This is how I always start off describing Anju: “You know those two round condo towers downtown near the Bow? The ones that look like Miami Vice?
“OK, and you know how there’s a big liquor store on the corner? Go down that dead-end street, and Anju is in the little house.”
If you’re looking for traditional bulgogi etc., this is not the place. What chef Roy Oh does is put his own twist on Korean favourites.
Anju are small Korean dishes meant to be eaten with drinks — like Spanish tapas or snacks served in an izakaya.
Anju’s cocktails are fun (often highlighting soju, a potent Korean vodka) and its wine list is on par with many higher-end Western restaurants. (It often hosts wine tasting nights.)
While the second level is a lounge where all the kids go to hang out (appetizers are half price after midnight on Friday and Saturdays), us old farts like to stay in the small dining area on the main floor where you can see the open kitchen.
Anju really shines with its tapas. The best way to sample is with the anju platter ($12 for choice of 3 anju and 1 side). Even though the focus is on “small plates,” I’ve never left hungry.
On our first visit, our eyes popped with a spicy cured blue crab. Oh’s wife and co-owner made sure we knew it wasn’t cooked but cured in spices and chile (similar to that used to make kimchi) before putting our order in.
The small crab was the messiest thing ever (do NOT try this on a first or even fourth date), but delicious once we cracked into the meat.
On another visit, we tried the spicy cured squid, made the same way as the crab, but I didn’t love the texture, which is much chewier than when it’s cooked.
Jason’s favourite anju is the crispy anchovies. It’s not for the faint of heart. The dried anchovies are deep-fried whole and their beady little eyes stare back at you. But the honey and garlic punch to your taste buds are worth it as you crunch into them.
Other sides/anju: the kimchi has a requisite kick; normally boring green onion pancake is elevated with bits of mixed seafood.
Bright yellow, sweet, pickled daikon is standard but works well to mix up textures depending on what other anju you get.
Believe it or not, we’ve also had delicious chicken wings ($12) here, brushed with a sweet serrano soy sauce.
If I had my way, I’d eat all anju for dinner. But there are lots of other options aside from the small plates.
Grilled Korean meat is usually served with plain leaf lettuce for wraps. Anju gives it a modern take with Belgian endive, fermented red bean paste and a dipping sauce of sesame oil and steak spice. The wraps ($14) come with a choice of Broek Acres pork belly, chicken, ribeye, or tofu.
It was 30 degrees out one night and we still couldn’t resist sweating over one. I’ve never had something quite like it.
The rice stone bowl ($14) was the only misstep, with overcooked too-crunchy bits of rice.
I’ve talked a lot about small plates and noodles/rice, but Anju also has a selection of mains including clay pot braised black cod or Chilean baby back ribs. We’ve just always had so much fun with the anju and other things that we somehow don’t get around to the big plates.
Luckily, we have gotten around to dessert. Totally loved an Asian pear tart ($10) topped with vanilla bean ice cream and pomegranate seeds.
This is a great addition to Calgary’s dining scene with a comfortable atmosphere, friendly service and most of all, food you won’t find anywhere else.
Anju, 507-10th St. SW, Calgary, (403) 532-9419. Click here for menu. Open Monday to Thursday 5 p.m.-midnight, Friday & Saturday 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Closed Sunday.