Kasandra Bracken is a wordsmith, wannabe adventurer, avocado enthusiast, and recovering athlete. Kasandra left her hometown of Edmonton many moons ago for supposedly cooler places and told everyone she’d never come back. Now she lives in Edmonton and couldn’t be happier to be home—except for when she hears too much country music. She’s also a textbook Gemini, so ask her again tomorrow.
The Nongbu Experience
Thursday September 01 , 2016
Whenever people used to ask me what I miss most about living in Korea, the answer was always the same: the food.
Yes, more than the friendships I made abroad, I deeply missed the sweet-and-spicy dduk galbi —spicy chicken, potatoes, and vegetables, fried before your eyes on a sizzling grill, wrapped in fresh romaine or crispy sesame leaves. I dreamed of ddukbbokki—that crispy, buttery outer layer so carefully encapsulating its soft and starchy insides, dipped in hot pepper sauce. Oh, and what I would have given for a taste of kimbap—Korea’s answer to sushi—a delectable breakfast roll custom-filled with breaded pork cutlet, egg, hot pepper paste, and fresh greens, wrapped in sesame-oil-brushed seaweed.
Moving home to Edmonton was full of mixed feelings, but I tried my best to fill the newfound gap. First I stuffed it with bulgogi. Then I tried bibimbap.
And then, one day, a man named John Ahn came to my cravings’ rescue. John’s restaurant, Nongbu, quietly opened its doors just off Whyte Ave last April. Their mission? To show off the diversity of Korean food, with dishes not easily found elsewhere in the city. Feast your eyes on a few of my favourites:
KimChi BokumBap (Kimchi Fried Rice)
Seafood Pa-Jeon (Seafood Crepe)
BulGoGi Kimbap (Marinated Beef Korean “Sushi” Roll)
JimDak (Chicken, Vegetables, and Sweet Potato Noodles)
Pork BulGoGi Ssam (Spicy Pork Belly Lettuce Wraps)
Showing off Korea’s more humble meals wasn’t always John’s plan.
I sat with John this March to chat about his vision.
“When I set out to do this three years ago, I had a different idea of what I wanted to open. It was going to be a bit more modern—not fusion, but evolution,” he says. “But, when I was in Seoul, I found that Korean food itself had changed so much.”
John says that because so many of the Korean restaurants in Edmonton were opened by people who immigrated twenty or thirty years ago, much of the food served is, while great, stuck in a sort of “time warp.”
“We wanted to show the new dishes in Korea—like ddukbbokki—that have really blown up in the last 10 years, that people just don’t know about here. Jimdak is another one—it was a huge fad in Korea, and there are restaurants that are dedicated to just that, but here nobody knew what that was.”
John had set out to showcase the evolution of Korean cooking. But he ended up noticing something else, too.
“[In Korea], I started going to the countryside and the smaller cities to find the unique things. I found the more I searched, the more I was leaning towards the simple, basic dishes that people have almost forgotten about, or would kind of take for granted. Dishes that people would only eat at their grandparents’ house.”
Now, with the unique concept of Korean comfort food meets cutting-edge cuisine in mind, John needed a venue in which to present his fare. Though he searched and searched for a location downtown, a vacant store on Gateway Boulevard—a former eyeglass shop—turned out to be just the right spot.
Today, taking a seat at Nongbu feels like a mini cultural immersion—but one that feels more locals’ choice than tourist trap. The silver dishes and bowls in which food is served were ordered from the same street vendors and suppliers that stock restaurants in Korea. Carefully curated black-and-white movies are projected in a constant loop onto the restaurant’s grey walls. Staff-selected music showcases the vast Korean canon beyond PSY and K-pop (according to John, Korean rap is on the rise worldwide, and their jazz scene is pretty smokin’, too).
Reminiscent even moreso of my time in Korea, you can choose to swallow the entire scene back with a swig of soju or Cass—Korea’s ever-popular liquor or beer of choice, respectively. Better yet, fully immerse yourself, and let the young staff show you how to combine the two into a whole new beverage called “somaek”. But consider this fair warning first, from personal experience: after a few glasses, you won’t be able to look back if you try.
For a restaurant barely emerging from its first year, Nongbu has seen a lot of buzz, and a lot of lineups out its doors. But John—who describes his restaurant as his “candy shop” and reluctantly accepts the title of entrepreneur—says he’s just getting started.
“I think we’re at about 70 per cent—there’s a lot more we can improve on.” Even with many recent press accolades, John’s motivation to improve is only spurred on further. “I want to feel like we really, really deserve those awards. We’re extremely flattered, and it’s amazing that we have that recognition that we have right now, but I feel like we can do even better.”
So what does John have his sights set on next? John, in seeking more ways to present clean, simple food, is very intrigued by the locally-sourced mountain vegetables and roots served in Korean temples.
He’s also considering North Korean fare.
“The way I see it, North Korea’s stuck in a time warp. South Korea has evolved quite a bit—packaged foods have filled the supermarket, most [South] Koreans don’t even make their own kimchi anymore, they buy it. North Koreans don’t have those things,” he says. “[North Korean food] is a very clean and simplified version of what Korean food is. It’s the simplicity—I love that simplicity.”
Over the course of our two-hour interview, John’s bubbly enthusiasm hasn’t waned in the slightest. Though he admits to working 10, 12, or even 16-plus hour days almost every day, he’s tireless when talking about his restaurant and his plans for the future. His main advice to staff is his own personal mantra: “Be happy.” And judging by the gleeful grins sported by patrons as each new dish arrives, it’s pretty darn contagious.
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