Tiny downtown Korean spot serves up big flavours
Seoul Food Takeout is at 606 Sherbourne St. near Bloor Street
Toronto has two clusters of Korea-town, and thankfully, both are easily accessible by public transit. For decades downtowners have had access to a small stretch of Bloor Street West that houses a number of Korean restaurants. Some good, some great.
When I used to live in North York, I was spoiled by the number of good Korean food establishments around me. Within a quick drive up Yonge Street, I could easily get my hands on all manners of Korean food, from street food hits to classic home-style dishes.
My introduction to Korean food growing up was here. Two sections of Yonge Street — from Sheppard to Finch avenues, and farther north from Steeles Avenue upwards. This is where I learned about street food, about Korean rice cakes in sauce known as tteok-bokki, a spicy sausage stew known as budae jiigae. There were many dishes that have left lasting impressions.
North York was also where I was first introduced to Mary Choi's cooking. In a small space, the Seoul-born Choi had a condensed menu of Korean street food classics — plates of bulgogi on rice and spicy Korean ramyun noodles.
She found a following instantly with the school kids at nearby Earl Haig Secondary School, who would come in daily for "a taste of home," as Choi puts it.
When I moved out of North York, I lost track of Choi. During subsequent visits I found that her shop had closed. Uptown Korea-town is in a constant state of flux; favourites come and go.
Then two years ago, a friend that lives in the Bloor-Sherbourne corridor tipped me off about "really good bulgogi," directing me to the southwest corner of the intersection.
Tucked next to a coffee franchise and pharmacy was a wall of emblazoned black and white text: "bulgogi," "yummy fried chicken," "stir fry," all crowned by a happy steaming bowl emoji. At first, it looked like a food container, tucked into the façade of the building.
Your first greeting is a lonely restaurant board on the street that displays the weekly specials. Mondays are for Korean chicken curry, Thursdays are for Korean spicy pork. On Fridays there's bibimbap.
There's a small takeout window next to the sign that you apprehensively step toward with no one in sight. A moment later, the window opens and there's Mary, greeting customers and cooking out of one of the smallest commercial footprints in the city.
"There's no room in here for more than two people, but I enjoy it very much because of my customers," Choi said.
Spend a few minutes talking to Choi and it's impossible not to be lifted by her affable nature.
She is a unicorn in our city's diverse food scene. Seoul Food Takeout is a no-seat, takeout window across from Sherbourne station where Choi mixes up a menu of traditional Korean street food with some fusion additions.
Her home-style dishes are inspired by her mom's cooking, and as such the best stuff on the menu is the traditional stuff. Everything that she needs for the menu is made by hand daily.
For example, a simple "rice and vegetables" — a bed of rice is dressed with a bright assemblage of quick pickled vegetables: spinach, radish, carrots, sprouts and cucumbers. A fried egg rests on top. Crack the yolk and mix it to a mess. It's a simple assembly of toothsome sour, sweet, crunchy and creamy all in one bowl.
'Ask for the kimchi'
Personally for me, her standout is her bulgogi — thin cuts of ribeye that Choi marinates overnight in a secret mix.
"I can't tell you everything but it has garlic, soy, honey, Asian pear juice, ginger," she said with a coy smile. The thin slices of beef are tender when served. They're only fried for minutes with carrots and green onions added to give the dish a little pungency.
"I used to love this dish as a kid because of the slight sweetness in the beef."
If you want a kick, ask for her kimchi.
The bulgogi is presented a few ways at the counter. You can have it with rice and japchae — sweet and savoury stir-fried glass noodles, some boiled and fried vegetables. Or you can get the bento box — Choi will add a spring roll, mandu (Korean dumpling) and kimchi.
Again, the kimchi. I didn't know until recently that Choi makes her own kimchi. There are two versions on the menu.
"I make two versions because some people don't like it too funky, especially when they take it back to the office," she said.
The "fresh" kimchi, as she calls it, is thinly sliced cabbage salted and fermented with an array of seasonings and spices. Not overly spicy, it brings a freshness to her dishes.
The second is a longer ferment kimchi that Choi makes in small batches, with thicker cuts of cabbage that have been left for a longer period to soak in the juices — sometimes up to three weeks. So expect more pronounced funk on the nose. There's no better complement to her sweet-tinged bulgogi.
Regardless of your order at Choi's window, I suggest you ask for a sampling of both. If you're lucky, she may even sell you a container to take home.