The sloping beginnings of Queen Street is a treasure-trove of cheap and cheerful eateries. If you’re ever in the city late at night, the restaurants that form this distinct block of ethnic cuisines should be your first port of call.
Last Saturday I had dinner at Ah Ssak, one of the numerous Korean restaurants that line this strip. Ah Ssak is a smallish place, with solid dark wood tables anchored to the ground by piping that feed into the gas burners fitted to each one. Its menu, like many Asian restaurants, is vast, but also manages to cater for the many types of diners that walk through their door.
Open from 5pm till 2am every day, Ah Ssak attracts both the diner looking for their stomachs to be replenished and the jovial drinker, eager for the taste of Korean wine and spirits. As such, the menu offers both light dishes such as fried pancakes and dumplings to absorb the soju as well as large hotpot sets which can serve three or four people.
Being a brazen carnivore who admires the Korean penchant for barbecuing at any time of the year, I was disappointed to hear Ah Ssak was out of charcoal. Instead I settled for the next best thing, the perennial bulgogi (sliced barbecued pork with rice $13) whilst Kevin ordered the fried flounder with rice ($14). We also ordered the kimchi and seafood pancake ($20) for the table.
The bulgogi was a surprisingly large serving of meltingly tender pork fried on a cast iron dish with a mildly spicy red sauce that was moreish and tasty. Although intended to be a single serving, I couldn’t imagine one person managing to finish this alone. Kevin’s dish was an impressive sight, a whole flounder that had met the deep fryer and come out crispy but not over-cooked.
Our two mains came accompanied by two sets of banchan (side dishes). These consisted of kimchi (a traditional spicy, pickled and fermented cabbage that I can’t get enough of), a vegetable-filled pancake dressed with a green onion and chilli dressing, pickled chilli cucumber and braised flounder with potato. They were all delicious in their own right, and paired with the barbecued pork, the two more than make a meal.
The kimchi and seafood pancake arrived piping hot with crispy bits around the edges; orange in colour and filled with chopped squid, it was a well executed fritter made all the more delicious by the tangy soy and chilli dipping sauce.
Our final and without a doubt best dish of the evening came in the form of fresh raw fish with vinegared vegetables and red pepper paste ($30). A specialty of Ah Ssak, the salad was a splendid mound of some of the freshest fish I’ve ever had, thinly sliced and tossed with shredded pear, cucumber, lettuce, cabbage, spring onion and roasted seaweed and topped with sesame seeds and a properly Korean-hot dressing that doused the salad a warm red colour.
The dish was also laced with a mysterious pungent herb I had never tasted before, of which its identity evaded even the Koreans at the table. So utterly delicious was this salad that it converted Mark, a previous fish-avoider from no to go as far as raw fish is concerned. “That’s delicious!” he cried, “It doesn’t taste like fish at all!” as he went in for a second taste of this game-changing dish.
Thoroughly well-fed and, for some, well-pickled with soju, we eventually departed at midnight with happy hearts (and maybe some grumbling heads); the restaurant was still full to capacity when we left, and it is no wonder. Ah Ssak is a versatile restaurant with something for everyone, bridging the gap between good food and a budget.