In this second of a two-part series, we celebrate several dishes from east, south and southeast Asia that can be found in Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge and Guelph. With their balance of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami, these dishes are among my favourites.
As with part one, this list represents only a few choices of restaurants from many possibilities; some venues are quite popular destinations, others fly under the radar.
Chinese restaurants were once the primary purveyors of Asian cooking, but Waterloo Region and Wellington County now have a wide range of foods from Laotian, Filipino, Cambodian and Korean kitchens.
But even Chinese restaurants have evolved to feature dishes from the many regions of the country — streetside Xinjiang grilling or Lanzhou hand-stretched noodles, for example. While Punjabi and Mughlai dishes have been joined by newer Indian restaurants serving dosas, the delicious and lacy fermented lentil “crepes” of south India.
East Asian cuisine across the region
Korean cooking has grown in popularity considerably. check out Which Yum among the student residences at Linden Square on Waterloo’s Lester Street for dosirak, a set lunch similar to the Japanese bento box.
A couple of blocks away in the University Shops Plaza near University of Waterloo, Seoul Soul has been in business for 14 years. Admire the fascinating art on the restaurant walls while eating the jjajangmyeon, a dark, earthy noodle dish featuring sweet-savoury black-bean based chunjang sauce.
In Kitchener’s Hong Kong Plaza, near the market, Korean BBQ the restaurant has been serving home-style Korean dishes for more than a decade, while Taste of Seoula small take-away and delivery venue on Victoria Street at Park Street, serving classic rice dishes, gimbap rice rolls and a variety of dumplings.
Both venues prepare their own versions of the “mixed rice” dish bibimbap served with a series of delicious banchan sides dishes that might include kimchi, pickled mung bean sprouts, braised and seasoned potato chunks called gamja jorim, and eomuk bokkeum fish cake ribbons.
Manon Korean bakery on Highland Road in Kitchener prepares a wide range of sweet and savory dishes, including a pork “hoagie” and saboro-ppang, a sweet that owner Chae Lee remembers fondly from his childhood.
As for Japan and sushi, Ken Sushi House on Phillip Street in Waterloo is probably the go-to for sushi, and one that is not the standard all-you-can-eat (AYCE) format. Watami Sushi in Uptown Waterloo is another popular destination for nigiri and maki sushi along with tempura, rolls and sashimi.
Also in the à la carte format, Humble Lotus is a new, small take-out shop near Kitchener Market a few blocks away from the popular AYCE restaurant Sushi Stars.
Two other favorite AYCE sushi restaurants are Kinkaku Izakaya in downtown Kitchener and Jinzakaya in Uptown Waterloo. Farther along King Street in Waterloo, you will find a good bowl of udon at GoeN Japanese Restaurant near Conestoga Mall.
Exploring food from south Asia
When we think of south Asian food, India or Pakistan often comes to mind, but when it comes to Bangladeshi food, Kismet Restaurant in Waterloo says emphatically on their website, “Don’t call it Indian food!” Open for 18 years, the restaurant features Bangladeshi dishes that are often touted as some of the Scoville-scale’s hottest food in the area.
In Waterloo, near the convergence of Weber and King streets, I’ve enjoyed haleem, a Pakistani dish of a grain or pulse-like lentil with either beef, lamb or chicken at Urwa’s Pakistani and Indian Cuisine.
Sadly, The Pulao Gals have shuttered operations in Kitchener’s east end. They prepared traditional Pashtun dishes in northwestern Pakistan. Let’s hope the mother-daughter team can re-appear in another culinary iteration.
While there are many Indian restaurants serving Mughlai and Punjabi dishes in the area, a unique dish is Ramandeep Singh’s pistachio chicken, relatively new to the menu at The Grand Mehfil on Weber Street East in Kitchener.
“Chicken thighs are marinated overnight with a pistachio and cashew paste and yogurt, and are cooked in the tandoor oven before being cooked in the creamy pistachio, cashew and onion-based gravy and secret sauces,” says Singh who claims the dish is the invention of the Grand Mehfil kitchen.
Otherwise, sins have recently appeared from both independent and chain brands. They represent the newest dish to the area from south India. Notable are the dosas from Jayalakshmi South Indian Cuisine in Hong Kong Plaza and Shiri’s Kitchen in a commercial plaza off Lexington Road south of the Conestoga Parkway.
Wide range of flavors from the southeast
Finally, there are amazing flavors and foods from Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.
First up are the Indonesian, Balinese, Vietnamese and Thai dishes that have made their mark on Waterloo Region with restaurants like Loloan Lobby Bar and Bhima’s Warung — the latter’s reputation reaching well beyond our borders over its 25 years.
Filipino restaurants have become more popular with the non-Filipino community J&P Filipino Grocery Store’s hot table on Madison Avenue in Kitchener, as well as the growing Sari Sari Filipino Cuisine on Lancaster Avenue Kitchener.
Gayuma Catering has grown immensely since opening. It features Filipino dishes out of a commercial kitchen on Weber Street North in Waterloo. Rosel’s Flavors for Lifealso in Waterloo, offered take-out Filipino dishes from a ghost kitchen in Kitchener before moving across from Wilfrid Laurier University and offering takeaway and dine-in service.
Viet-Thai noodles and curries are well known in our region and have been the anchor of Southeast Asian cooking; the cooking of Laos, a country of the Indochina peninsula, is however lesser known.
One fairly recent exception is the exceptional Champ Kitchen in uptown Waterloo. Owner Outhoumphonh Vongkhamchanh describes her food as a balance of flavors and textures across the plate and the palate.
“It’s spicy. A lot of sticky rice and it’s meaty. It’s cooked more dry because we eat it with our hands a lot,” Vongkhamchanh says.
Try the coconut pork patties, with sticky rice, dipped into jeow bong, a sweet-savoury sauce with galangal and lime leaves.
Calling Laos “the root” of their restaurant — the country being the Chounramany family’s homeland — Choun Kitchen in downtown Hespeler serves unique dishes such as Lao spring rolls with glass noodles and vegan Lao laksa, a coconut red curry on vermicelli. But they also serve inventive dishes that link up with other cultures like Asian churros on Sundays.
Also less familiar, but no less scrumptious, is Cambodian food from the country’s capital Phnom Penh. Located in the southern Indochina Peninsula, Cambodia shares borders with Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. You can find good examples of that food at Taste with Andy in downtown Guelph.
The menu refers to “Khmer,” the Cambodian language and ethno-linguistic group making up most of Cambodia’s 17 million people. Chef and owner Chan Thon “Andy” Phoung says he’s inspired to cook the food his mother prepared for their family.
On his menu are curries, kebabs and noodles in the style of Phnom Penh which pairs well with a quite delicious squash and custard dessert: sankhya lapov, a traditional Cambodian treat.
“You can find the dish at dessert stands in Cambodia. It’s hard to perfect the technique,” Phoung says, adding that it doesn’t matter what he cooks he strives to introduce local diners to delicious Cambodian food.
“My goal is to make the best dishes I can and bring my mom’s Cambodian food to the community,” said Phoung.
Connecting with people through their food and diverse Asian cultures is, I believe, the goal for all these cooks and restaurateurs. And that means a wide range of great food to eat for everyone in the community.