Taste gamjatang at a unique Waterloo Region restaurant

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This is an outdated corner east of King Street in Eby in Kitchener. Parts of the stairs in Hong Kong Plaza, once apparently called Colonnade Plaza, are in ruins and pockmarked.

In one corner of the small square, there is an abandoned and dilapidated sandwich board advertising a student special for teriyaki but with no price – or a restaurant attached to it.

The resort’s “ell” architecture is a mish-mash of tile, paint, wrought iron, concrete, aluminum, and glass across its three floors, making it quite distinct and certainly unique. But it’s not Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Add to that an eclectic collection of businesses that span multiple industries: a clothing store or two, a driving school, and a hairdresser — and wasn’t this second-floor corner business once a watch repair shop? and clocks that was there that long if I remember correctly?

There’s Bold and Beautiful Boutique – or at least a sign that says so. It also has a unit that has cooked a few different cuisines over the years and is currently the second iteration, at least, which has been a Chinese restaurant called – wait for it – “Chinese Restaurant”.

Frankly, I love the urban grit of it all as the east continues to evolve – but best of all, the quirky square hosted one of my favorite rice bowls while I wrote about the food .

In fact, my last column as a Waterloo Region Record restaurant reviewer years ago was written about Korean BBQ, the place where I discovered bibimbap, the Korean mixed rice dish.

The owner then sold the business, but the name was retained, probably due to his brand awareness: the small venue generally always had a loyal following.

Inside, the place is much the same as it always has been – except for the addition of table grills that are part of Korean barbecue restaurants and gogi gui cuisine.

Although I haven’t tried bibimbap recently, I’m willing to bet the new owners bought the original recipes with the furniture from the restaurant.

The current Korean BBQ menu has around 30 items with a 25-item section from which you can create do-it-yourself dinner combos. It looks a lot like the original menu, actually.

The four or five dishes I tried were quite good, but the standout was the gamjatang, a pork bone soup.

It’s a meaty soup, to say the least, with a bit of spicy heat and an assortment of vertebrae that look like a collapsing set of ossified jenga blocks.

The bones are certainly strong, but through a long, luxurious simmer, the meat fibers, cartilage and collagens are transformed into a divinely tender bite.

The broth is rich and creamy, and there are potatoes and parsley (in the traditionally made gamjatang) as well as spice offered by gochugaru chili flakes and gochujang, the excellent and delicious chili paste Korean.

This is one of my favorite soups, and in the absence of chopsticks to pick meat from crevices and the nooks and crannies of bones, I used a lobster pick.

While the exterior of Hong Kong Plaza has its own unique and quaint qualities, there are no adjectival conditions to the quaintness of the accompanying Korean banchan.

The four small dishes are sure to please and are perfect for sharing: the kimchi and those thin ribbons of earthy fishcake, plus the crispy pickled mung bean sprouts and the sweet, soy-dusted braised potato chunks called gamja jorim are delicious.

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. It’s the same with architecture.

Andrew Coppolino is a Kitchener-based food writer and host. Visit him at www.andrewcoppolino.com.

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