The first indication that Acadia Restaurant in Dieppe, N.B., is not a typical pizza place is the giant sign outside, advertising not only pizza and donair, but also Korean food.
Acadia is a Korean restaurant and a pizza restaurant. It's also a "Korean pizza" restaurant.
"Bulgogi pizza is good," said owner and cook Eun-jung Lee, grinning and standing over a pie topped with a heaping mound of grilled, marinated beef.
She shrugged. "People like it."
Over the past number of years, Korean pizza – which bears little resemblance to Italian, or even American pizzas – has grown in popularity not only in Asia, but also in pockets of the United States with large Korean populations, such as Los Angeles.
These are pizzas uninhibited by Italian conventions and inspired by flavours from the United States, topped with everything from Korean ingredients such as bulgogi and gochujang (fermented pepper sauce), to hash browns and nacho chips.
Now, the colourful pies have reached Canada, through Lee and her husband, Jae Chong, in the unlikely setting of Dieppe, a sleepy, 23,000-person francophone town just outside Moncton.
To understand how the couple wound up running this quirky little restaurant, all you have to do is look at the poster hanging next to the door.
It advertises a classical-music concert featuring the couple's 21-year-old son, an accomplished cellist studying at the University of Ottawa who has performed with orchestras all over the world, including at Carnegie Hall. Their older son plays the flute and is a music teacher.
The couple moved to Canada in 2005, so their sons could have access to better schools and music training. They initially settled in Fredericton, then moved to Moncton two years later to be closer to their sons' music teachers in Halifax. However, even Moncton is a four-hour return drive to Halifax – a trip they made every weekend.
In 2010, Chong, who also works as a realtor, stumbled upon the pizza and donair restaurant during a lunch rush, and saw it was crowded with students from the nearby public school.
"I thought, 'This place is good,'" Chong said. "So I asked the owner, 'You wanna sell it?' And he said, 'Okay!'"
The restaurant, they hoped, would fund their sons' music studies. "Money," Lee said. "I need to make lots of money for lessons."
Neither of them had worked in a restaurant before, but the previous owner taught them the basics of making pizza and donair. From there, Lee, gradually began adding items to the menu that she cooked for her own family – dishes such as jap chae (sweet potato noodles mixed with vegetables and sesame oil) and kimchi jigae (a fiery red stew, flavoured with kimchi).
After trying Korean pizza on a visit home, Lee decided to introduce it to Dieppe. The bulgogi pizza is now one of the most popular items on their menu: a flatbread topped with a thin layer of tomato paste and sweet-savoury marinated beef slices, all covered with melted mozzarella cheese.
Pizza combinations in Korea, however, are far more adventurous – often mixing sweet, salty and spicy ingredients together. The ubiquitous pizza chain Domino's stuffs its crusts with Camembert and sweet potato purée. Its "Cheese Cake Sand" pizza ("sand" as in sandwich) has cheesecake filling baked between two layers of dough, then topped with peppers and shrimp.
And Mr. Pizza, a Korean chain with hundreds of locations in Asia and several in Los Angeles, has one called Sweet Piece Pizza covered in hash browns, bacon bits, cranberries and condensed milk.
When the Lee-Chong family moved to Canada, they were a part of a small boom in Korean immigrants. Between 2006 and 2011, Moncton's Korean population increased by almost 900 per cent – from 65 to almost 650. This was owing in large part to recruitment efforts by BIAs and other groups, who hoped that new immigrants could help boost the local economy.
As a result, the area has seen a small boom in Korean cuisine, too. When the Chong family first moved to town, there was just one Korean restaurant. Now, there are at least five, including two Korean barbecue fast-food outlets that just opened in the past few months.
Many of the customers at these new eateries are locals who have gone abroad to teach English.
"They come back and they've got nostalgia for Korean cuisine," he said. These days, almost 90 per cent of their business comes from the Korean side of the menu.
Chong watched as a customer took a large bite out of the bulgogi pizza, brought to the table on a sheet of aluminum foil. Lee was beaming in the background.
"It's different, eh?" he said, chuckling at the customer. "It's different!"