Thursday, October 31, 2013

Journey to the West

Eat your heart out, Korean-Cosby.

West of Seoul's 'opening' seemed like five long centuries. I like to think I waited for its vehicular arrival for about as long as Su Wukong waited for the opportunity to be released from the Buddha's own hand. I checked websites, looked in the streets, read tweets, even tweeted to the point of being ignored by them. But, eventually I had to come to the understanding that I’d either be around when the damned thing got some gas and hit the pavement, or I’d be up in the air, on a plane to Red China waiting to eat dog in the streets. Fortuitously however, the Universe- at least I like to think so- wanted me to have both. 

Some Sundays ago, Bingeman’s park- just one of the many places Joey and I have been ‘dismissed’ from (Joey for no bad behavior whatsoever; me for corrupting the youth of Athens)- hosted what the Region called the largest food truck event ever. The less backhanding individual would politely introduce it as the 2013 KW Harvest Food Truck Rally for Charity. So, though inevitably expensive, I managed to absolve my cheap guilt by telling myself over and over again, ‘it was for charity.’ But let’s face it, I was perfectly prepared to spend what I still contend is a ridiculous amount of cash for novel street food. That said, let me just answer the question I seem to cleverly skirt with backhanded statements: will I EVER think food trucks are worth the cash? No. Not ever. You’re better off going to a restaurant. At least you can sit, loiter, eat, and not shit in the streets for the same amount of money, tip included. But again, it was for charity!

So, calling Joey out of an inebriated slumber, he, the XuanZang- the Tripitaka, the Tang Sanzang- to my Great Sage Equal to Heaven, journeyed with me if only to release me from the culinary tyranny that had enslaved my curiosity for so, so long.

And then there we were, standing in line with tens of trucks at attention, their engines all drowning out all the obligatory chatter us food fatheads could posture out of our glutinous mouths. We meant business. Joey meant to eat more than I thought he should have- without pacing himself, at least. Luckily, convincing him of the existence of other trucks, and not only the one we had ventured to eat, had him taking his time. West of Seoul’s docket had us choosing what I stereotypically considered Korean, culinary appropriations aside. I ordered what seems to be Waterloo’s proverbial food truck staple: Risotto balls, but Korean; and the only other item I considered patriotically Korean: pork belly. Unless doughnuts and apple cider are something I know nothing about. But cheap shots aside, and using Joey as the name-sake  for our order, we took our appetizers and ran into the giant residual tent left standing on the property after the previous night’s Oktoberfest celebration, where-in-which Joey witnessed a woman get pushed by a big drunk dude. Anyway…

The clever constitution of Kimchi rice balls never really seems clever in the least. In fact, it seemed too obvious when I read it on the menu; but I ate it. The things were hardy with glutinous rice, and briny from the kimchi mixed within. Still, I couldn’t help but think the things were missing an element. Otherwise, when it came to any sapidity, the things were bland, even with the Russian-esque Korean dressing, which’s familiar flavor you find in every other joint. Was it wise to play it safe? Or pander to pedestrian palates? Probably. Especially since I’m probably the most polemic eater around these here parts, and people would sooner listen to me than eat enough on their own and say, ‘hey wait a minute, I’ve had this before.’ Anyway, that’s the worst of it. What I did like was the flaky, light tempura used to batter the otherwise hardy staple. Frankly, risotto balls are the residuals of poor peasant proletarians who needed every calorie they could get. Eat enough and you’ll sink like a stone, so thank high cuisine for some gastronomic gentrification.

Texturally, West of Seoul’s pork belly was out of this world. I could feel the oil wet my lips, the tender fatty pork just melt away when I bit into it. No pull, no fibrous bite. It was unbelievable, especially around these here parts. Otherwise, it tasted salty and usual, which, unfortunately, had me yearning for something more. I won’t argue that simplicity is a good thing. Certainly, the popular convention today is that simple makes for the best kind of food, but the adage seems a little more than overused at this point. Simple can be good, but so can creative flavours, not that the pork particularly needed it. Still, buttery fat wasn’t enough to satisfy my adventure that day, and Joey wasn’t nearly comatose enough at that point. So we surveyed the long line of competition, inadvertently finding ourselves gathered around the attractively creative menu options of food trucks from out of town. What they were doing here? Charity, bro, charity. We were glad. And looking for something lighter than what we not minutes before crammed down our throats, found Hamilton’s Karma Chamealeon, apparently Ontario’s first 100% plant-based and animal-free food truck. Anyway, who really cares? Their Jamaican Jerk Tacos were enough to convert the most staunch carnivore, or the most unsympathetic, cynical eater who believes anything vegetable and restaurant related is a consumer trend. But I’ll be damned if Joey and I weren’t absolutely floored by marinated jackfruit pulled apart to match the texture of pork, topped with papaya-guava-salsa on blue corn tortillas. The creativity, the combination of tastes- sweet with savoury out of nowhere and a heat that came right at the last minute- made Karma Chamealeon our choice truck of the day, and forgetting trucks even existed in Waterloo. We went back just to smell whatever else landed in other customers’ hands. And since Hamilton seemed to dish out a great culinary chariot, we thought we’d try and make it a two-fer. 

Not two doors down, we visited Jonny Blonde, a truck offering a plethora of creative flatbead creations. And since the theme of the day seemed to me to be Korean, and the truck’s bulgogi sandwich offered a creative slaw with asian pear, as well as a mystery teriyaki sauce, I couldn’t stay away. Mixing our last little bit of dough, Joey and I begged for a sandwich split down the middle, and were humbly obliged. A soft, airy bread folded over rich sinewy short rib that curmudgeonly stuck between our teeth, but at least stayed true to a Korean staple. Jonny’s teriyaki seemed nothing out of the ordinary though, and would have saved him face to not call it his own. If anything, it was just more of the familiar. I could appreciate the creative chutzpah of combinations, but found myself done in by mediocre culinary rhetoric. A shame, but eatable to say the least. 

Hey, it took a humble monk 17 years to retrieve the sutras, and 5 centuries for a monkey to reach buddhahood, I’ll be damned if it doesn’t take me nearly as long to find something really remarkable to taste.

West of Seoul on UrbanspoonKarma Chamealeon on UrbanspoonJonny Blonde on Urbanspoon


Carla White said...

I don't think West of Seoul ever claimed to be solely Korean, I believe they use Korean influences in various dishes. I went to the food truck festival that happened in Uptown Waterloo the weekend before and had an appetizer and main from two other trucks, but I did get WofS's dessert: dark chocolate chili brownie cookies - they were excellent!

I can agree that food trucks aren't date night material and a restaurant would be better, but as far as offering a variety of options at local outdoor events (concerts, beerfest, etc.), I far prefer these grab-and-go options over the usual street meat vendor, which has been our only option before now. I say, bring them on! They may be more expensive, but at least they're more delicious, too.

weezee said...

i never claimed they said they were only korean either