Spice Alley Korean Restaurant and Bar
1333 Robson Street
Tel: (604) 685 4468
The recorded history of what is modern day Korea stretches back thousands of years, making it one of the world’s oldest civilizations. Through this time the country’s culinary evolution was impacted by regional isolation and rule, religious beliefs, brutal wars, general agricultural shifts and technology. Through it all, and what exists today as the framework for Korean cuisine, is a diverse food culture that comprises key items such as rice, vegetables, seafood, meats and noodles. But what probably strikes home as the fundamental element of many staple dishes in Korean cuisine is heat.
Both in terms of temperature with the use of hot coals or gas-fired grills to bring out the wonderful flavors of marinated meats, to the fiery taste of ingredients such as chili peppers that helps make kimchi such a popular accompaniment to any meal. Sure enough, both of these heat characteristics are present in the food offerings at Spice Alley Korean Restaurant and Bar – a popular hangout for the crowds of Korean students looking for the tastes and comfort of their home country’s cuisine, and the adventurous locals who curiously delve into this truly Korean enclave.
The burgeoning part of Robson Street in downtown Vancouver that is home to several Korean restaurants makes for a challenging array of choices when explicitly looking for a Korean meal. A notable range of quality and prices can be had, and along with the Japanese izakaya-style places in the neighborhood, you have a complex scene to try and satisfy both food and alcohol cravings. But judging from the frequent busy crowds that I’ve seen over the years through the front glass, Spice Alley seems to be succeeding with its offering that combines both an authentic lineup of Korean food and drinks. Though if I were to characterize Spice Alley, it probably holds greater strengths as a bar, that serves up food that traditionally goes well within this drink-first-eat-second setting.
Fitting perfectly with this mold, was a set food menu item called Soju Lovers. Soju, for those unfamiliar, is a Korean rice-based, clear, distilled liquor. One part of this trio of dishes was the Kolbaengi, a spicy kochujan mixture of onions, cabbage (sometimes replaced by leeks), and kolbaengi (sea snails), that has a bit of acid from a splash of vinegar. The kolbaengi are cooked through, giving that distinct chewy texture, but the rest of the vegetable ingredients are raw and just thoroughly mixed with the spicy paste. I was expecting a bit more of a touch of sweetness from the kochujan, based on having this at times in Seoul. But with a lot of this kind of Korean bar food, you get a slight difference in how its prepared, so I accepted it as such on this night. The side serving of cold somen noodles is eaten together, to help neutralize the spicy heat.
The second component of this Soju Lovers set was the more commonly known Dubu Kimchi. Warmed (by boiling) slices of a mid-hardness tofu is paired with a hot sauteed mixture of cabbage kimchi and thin slices of pork. A hint of sesame oil gives it that nutty flavor, and is garnished with some chopped green onions. Frankly, I’ve had better. Something with the kimchi was not up to snuff. It was just good, but not really delicious, so as to entice you to drink more Soju. With kimchi really being an individual taste preference, given how its made from household to household, perhaps my dissatisfaction could be contributed to me simply not really liking how this particular kimchi was made. Again, with the somen noodles, the tofu with its neutral flavor, is used to control the spicy heat from the Dubu Kimchi, and is best eaten together.
Lastly, to help warm up the soul, a hot bowl of Odeng. I’d commented previously what this dish entails. It was not much different here at Spicy Alley, only we didn’t have the option of ordering some additional udon noodles to go with it, as had at Pojang Macha. After a good portion of Soju by this time, the nicely flavored broth with a slight salty taste, satisfied the cravings I had from having a few drinks of the alcohol.
Spice Alley fills a niche on Robson Street, as a typical Korean watering hole, where food probably plays second fiddle to the bottles of Soju, beer and Makgeolli. It has a unique, dark, almost club-like vibe with Korean pop music coming over the speakers and catering to a younger crowd. Perhaps not that overly non-Korean speaker friendly, judging by the service staff and the somewhat awkward English menu. But if you do have a Korean friend who can explain to you about this style of dining-and-drinking Korean style, then it makes for an interesting experience.