KA CHI (8 St. Andrew, at Spadina, 416-597-1999) Other location: 612 Bloor West, at Palmerston, 416-533-9306. Complete meals for $15, including all taxes, tip and Nestea. Average main $7. Open Monday to Friday 10:30 am to 10:30 pm, Friday and Saturday to 11:30 pm. Licensed. Access: seven steps at door, washrooms in basement (St. Andrew); one step at door, washrooms in basement (Bloor). Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
It's days like these that find me ommiserating with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il. Battered by winter winds, isolated from nearly everyone and two years behind in The Sopranos, it's no wonder he wants to fuck the world.
That's exactly how we're feeling as we lock our bikes to a pole out front of the newish Kensington outpost of Ka Chi during the season's first full-on blizzard. Hands and feet numb, we're soaking wet, grumpier than usual and hungry for a soul-warming bowl of comfort.
After thawing out over a space heater in the student-friendly Seoul food resto's tropical-plant-strewn window, we're soon sipping soothing mugs of roasted barley tea at one of the storefront's several formica-top tables.
It's only then that we fully take in the extent of Ka Chi's eccentric charm. A long bar runs the length of the room cluttered with glass temple lanterns and dried flower bouquets. Seashells and starfish hang from a dropped ceiling while TVs tuned to snowboarding get drowned out by a CD player randomly shuttling from Eminem to REM.
Flipping through a month-old copy of In Touch magazine (Britney: Are The Drug Allegations True?) retrieved from the reading rack, we begin with Ka Chi's vegetable dumplings ($4.95). They arrive pan-fried as advertised and apparently meat-free, no mean feat for a Korean cantina.
We're far more impressed with the starter simply called potato pancake ($5.95), a slightly greasy pizza-sized frittata packed with thinly sliced russets 'n' onion. Like nearly every dish here, this wicked pie comes sided with a truckload of lightly pickled condiments: chewy strips of seaweed, mung beans with garlic, gentle kimchee, tofu showered with garlic and chilies, weird pasta wagon wheels and a hybrid hot sauce that's part barbecue, part ketchup.
Next up, a gargantuan stone bowl of pork bone soup ($6) sees great cross-sections of meaty backbone and chunked potato slow-simmered in a peppery broth that recalls paprika-kicked goulash. Soy bean stew ($5.95) might sound vaguely vegetarian, but while it's teeming with sprouts, spuds and smoky mashed bean curd, it's also littered with tiny nuggets of telltale steak.
Most Korean restos overcook bulgogi, but Ka Chi's superior rendition strips of sirloin tossed with onion, carrot and sweet bell pepper in spicy red pepper paste checks in perfectly á point. As do the house's sloppily sauced beef kalbi ribs (both $9.95 with rice), which are surprisingly tender and gristle-free.
Since dessert options are as limited as the drinks lineup (Nestea in Can, $1.25, anyone?), we convince the kitchen to whip up an out-of-season order of cold buckwheat noodles in beef broth instead. Dressed with hard-boiled egg, fatty roast beef and a tasty julienne of English cucumber and tart Asian pear, this hot-weather finish is guaranteed to put a smile on the face of any culinary curmudgeon, even mean ol' Mr. Kim.