Every once in a while you come across a dish that seems to under-promise but instead happily over-delivers.
Jjajangmyeon, a noodle dish at Korean restaurant Seoul Soul in Waterloo, is one such dish.
A dark and seemingly brooding bowl, its darkness on the surface would have you thinking heavy, clumsy, soggy bites were to follow. But, like the bromide of judging a book by its proverbial cover, that’s not the case.
Seoul Soul’s dish is among the ‘new’ items on the multi-page, plastic-wrapped menu at the 13-year-old restaurant (which changed hands a year ago) which is part of the busy outdoor food court that is the place near the University of Waterloo.
Bright, lively signage on the exterior gives way to an interior decor consisting of a casual arrangement of basic tables and sturdy chairs and a row of banquettes. There are a few wall-mounted TVs from which melancholic K-Pop tunes play softly.
Supplies stored on steel shelves sit next to a table where a staff member’s young children share a meal with Grandpa.
Most of the artwork on the walls is menu page captures – with the exception of a large, dramatic mural depicting, through an oil-hole-in-a-brick-wall, a pair of warriors wielding swords and chopsticks during a table set with a grill and traditional banchan dishes: it’s quite a standout piece.
Students show up at about the same rate as Uber Eats and Skip the Dishes drivers picking up takeout orders for delivery.
Jjajangmyeon isn’t a complex dish, I wouldn’t say, but Seoul Soul cuisine has infused it with layers of flavors that materialize as you eat.
Black chunjang sauce is made from sweet-salty black beans and the dish, overall, is also rich in myths and traditions that characterize many foods in many cultures that we enjoy.
Supposedly invented at the turn of the 20th century by a Chinese national at a restaurant in Incheon, near the South Korean capital of Seoul, jjajangmyeon became popular as a cheap meal among working and middle-class people who worked in the city port after the 1950s. -53 Korean War. It quickly became popular across the country.
The bowl of Seoul Soul arrives with wheat noodles as a solid base, over which the thick, black sauce is poured – the name of the dish breaks down to “fried sauce” with noodles.
The noodles initially seem leaden and heavy, but it takes a while to stir them into the sauce, and the result is surprising: the jjajangmyeon suddenly seems light and delicate despite the dark hue.
Then, as you continue to dip with your chopsticks, chunks of onion and cabbage join the mix along with wonderfully flavorful chunks of pork.
If long noodles aren’t your thing, these plastic-wrapped menu pages tout Seoul Chicken, “Korean’s famous fried chicken”: Half a dozen wings are piping hot, super crunchy, and fluffy on the inside. , with a garnish of green onions . Drizzle with the accompanying Korean Soy Mustard Sweet and Sour Sauce and you’re golden and crispy.
Grilled “fire chicken” with vegetables and rice provides a nice heat kick that is noticeable but not overwhelming.
With most Korean meals, the delicious banchan comes first to whet the appetite: small, flat bowls of kimchi and other pickles (which may include mung bean sprouts), braised and seasoned potato wedges and fish cake ribbons.
Even on vacation and in the mid-afternoon, the restaurant is busy with construction workers having a meal, students coming in (barely taking their eyes off the iPhone), and delivery drivers taking orders away.
All the while, melancholy K-pop plays steadily in the background as you happily sip your noodles.
Andrew Coppolino is a Kitchener-based food writer and host. Visit him at andrewcoppolino.com.