Japote - real fast food in the Faubourg

There’s something depressing about witnessing Sainte Catherine Street’s potential-ridden Faubourg slowly and steadily decline, year after year. Even the meagre optimism sparked by Grumman 78’s presence quickly disintegrated in 2012.

The food court–impossibly–churns on with stalwarts like Bangkok and Yuki Ramen, but empty retail space has been outpacing fresh menu items for almost a decade.

Rejoice. Japote, a stall less than two months old, has already proven to be the Faubourg’s saviour.

The friendly husband-wife duo set out to provide real Japanese fast food. Moments after my visit, I saw just how sincerely they meant it. So don’t confuse Japote with “Western-focused izakaya,” okay? There is no hour-long wait in the snow, no $50 tab, no show-ey live plating or sake-tinged chants. There is good value for your money. Period.

Japote - real Japanese fast food in the Faubourg.The spicy stewed beef perked up my mouth without the slightest burn, and once swallowed, left a warm trail that spread slowly out to the far reaches of my chest. The Japanese curry (with chicken as its base), was rich and creamy, without the over-sweet coconut base of many fast-food Thai curries and a distinctly different spicing profile than any Indian or Malai blend you’ve ever tried.

The pickled ginger laid on top was almost impossibly bright–clearly the manifestation of a long-practiced recipe–and miles away from anything I’ve eaten at those aforementioned MTL-style izakayas. The tiny mound of neon perks you up. It almost makes you want to cry: you want another forkful of it, but you know it’s impossible: any more would ruin the balance of the dish as a whole. They also make a Japanese pickle, made ostensibly from cucumber, that is a deep red and much sweeter, a nice companion to the generally hearty Japote menu.

Japote - real Japanese fast food in the Faubourg Anyone who has seen my fridge knows that the way to my heart is hot sauce. Well, that, and homemade condiments that look like art experiments. In this domain, too, Japote had me at hello. A tray of nine homemade condiments–from ginger vinaigrette to spicy mayo–lies in wait of unlimited squeezing.

Keep in mind that this all costs $5.40 (before taxes).

Avoid the optional salad; it’s the wateriest of watery iceberg lettuce with a few slivers of long-refrigerated carrot, etc. But do throw in a miso soup for $1.50, or a drink for $1.

I later asked the male half of the cooking duo (he was alone that night) how he was finding life in the Faubourg.

“Still not as busy as we want,” he said.

“Why did you come here then?”

Suddenly he smiled.

“It was perfect. We want to make good, filling food, tasty food, for students. I was also a student. Even the cheap fast food was eight, nine, ten dollars. Not even good. We want to make something affordable–in Japan that’s real fast food.”

“I promise I’ll do something to help,” I responded. And I meant it.

If this is real fast food, sign me up for the first franchise.

Korean food seems to fly under the radar in Montréal. That’s why I enjoy eating at certain downtown Korean spots so much. You sit down, you order, you go out on a limb–and you can almost dodge that nasty critic mind creeping in, the one so intent on spoiling pleasure, insiduously benchmarking all dishes against the 100 other similar varietals in town (I’m looking at you, French and Italian restos).

Seafood paejon
Seafood paejon at GaNaDaRa

Though bibimbap has not (and likely never will) enjoy the big-bang explosion of other recent culinary phenomena (ramen, poutine, tacos, etc.) its variations have nonetheless multiplied tenfold in the past decade. The Montréal Korean food scene may be modest, but its offeringsare steadily diversifying.

Consider your options. You could hit up some fantastic pork bone soup at Bulgogi House, gorge at the requisite all-you-can-eat Seoul Chako BBQ, or even grace a table of Mi Kyom-Kim’s slightly-more-upscale Omma–a delectable resto depicted by Sarah Musgrave as “gentler, softer and, dare I say, more feminine than most of its counterparts.”

Gentle and soft are okay, but if you want comfy, quick, salty Korean fare (and fast), there’s really only one option: GaNaDaRa, the tiny, jam-packed, feel-good eatery on de Maisonneuve at St-Mathieu. If Omma is the gentlest Korean fare in town, GaNaDaRa is certainly the cuddliest.

The small, simple room is labeled after the “first four letters of the Korean language” according to my menu/catalogue/scrapbook and is constantly packed with warm chatter and smiley servers (no matter how chaotic the line gathering out front). Oh yeah, it’s also plastered with Hello-Kitty-derived illustrations and unsettlingly bucolic quotes like this one. (It’s hard to know if GaNaDaRa is trying to be ironic or just maddeningly positive about the future.)

I’ll tell you one thing: you can come here in any mood you like.

dak tuikim aka popcorn chicken at GaNaDaRa
dak tuikim aka popcorn chicken at GaNaDaRa

Uninspired? The seafood pancake (paejeon), once dipped in soy-rice vinegar sauce & topped with a side of that addictive housemade kimchi, will stimulate your creative flow.

Angry? The puffy, greasy chicken with Korean sweet sauce (dak tuikim) will put a smile on your face– temporarily, the way KFC popcorn chicken used to cheer you up at 6 pm when you’d had a rough day at school and mom decided to order in.

Downtrodden? The spicy deep-fried tofu or crazy ketchupy-piquant sauce with mochi-like rice blob-cakes (Tteokppoki) will put fire in your belly…and force you to have an opinion one way or another.

Majestic deer by the washrooms

Sure, many of the appetizer dishes at GaNaDaRa are best shared (lest they be too oily to finish off solo), but the prices are so affordable, and the variety so thick, that you’ll have no problem ordering three or four.

Buoyed with happy kitty drawings, feel good comfort food and homey fermented veg, visions of a majestic Love Deer on the way to the bathroom suddenly just seems…so right.