This week, I decided to give a visit to a restaurant that opened just down the street from me at the corner of Main and Locke , Alirang Korean Restaurant. It’s been open for a few months now and I’ve been meaning to try it. Unfortunately, I’m quite unfamiliar with Korean food and didn’t feel like I had the expertise to review the food. Well, lucky for me my good friend Mark, who spent two years teaching English in Korea, was kind enough to join me for dinner and help with today’s review.
The format of this review will be a bit different since I’ve had help from Mark. I’ll give my description and thoughts on the dishes, but leave the final word to Mark, since he’s had many versions of the food before. Mark’s comments will be presented in italics. As well, I’ve linked many of the dishes to articles since this was a new experience for me, and it’s always fun to learn about a new cuisine.
Ambiance & Decor
The decor inside Alirang is fairly neutral. The plants and korean art are nice, but the plastic table clothes on non-BBQ tables feels a bit cheap. Mark noted that although better than other Korean restaurants in Hamilton I’ve been to, it wasn’t anything particularly inviting.
Food & Drink
Let’s start with the drinks. The menu has a decent selection of bottled beers (none on tap) at prices between $3.50 and $4.50, so getting a beer with dinner doesn’t come at a premium – I was certainly pleased to see this. Unfortunately there were no local beers to choose from, but they did have the standard beers (Bud, Molson, Coors, etc.) and a pretty good selection of Asian beers, including Tiger, Asahi, Tsing Tao, and Sapporo. Mark ended up getting a Heineken and I got a Sapporo.
In Korea, it’s common to have your dinner with Soju, a type of distilled rice (or more recently, potato) beverage . Alirang did offer one type of soju, but at $14 per 375 ml bottle, we felt it was a bit too expensive.
Before I present the food, I want to note that Alirang offers both regular dishes as well as Korean BBQ (with the grills built into the table). We only sampled items from the regular menu, and so this review does not reflect their Korean BBQ. I’ll also preface the comments on individual dishes with Mark’s general comments.
Overall, I would give the food a 4/5. All the dishes were pretty good, but I have had better tasting versions of all of them before. One difficulty of being a Korean restaurant in a market like Hamilton is that restaurants tend not to specialize. Instead of doing a subset of Korean food extremely well, they tend to focus on variety. So although on their own I thought the dishes were fairly tasty, they don’t quite compare to some of their counterparts in restaurants that specialize in a particular set of dishes. Perhaps given the recent surge of Korean restaurants in Hamilton, specialization might become a bit more common.
Since the evening was quite rainy, Mark insisted we needed to order Pajeon (Pazeon on Alirang’s menu). This pancake-type dish is usually filled with green onion and seafood or kimchi, and is a rainy day tradition. The pancake itself is much denser than a north american pancake and is savoury instead of sweet. The edges are very slightly crispy, and it’s quite tasty when dipped in the included, salty sauce (similar to fish sauce). Unfortunately, this wasn’t one of the better dishes we ordered. The seafood in it was low quality, which dominated the flavour. Although normally one of my favourites, this did not live up to my memories in Korea.
Our next appetizer was the Ddeokbokki, or Topokki. At the base, this street food staple has very soft and chewy rice and fish cakes which is then covered in a sweet and spicy sauce. Mark and I both enjoyed this dish a lot, and Mark noted that it had a really nice blend between sweet and spicy.
Next up was our first main, Jjajangmyeon. This dish is often served at chinese restaurants in Korea, and consists of a soft noodle (somewhat similar to udon noodles) covered in a thick, black, soy bean sauce. Visible in the picture are also the large chunks of onion throughout the sauce. This entree is normally one of Mark’s guilty pleasures, but we were both disappointed that the sauce was a bit cold, which ruined the consistency and some of the flavour of the dish.
Last up is the kimchi sundubu jjigae. This dish is a stew (with fairly thin broth) usually served bubbling hot alongside a stone bowl of rice, and with many sides. Overall, the stew had a nice, rich flavour, but definitely did not live up to my memory of some of the excellent sundubu jjigae I had in Korea where eggs were available on the table to crack freshly into the boiling stew upon arrival of the dish. Also missing was the stone bowl of black bean rice to make into a burnt rice soup after eating the stew. In our case, the rice was served in a metal bowl, and while warm, would have been much nicer in the hot stone bowl which cooks the rice along the edge until cripsy. The included side dishes, shown below, were (from front to back) seaweed, kimchi, potato, and bean sprouts. The potato and kimchi were particularly nice.
We both thought service at Alirang was a big issue. The staff is friendly enough, and we received our food in a reasonable amount of time, but that’s where the positives end. There was only one waitress for the entire restaurant (of which roughly seven tables were filled) and it was difficult to tell if they were going for a Korean or Western style of service (the Korean style of service is very hands off. However, as soon as you ask for something they are very prompt and courteous). Although our server was hands off, she was not very prompt in response to any requests – It was the worst of both worlds of service. A couple of requests were even forgotten completely. All in all, we didn’t leave the restaurant until almost 45 minutes after we had finished eating, and were left quite thirsty after running out of drinks halfway through the meal.
The Final Word
Alirang is a bit mixed. Low beer prices, average food prices, decent quality food, and awful service make for a bit of an uncertain visit. It’s probably worth at least trying, but we’re not too optimistic you’ll love it. Overall, we give Alirang Korean Restaurant three out of five hammers.