from the local Korean community, mostly packs of men who appeared to be in golf attire (following a round, what’s better than a nice cold beer and Kalbi?) and families out together for a meal.
Foodosopher: Shortly after ordering, a great selection of Banchan are brought out. They are reasonably fresh, though the Kim Chi lacked the complexity of flavour i like. It had a bit of heat, and that was about it. The beansprouts were fairly limp and disappointing too, but the the pickled daikon, my favorite, was excellent. Banchan I had finished were replenished throughout the meal – a definite plus in my books, even though the quality was only average.
On this day, i had ordered Sundubu Jigae – tofu stew served with rice. Sundubu is one of those dishes that is very comforting – silky tofu, with the rich pepper sauce (gochujang), vegetables, seafood, and my favorite part- a raw egg cracked over top. Unfortunately, this version of sundubu is lacking in several components. It’s not very rich, not very comforting, and there was no egg. The flavour was decent, but overall, it was fairly disappotining.
In other visits, I have had the opportunity to try other dishes – the most memorable for me being the Pajeon and the Kalbi/Galbi. The Pajeon was good, nice and firm egg and fragrant toppings, and reasonably priced. The meat was good too, but lacking in that sweet-smoky flavour – a result of a poor marinade job. However, the biggest problem is an order of Galbi, rings in at a ridiculous $42.95. Compared to a $13.95 price at Bow Bulgogi, this is highway robbery.
Shokutsu: My comments here are not from the same visit as Foodosopher, however I can comment that the Kimchi Jigae that I have had here was very disappointing in terms of flavor. There was no depth to it at all, which harkens back to the likelihood that the kimchi being used is not that great, the banchan can confirm this too, I never enjoyed it. [As an aside, the kimchi next door at the grocery is also nothing to write home about, even the home made stuff that is sold there. For this, I would always get it at this tiny little Korean grocery store located in the area just east of Centre St. S and somewhere between 12 Ave ~ 15 Ave SE. The Korean grandmother who makes it there in shop run by her grandson, makes an excellent flavorful cabbage kimchi as well as fresh Korean mochi]. The barbecue was good as well (though expensive) as well as the seafood Pajeon (very delicious and great portion size). Lastly, I was pleasantly surprised by how well they do the Mul Naengmyeon in the summer – its such a hard dish to get right, especially the soup. Based on this dish alone, I suspect they have someone in the kitchen who has some skills, just perhaps not translating through to all the other dishes available.
Foodosopher: My overall opinion of this place is to give it a pass. If you are selective, and looking for some very specific, more obscure Korean dishes, then you can probably get in and out for a reasonable sum. The more obscure Korean dishes are actually quite good, and fairly reasonably priced. However, if you’re looking for a general Korean experience, which typically includes BBQ, both price and service make me cringe. As Shokutsu has pointed out, the quality is decent, but for me, the value is rock bottom. You’d do much better to eat at Hangkang, or Bow Bulgogi, where they have both quality and value.