Spice Alley Korean Restaurant and Bar – Vancouver, BC

Spice Alley Korean Restaurant and Bar
1333 Robson Street
Vancouver, BC
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.

Spice Alley on Urbanspoon

Pojang Macha – Vancouver, BC

Like a phoenix rising out of the ashes, Pojang Macha emerged from site of what I had assumed was simply a makeover of the previous tenant – a decent Korean restaurant specializing in soondubu – that I had eaten in from time to time over the past year.  Peeking inside one day during the construction lull (a sign outside said “re-opening in September”), I saw drapes of orange plastic tarps everywhere and assumed things were underway for a flashy new setup.  To my utter surprise, on a return visit this month after the doors were re-opened, I discovered that this bright drapery had not been torn down and was in fact the intended motif!

The inside of the restaurant was literally covered with the colorful tarps along every single wall.  The entrance even had a tarp covering that was partially peeled back, to suggest it was perhaps still under construction, but again, this was part of the intended design.  Scattered around were some upturned and painted drum cans, that had been converted to tables with large steel circular plates attached on top.  Around them were stubby blue plastic stools.  In the center of everything were two long wooden tables, that had a pair of stainless steel tubs placed inside, with some narrow skewer sticks that were visibly floating on top.

After getting over my initial bewilderment, I finally realized what was going on.

In Korean, a pojang macha could be described as a street side vendor/cart/stall.  You can spot these all over the major streets, especially in the high traffic areas around bus and train transportation hubs, as well as in residential neighborhoods.  Most look like little kiosks, with the same one-side opening you find on sandwich trucks that patrol the lunch hour of many industrial areas of major North American cities, that offer up sandwiches and hot drinks to mostly blue collar workers.  The pojang macha in Korea take it a step further in the winter months, by putting up sheets of plastic (sometimes clear, sometimes colored), surrounding the cart/stall, creating a warm bubble that keeps out the cold wind and captures the hearty smells of food that are prepared inside.

In essence, the folks here had re-created this, but inside an actual building structure.

I could sense a real determination to stick to this unique theme here, as there was even a creative play on the menus.  Instead of using regular sheets of paper in a booklet, the menu items were hand written in a dark marker onto what almost appeared to be like car hubcaps – some round circular aluminum discs, with everything only in Korean script.  Along one wall were also some narrow sheets of paper with handwritten items – again all in Korean.  Fortunately, I was with someone who could read it all and explain it to me.  [I later noticed when a pair of large Caucasian males, dressed up in full on biker gear and looking totally out of place, walked in and comfortably sat down at one of the large common tables, that they had received menus in English).

Even the banchan (side dishes) came out in a never before seen fashion – on a segmented aluminum plate, much like you’d find in a military mess hall.  The hot brick of tofu dressed in a watery, spicy sauce was my favorite of this lot.  Some salted edamame, sticks of celery and carrots, a vinegar dressed seaweed, and some sweetly flavored potato cubes completed the offering.

The bossam dish – a plate of nice, thick slices of boiled pork belly, served with a side mixture that was comprised of kimchi, scallions, red peppers, and little dried shrimp, was our main dish.  Now this really reminded me of the small plate dishes that are popular in drinking establishments in Korea, called anju.  The instant envelope created by wrapping a piece of the pork along with the spicy toppings inside a leave of cabbage was a hit at our table.  I wish I had been in the mood to drink some soju, as this would have gone down very well together.

Lastly, we decided to sample a bowl of the korean odeng (cut up, and flat pieces made of a cooked mixture of fish paste and flour), including some udon noodles.  The combination of the chewy ingredients in the odeng and udon, and the flavorful broth made for a heartwarming finish to our meal.

Once you get over the initial surprise of the decor, and if you are have even a remote familiarity to the street versions in South Korea, I am sure this place will bring a smile to your face.  At least, tip your hat to the owners for boldly going in this direction, and bringing this piece of Korea to Vancouver’s dining scene.  I am sure there will be some who don’t get it and I could see why that would happen.  I hope this small article can serve in a small way to explain to any unsuspecting visitors, about this concept of bringing street food inside.  On the evening that I visited, there was a group of older Korean gentlemen who seemed to be relishing in this transformation of street culture from their homeland, to pairs of young couples who seemed to be there for the food and conversation, as well as the a fore mentioned bikers.

Example of an outdoor pojang macha in Seoul

Example of an outdoor pojang macha in Seoul

After recently dining in a place that had invested heavily in the design and was somewhat lacking with the food, it was a refreshing change to see quite the opposite come through at Pojang Macha.  I guess it just goes to show that there is always that balance with restaurants, between the importance of the food being served, as well as the place its being served in.  At times, the finest ingredients and creations from the kitchen meld well with creatively designed spaces, and other times not.  Most often, there is an imbalance between the two.  In this case, I think I will always side with preferring solid food over beautiful architecture or interior design.  How about you?

Pojang Macha
595 E Broadway
Vancouver, BC
Tel: (604) 569-0852
Hours: Seven days a week, 5pm to midnight

Pojang Macha on Urbanspoon