When Won Jung Gak took over the storefront vacated by Basil Leaf in August at 10023 107 Avenue, it finally added a Korean option to the panoply of Asian restaurants in Chinatown. Up until then, to satisfy Korean cravings, diners had to head to the south side, where the vast majority of Korean establishments are located in the city. In addition, given Won Jung Gak has quite a popular following already from their industrial site at 9655 62 Avenue (they can count my Mum as a fan), it was great that they chose the area of central Edmonton for expansion. I met Jill there for lunch last week, ready to see if Won Jung Gak lived up to such expectations.
The restaurant was empty when I entered, though a handful of parties joined us by the end of our stay. I had to wonder if their location, just off of the beaten path of 101 Street, had anything to do with that. That said, it is a very pleasant place for lunch – with a large bank of windows, the flood of natural light made it a relaxing midday retreat. The new owners retained the periphery of wooden booths inherited from Basil Leaf, but they replaced the loose furniture with elaborately carved tables and chairs, adding some interesting visuals and intricacies to the space. Jill and I also noticed that each table had access to electronic service buzzers – instead of flagging down a server visually or verbally, diners could simply push a button to notify staff that their attention was needed at the table. This was the first time I had ever encountered such a system, though given the few tables occupied at the restaurant that afternoon, we didn’t need to use it.
The menu was huge, and on top of familiar (and unfamiliar) Korean dishes, also featured some Chinese items. Jill and I both ordered the dolsot bibimbap ($13.50), which we agreed was our “benchmark” dish – the one that could make or break our opinion of a Korean restaurant. To start, we also ordered steamed kimchi dumplings ($8.99), which intrigued us.
All of our food arrived simultaneously in a timely fashion, steaming hot. Unfortunately, the dishes were surprisingly bland. For advertising a kimchi filling, we couldn’t detect much heat, and instead, tasted more of the pork inside the dumplings.
Steamed kimchi dumplings
As for the dolsot bibimbap, the stone bowl did help the rice form the crunchy layer of rice the dish is known for, but in terms of flavour, it lacked any discernable pizzazz. Neither the pickled vegetables or seasoned meat stood out from the bed of rice – both Jill and I had to add flavour to our bowls with the supplied chili and vinegar condiments, something I’ve never had to do with bibimbap in my previous experiences.
We didn’t have any complaints about service, but based on our benchmark dish, we both could think of several other Korean restaurants that we would likely return to over Won Jung Gak. That said, given the raves I have heard about its other location, I have to wonder if the kitchen was simply having an off day. With the lack of Korean options in this part of the city, I would like to give them another chance, and hope Korean cuisine is here to stay in Chinatown.
Won Jung Gak
10023 107 Avenue
Lunch daily: 11am-3pm; Dinner: Sunday-Thursday 5-10pm, Friday-Saturday 5-11pm