Last Sunday after Andrea and I went to the art club, we headed to shinae (downtown) to get some food before fueling ourselves for the search for a ukulele.
I’d been walking around there during the week and had passed by a deli – Hans’ Deli – with a sign that proclaimed it had steak and tortillas.
I was adequately intrigued, and made a mental note to come back for some food exploration when my brain twin arrived that weekend.
She seemed equally intrigued as me when I mentioned it, so we headed over, took our place in a booth, and what transpired next was so taste-bud blowing that I couldn’t help but break out my food-critic quill to write up this review. (For those of you who don’t know, I was a staff writer for The Concordian, one of Concordia University’s newspapers, and all my articles can be found online here should you want recommendations of food places to check out in Montreal! Note how the titles got increasingly punny the more I wrote).
So here we go:
Tteokbokki Carbonara: A Lovechild
For anyone who’s had Korea’s traditional fireball-spicy street food, tteokbokki – and possibly had their bowels explode because of its tendency to turn the contents of one’s guts to magma – it’s understandable that mistrust would favour strongly into seeing a restaurant offer a carbonara variety.
Violently spicy mixed with cheese? Recipe for a curdled disaster in your stomach.
And yet Hans’ Deli, perched on the second floor of an inconspicuous building in downtown Cheongju, boasts its imaginative menu while maintaining full tables and a steady influx of customers. Therefore it probably knows what it’s doing…right?
Well I can’t speak for the other food, since it was Andrea and I’s first stop-in at the restaurant, but I can tell you it was a food junkie’s torture to choose a dish. Chicken ribs on stirred rice? Or Japanese Hamburg steak with grilled vegetables? Or maybe tortilla pizza which toes the line of unforgivably blasphemous and tantalizingly adventurous?
And then there were the tteokbokkis. I’ve only ever had the street food variety, and while I wouldn’t claim this deli’s food to be as high-end as gourmet, this is probably the closest to a gourmet tteokbokki you can get. There was the regular (with a little red chili pepper next to it to indicate spiciness) and a few others that I now have forgotten, because the carbonara claimed my attention.
There actually was no chili pepper next to it (which I wasn’t sure I trusted, because what’s a tteokbokki that isn’t spicy?), and though I’ve rarely had carbonara in the past due to my dislike of pasta, Andrea, our friend KR and I had had a carbonara sweet potato dish while we were in Seoul the day before so it made me want some more. It was intriguing…too intriguing to ignore.
I decided I hadn’t had a food adventure in a while, and since it’s something I’d never seen anywhere else, I couldn’t say no. Andrea ordered a breaded teriyaki pork cutlet with stir-fried veggies and rice, and we also each got mango-peach juice. And a small basket of chicken balls to share, because chicken balls.
Service did take a bit long, buuuut it was really busy, and thus forgivable. Side dishes were self-serve, and though there were lots of spaces for other side dishes (ex. kimchi, hot pepper rings, etc), there were only bread-and-butter pickles available – to Andrea’s chagrin, and my delight.
We munched on the pickles until the food arrived, and our eyes were instantly delighted by what they feasted on. Korean food is generally always aesthetically pleasing, and this place was no exception: thin zebra stripes of teriyaki/mayonnaise zagging across Andrea’s pork cutlet, the merry red-and-white checkered paper in which our chicken balls nestled in their basket, and of course the creamy carbonara with its golden baked-cheese top.
“That looks amazing!” Andrea and I exclaimed when we saw it.
I was so compelled to try it that I completely forgot to take a picture before ransacking the plate with my fork. Because after the first bite, I couldn’t stop – except to fan my mouth to let out the heat because it was still scalding hot. But they were right, it wasn’t spicy at all!
What did it taste like?
I don’t even know if I can do it justice. It was a work of art, and as such I’ll do my best to capture it through ekphrasis, though nothing can hold a candle.
Tteokbokki is made with a traditional Korean rice cake.
These have little taste on their own, but have a kind of gummy texture that’s very soft when you bite into it. They’re one of my favourite things in Korea.
So when I say these were the best rice cakes I’ve ever had – even above the cheese stuffed ones I came across in a dakgalbi restaurant – I want you to understand how much magnitude this statement commands.
Imagine angels pulled a Jesus and offered up their soft, pale flesh so mortals could eat of their body;
Imagine, parents, when you want to nibble your newborn baby’s toes because they look so scrumptious (I’m going off what my mom has described to me over the years and how babies look delicious, not suddenly going cannibalistic Jonathan Swift on you);
Remember to back when you were a child and you wanted to eat your playdough, and imagine the taste you thought it had before you were disillusioned.
All of these combined, that’s the taste of glory these rice cakes had.
In Plato’s Theory of Ideas, they are the perfect form of rice cake.
Alright, now that we have the base of it, the sauce. O, vainglorious sauce! Has there ever existed a more sublime example of carbonara?
Creamy, peppery, rich, and an example of divinity in descent form. Bacon, onion, rice cake – all were drenched with this masterpiece. Cheese strings clung to each forkful as it was lifted away.
Though I’ve not had much carbonara in the past to compare it to, Andrea confirmed that not only was this indelible for a Korean take on this Western food, but it was one of the best of any that have been made anywhere. I’m sure only Italy would make a superior dish.
I haven’t talked about the other food yet, and now they’ll pale in comparison (though in truth they did), but I’ll endeavour to write about them anyway.
The pork cutlet was juicy and tender, the vegetables perhaps a little on the soggy side from the generous portion of the teriyaki sauce – but the extra did allow for dipping the pork which wholly made up for it.
The chicken balls were most excellent. Served with a sweet mustard, they were crispy and very hot. It was nice because while they were breaded, they neither looked not tasted overly greasy. Given that the carbonara was ridiculously rich (its only flaw, and I don’t know if I’d’ve been able to eat it all – even with all Andrea’s help she offered – if it had been the only dish to sink my fork into), it allowed for the perfect palate cleanser.
Lastly, the juice is worth a mention just because it was so sweet. It genuinely felt like we’d stuck straws into chilled yellow mangoes. We only saw after we’d paid that the soda fountain looked like soft drinks were available for free, but hey, for an extra 3, 000W it was worth it.
And as for the prices, that’s one of the best things about this place: Andrea’s cutlet was around 6, 000W (less than $6), and my carbonara was (wait for it) 4, 500W. Whaaaaaaat!! Incredible. The chicken balls were around 4, 000W.
Anyway, so that’s my foodie indulgence of the week (or month). It’s convinced me that cultural fusion is one of the best things about globalization – not that I needed much convincing previously. Korea/Italy, who’d have thought!
If any of you were oscillating on visiting Korea, I now invite you to just try and say no to the lovechild of tteokbokki and carbonara.
Argh, now I’ve made myself really hungry…
But to distract myself, I’m curious: what’s the oddest and/or best cultural fusion dish you’ve come across?
My previous favourite was Vancouver’s Japadog.
[EDIT: I recently went back to Han’s Deli for further indulgence, and my heart broke because they redid their menus without the tteokbokki carbonara. I don’t even know how to cope, but I feel like a part of me has died. I suppose I will always be glad that I was able to immortalize it here with these words and images! RIP, tteokbokki carbonara.]