I don't know about you... but I'm feeling twenty-twooo!
This past Wednesday, I celebrated my 22nd birthday by listening to Taylor Swift's '22' all day. I know, I know... the lyrics are overplayed on every 22-year-old's Facebook status or Instagram caption, but it's become a rite of passage these days. (Also, that must be a new world record for how many times 22 was said in a paragraph.)
For my birthday dinner, I ended up choosing Lee House Korean BBQ Restaurant in Chinatown since I had a strange craving for Korean food. As a family, we don't eat Korean food very often so it was a nice change of pace from our usual Chinese, Vietnamese, or Japanese outings.
Lee House is a family-owned restaurant with two locations, the original being in Old Strathcona and their new expansion in Chinatown. The original location has supposedly been re-branded into an express-type of joint, offering a smaller selection of quick dishes. Their Chinatown location has instead become their full-service restaurant, offering their original menu along with some new dishes that take advantage of the built-in BBQ grills at each table.
Back in the day, the building used to be a grocery store until it sat vacant for years. They've done a nice job of overhauling the space as the interior was inviting and clean, with warm wooden touches and art throughout.
Since it was a Wednesday evening, it wasn't busy at all, with only a handful of tables being occupied. As a result, service was friendly and pleasant, with food coming out pretty quick.
As is customary with any Korean restaurant, they load your table with some complimentary banchan before the rest of the food comes out. The selection that day was pickled radish, seaweed salad, bean sprouts, and kimchi.
No visit to Lee House is complete without ordering their signature dish, the Lee House Legendary Chicken Balls or "Kan Poong Gi" ($16.95). Usually when you hear chicken balls, you think about the Western-Chinese variation of the dish, that basically includes a small chunk of chicken encased in a giant sphere of dry batter. It's terribly unauthentic, and I actually don't think I've ever eaten Chinese chicken balls in my life. But it's much different at Lee House, where it's all chicken, hand-rolled and lightly dredged in potato starch, then deep fried until crispy. They're glazed in a red sauce that is sweet, spicy, and vinegary. Good stuff.
My sister's must-have at any Korean restaurant is Jja Jang Myun ($10.95) which is a Korean-Chinese noodle dish with a black bean sauce containing diced onion, potato, and beef. The ingredients are pretty indistinguishable, and you're meant to toss the noodles around until they're coated with the sauce. What I've come to realize is that my sister and I have very different tastes in food since I've never had a jja jang myun that I've loved (please prove me wrong though if you have any recommendations!). I mean I'll eat it if it's there, but I wouldn't go out of my way to order it. It's either the texture of the noodles or the taste of the sauce that doesn't jive with me personally.
We didn't know that the Kan Poong Gi already came with a small bowl of rice, so we ordered the kimchi fried rice ($12.95) to have alongside it. The dish had wok-tossed sticky rice, fermented kimchi, pork belly, and a fried egg over top. This dish is probably the Korean equivalent of butter chicken or sweet and sour pork, but my mom and I really liked it. There wasn't a whole lot of pork in the dish, but there were plentiful pieces of kimchi strewn throughout the rice. It was also surprisingly on the sweeter side despite its appearance.
For our last dish, I originally wanted to order the Gang Jung Chicken which was described as crispy-fried chicken thigh strips and rice cake sticks, tossed in honey soy sesame glaze, with green onion and peanut. Unfortunately, the waitress said they didn't have it that day, and so I had a brief moment of panic and ordered the dukbboki ($9.95) despite the fact that I don't even care for rice cake sticks all that much. Though in my defense, it was two items up on the menu, and all I could think about were the the rice cake sticks in the original dish that I wanted.
Their dukbboki comes in two variations, either in a sweet ginger soy sauce or a sweet and spicy Korean chili sauce. We chose the latter, which also came with fish cake, cabbage, green onion, and a hard-boiled egg. And yes, this was our third carb dish of the night. In hindsight, I should've ordered another meat dish, perhaps one of their BBQ items to try them out, but I've realized that I don't make good decisions under pressure. Also, by the time I realized, I didn't want to make any inconvenience of cancelling an order that was probably already being cooked (#anxious people problems). But that's besides the point. The rice cakes were okay, they were sufficiently chewy while the rest of the ingredients soaked up the spicy sauce. Our lips were warm, numb and tingling afterwards.
Overall, Lee House is a solid choice for Korean food especially if you live north of the river where Korean food is practically non-existent. What's the deal with that?
P.S. This was the cake that my sister surprised me with and that we enjoyed at home after our dinner. God bless T&T and their cute, reasonably-priced cakes. The inside was just a simple vanilla sponge with buttercream and white chocolate shreds. A little dry, but the cuteness factor makes up for it.