The weather was great today. Temperatures were in the low twenties; the sun was out in full force unimpeded by any clouds; and the winds were mellowed out. It looked to be a perfect day for some outdoor activities. I could take the kids hiking, biking, to the park, or even do some urban exploring….But alas, it was Saturday. And Saturday meant a family lunch in Burnaby followed by Mandarin school for my daughter.
Unlike the past few weeks – when I had to do a bit of online research to find a restaurant to go to – I already had a restaurant in mind for our family lunch today: Hanwoori. In case you are not familiar with the restaurant, Hanwoori was awarded gold by Vancouver Magazine for it’s 2012 restaurant awards. It is also one of the highest rated local Korean restaurants on yelp, urbanspoon, and other foodie review sites. It’s the Korean restaurant that stood out among the sea of Korean restaurants located on or around Kingsway in the metrotown area.
It is also the Korean restaurant out the myriad local Korean restaurants that my wife and I have found to be the most overrated and overhyped after our first and only visit there around 5 months ago. The food we had on our last visit was nothing special. The seafood pancake was too soft, the jap chae was too oily, and the ginseng chicken soup was flavourless. The food at Hanwoori tasted no different than the food at any other generic Korean restaurant in Burnaby. I didn’t understand why it was so well reviewed and highly regarded by both foodies and critics.
So I thought that I should give it another try to see what the restaurant was all about. I wanted to find out if my previous unsatisfactory meal there was an anomaly or the norm.
The restaurant was not nearly as full today as it was on the Saturday in December that we first visited it. Other than my family, there were only two other groups of diners there today. The restaurant had what I would consider to be typical Korean restaurant decor; It felt comfortable and homey. It also looked well-maintained. Everything – from the tables to the utensils to the washrooms – looked clean to the naked eye.
Our plan of attack in terms of food was this: we would order a few repeat dishes to see if they were indeed as unsatisfactory the second time around, and we would order some new dishes to see if we missed out on their better dishes the first time we were there.
The first of our repeat dishes was the seafood pancake.
The first time around, the seafood pancake was limp, way-too-oily, and contained too little seafood. This time, it was not oily at all, crispy, and tasted so much better that we hardly even noticed that there was barely any seafood in the pancake. The difference between the pancake we had today and the one we remembered having was night and day. This pancake had the perfect crispiness. It was not so hard that it felt deep fried while it was crispy enough to provide a bite between my teeth. It was not oily but it also didn’t feel dry at all. The flavours of the batter/pancake mix combined with the veggies and sporadic bits of seafood were so flavourful that I really didn’t mind it’s relative lack of seafood. And the stone plate it came on kept the pancake warm from the beginning of our meal to the very end. The last piece of it that I ate was still warm around 40 minutes after it arrived at our table.
The second repeat dish we ordered was the bulgogi.
I remembered the bulgogi to be too dry and tough the first time that we ordered it. This time, it was still tough. The meat was obviously overcooked but it was more moist than the last time that we had it. The meat almost drowned in it’s own juices and this juiciness made up for it’s overcooked toughness. The bulgogi was also very, very flavourful. Every tiny bit of meat, mushroom, and onion from this dish walloped my taste buds with a sweet and savory one-two punch that was rich and pleasurable. Like the pancake, the bulgogi tasted way better than the version we had in December.
The kanpungi (spelling?) was the first new dish that we ordered today.
Kanpungi is basically deep fried chicken drenched in a sweet chili sauce and garnished with even more red chilies. Though the fry job wasn’t top notch, the flavours of this dish were very addictive. It was very spicy, but not too spicy that I needed to constantly go for my glass of water. The spiciness was just strong enough that it filled my entire mouth with spiciness but it was still well below my threshold for tolerance. The sweetness created a nice counterpoint to the spiciness and it’s envelopment of the taste buds sort of shielded them from the constant attack of spiciness. This combination of the sweet and spicy flavours was so enjoyable that I couldn’t stop eating piece after piece of the chicken. Similar to lack of seafood in the pancake, I almost didn’t mind that the batter/breading of the chicken was too chewy because it’s flavours were so damn addictive.
Even more addictive than the Kanpungi was the kimchi stew, which was also a dish that we didn’t order on our first visit to the restaurant.
This kimchi stew is, unequivocally, the best kimchi soup that I have had locally. In fact, it is one of the best kimchi stews that I’ve ever had. Period. It was the best, most enjoyable, and most flavourful dish of our meal today. It was a soulful dish and it took me to my happy place. It was a dish that, even though hot (in both temperature and spiciness), made me feel all cozy and warm inside despite the fact that today was the warmest day of the year so far. It wasn’t like I was needing the warm and cozy feeling on such a warm day but the kimchi stew both created that need and satisfied it at the same time.
The napa cabbage was beautifully tender. It was stewed so long that it’s fibers broke down and it became a slice of transparent tenderness. The slices of pork in the stew were also stewed to the perfect, break-apart-to-the-touch texture. Although the pork slices looked tough and dry at first glance, the meat broke apart the moment they came into contact with my mouth.
The broth itself was even more amazing than the stewed kimchi and pork. The broth was the most complex kimchi stew broth that I have ever tasted. It took in all of the aged sourness and spiciness released by the kimchi. It took in the porky meatiness released by the pork slices. It also had a slew of other complex vegetable flavours that reminded me of Russian borscht. It had the intense sweetness of vegetables stewed for hours on end and a hint of tomatoes that made itself known at the end of every sip of the soup. Amazing!
Compared to the kimchi stew, the beef bone soup that came with the bulgogi tasted pedestrian.
I believe the proper name for Korean beef bone soup is sulongtang. I’ve had the soup many times at many different restaurants. Most of the versions of this soup tasted the same, and the one I had at Hanwoori today tasted no different. The only difference was that since this version was complimentary, it didn’t come with the usual extra salt and green onions. The exclusion of these components meant that I couldn’t tailor the flavours of this dish to my liking. Because of this, I wasn’t able to ‘fix’ the flavours.
A Korean meal wouldn’t be complete without the banchan and we were given six of them.
The standout of the six were the kimchi and teh pickled daikon. The kimchi was juicy, crispy, and tasted as fresh as pickled nappa cabbage could. It was neither too salty nor too monotonously spicy. It’s spiciness was perfectly balanced with it sourness and it’s saltiness.
The pickled diakon was also very well made. It was crisp and juicy. It was sweet and sour but not too sweet nor too sour. It felt like any old pickled daikon when eaten alone, but it really shined when eaten with the dishes we ordered today. When eaten with the fried chicken, it worked to temper the chicken’s oiliness and spiciness. When eaten with the pancake, it added a cool crunchiness to the pancake’s hot crispiness. When eaten with the stew, it worked to cool down the hot spiciness of the broth. The pickled daikon was the jack of all trades, and the master of all of them.
The meal I had today at Hanwoori today was one of the best Korean meals I’ve had locally. It is on par with the very enjoyable meals that I have had at Ma Dang Goul. It is better than any other Korean meal I’ve had in Burnaby. The meal I had today is also leaps and bounds better than the last meat that I had at Hanwoori. After my meal today, I am convinced that my last visit to Hanwoori coincided with the kitchen staff’s day off.
I think the judges in the Vancouver Magazine restaurant awards are right. Hanwoori just might be the best local Korean restaurant…but only if you don’t count Coquitlam as being local.