Tacos are a quintessential summer food, perfect for a quick bite on a beautiful day. This year, Toronto finds itself in the midst of a full-blown taco trend, with several purveyors stuffing their tortillas with ingredients far more unique than the usual chicken or beef. Torontoist‘s multi-part series Tacos of Summer is your guide to some of the best.
For about a year, JangBang, at College and Bathurst streets, was a mystery. Its signage promised Korean tacos (whatever those were), but the door was nearly always shut and locked. The restaurant seemed forbidding, like maybe it was a front for some underworld cartel among whose members “Korean taco” was code for two bricks of heroin with a handgun on top.
That all changed when the restaurant began keeping regular hours, in December, after a prototype menu of corn tortillas with Korean-influenced fillings had some success at a pop-up food festival event (making them yet another pop-up success story). “Prior to that, we pretty much were moonlighting as an event venue,” explains Michael Jang, who co-owns JangBang with his brother, Jason. “If you walked by here in the day, you might have thought it was seedy and desolate.”
JangBang’s interior is invitingly divey. The walls are decorated with record sleeves and improvised-looking collage art. Beer is served in mason jars. Otherwise, there are tables, booths, and a bar—and not a lot else.
Michael, who had served and tended bar at restaurants prior to opening JangBang, does the majority of the cooking. Jason handles marketing and comes up with new menu ideas. The Jangs are Korean, and most of their taco fillings are adapted from foods they grew up eating. Some were developed with help from their mother—though the idea to put it all in tortillas came from Kogi, a Korean taco truck that has roamed the streets of Los Angeles since 2008.
The Korean taco is an unusual concept, but not a particularly outlandish one. Especially in a place like Toronto, where ethnic communities rub up against each other at every corner, there’s really no reason a tortilla shouldn’t have some Asian food in it.
The restaurant’s menu includes a variety of taco options, including pulled pork, chicken, and tofu. (More kinds of tacos are coming soon.) But the best expression of JangBang’s concept is, of course, the bulgogi taco, which takes the classic Korean-barbecue dish and does some odd and tasty things with it.
The tortilla: A five-inch corn tortilla. The Jangs buy these from Perola Supermarket, across the street in Kensington Market.
Sour cream: Just a small drizzle.
Bulgogi: “It’s a pretty standard bulgogi recipe. We didn’t want to mess with the tradition of it,” says Michael. The bulgogi sauce is made in-house. It consists mainly of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic, and onion. Michael marinates thin-cut beef in the sauce for at least 24 hours before taco time.
The hot sauce: A salsa roja, made in-house. Roasted roma tomatoes form the base of this condiment. It gets its spice from Korean chili paste.
Pickled cucumber: Just a couple thin slices of sour pickle. It’s an homage to the small plates of appetizers—known as banchan—that are served with Korean meals.
Cherry tomato: A few small slices. They serve mainly as a garnish.
Sesame seeds: Also a garnish, though they do add a slight nutty flavour to the mix.
The Bottom Line:
Price: $3 each, or $8 for three.
The bulgogi meat is sweet and salty, but not quite as wet with sauce as the stuff you might get at a typical Korean restaurant. That’s probably for the best, because excess moisture makes corn tortillas disintegrate like tissue paper.
The pickles add a nice crunch and sourness. If you like your Korean barbecue, then this is essentially the handheld version.
Spiciness: Low (Bulgogi is not a spicy dish.)
Cheesiness: Low (Just some sour cream.)
Meatiness: High (Each taco is filled with a healthy pile of marinated meat.)
Veggieness: Low (The slivers of veggies add some flavour, but there aren’t a lot of them.)
The Sauce Factor: Medium (The sauce is there, but it’s not everywhere.)
Eat It When: Chopsticks are too cumbersome.