A new-ish addition to the Haebangchon eating scene is Kusina, which opened in March 2012 with the unveiling of this intriguing temporary banner on the main HBC drag, just down from what was then the Family Mart. By happy coincidence I was on my way for a barely-deserved beach holiday in Cebu the following week, so I rounded up my tame Filipino friend Jan and a couple of other volunteers to see what it might have to offer.
The interior is warm and inviting, as you can see from the blurry photo above. The menu is varied, with pork and chicken dishes predominating. There is another menu page with a choice of vegetable dishes, but I didn’t take a photo of that because life is too short to spend taking photos of photos of vegetables.
As you can see from the menu, the dishes are reasonably priced, but be warned that the portions are small – if you’re in a group, you’ll want to order at least one menu item per person, and perhaps even more if there are hungry people with you. We ordered a selection, and I think it’s fair to say that everything was good. The caldereta was my favourite, large chunks of beef in a thick tomato stew that I could have eaten at least three portions of. Also excellent was the chicken adobo, cooked with soy and spices and quite simply delicious and very addictive.
There was no pork available on the evening that we visited, so we had the sinigang with large king prawns instead, and that was very nicely cooked as well – the sauce a bit sour for my tastes, but very well received by the others at the table.
There’s also a range of juices and shakes on offer, and (more importantly, for my purposes) pretty reasonably priced San Miguel at 3,500 won per bottle. For some unaccountable reason we didn’t have dessert – not sure why – but they all looked pretty good as well.
Kusina is nice. If you’ve never had Filipino food, then you should know that the food is not at all spicy but full of flavour – some familiar, some a little less so. Our Filipino diner pronounced it authentic – perhaps not quite like home, but he had been there twice in the preceding couple of weeks, so it was clearly working for him.
In total, our bill for five dishes and some drinks came to 12,000 won per head, and I’d have very happily have ordered the same again as soon as we had finished. For those with more normal-sized appetites, one of those dishes with rice would make a great lunch, possibly with a bit of cake at the end. The friendly manager told me that they are open from 9am through until late.
- Category: Filipino
- Price: $$$$ ($$$$ if you have a big appetite)
- Must try: Beef caldereta
- Subway: Noksapyeong exit 2
- Directions: Kusina is on the main strip in Haebangchon, just before Jacoby’s and the CU Mart as you come up the hill. Come out of Noksapyeong station exit 2 and walk up alongside the main road until you see kimchi pots to your left, which marks the entrance to HBC. Walk up the road until you start getting to the shops and restaurants. Kusina is on your left above Casablanca – you’ll see the sign on the first floor (what Koreans would call the second floor!), and the entrance is on the right hand side, just off the main road, marked with a little sign. If you get as far as Jacoby’s, you’ve gone too far.
[insert Google map of restaurant]
One of the glories of Korean food is that even when your meal is finished, it isn’t always finished. Koreans love dipping into communal pots bubbling with meat, vegetables and spicy broth, but liberating the last piece of chicken from the bowl isn’t necessarily the end of the story. Ask nicely, and the ajumma will reappear with two or three portions of rice, together with (sometimes) some extra veg, flakes of laver for flavour and texture, and even – as in the photo below – a little cheese. This is bokkeumbap (볶음밥), literally fried rice, and it’s a great way to finish off the meal and get the best out of your flavoursome main course. And, since it’ll only run you an extra 1,000-2,000 won per portion of rice, it’s a brilliant way of getting value out of your meal, too.
The bokkeumbap option is generally available where you are eating dishes from a central pot or stone cooking in the middle of the table; for example with dakdoritang (닭도리탕 – chicken stew in red pepper sauce) or gamjatang (감자탕 – pork and potato soup). You’ll also get to fry up some rice with the meat and kimchi scraps at some Korean BBQ restaurants, particularly those where you’re cooking your food on a metal or ceramic tray, rather than a grill. And of course frying up rice, cabbage and ddok (떡 – rice cakes) is the centrepiece of the perennial expat favourite, dakgalbi (닭갈비) – which is, by the way, absolutely the best drunk food you can get in Korea.
If you prefer noodles, as many do, you can throw some ramen in there instead, but I always feel that rice is the way to go. Try to order your rice when there is still some sauce and leftovers remaining in the pot. They’ll ask you how many portions of rice you want – depending on how many you are and how much good stuff is left in the bowl, two or three portions will usually be plenty for a group of four.
If your Korean is entry-level, no worries; just ask for “bokkeumbap” and, if you like, make a circular stir-frying motion over the dish, together with two or three fingers to indicate how many portions of rice you need. Pretty basic, but it always seems to work for me!
Any meat lover who’s spent time in Korea knows that people here are not at all fond of lamb. It’s uncommon here, not to be found in any supermarkets; Koreans typically complain of the smell, which they find offputting. Generally speaking, the only places that serve lamb are foreign restaurants – Indian, Pakistani and Middle Eastern restaurants in Itaewon, buffets at top-end hotels, and some quirky Chinese eateries dotted around Seoul where you can get terrific little skewers of lamb with a tangy spice rub.
But it turns out that’s not quite all. There are some places where you can get lamb done Korean-style, complete with all the side dishes you’d expect from any regular BBQ place. Here’s one, and it’s right in the heart of Itaewon.
At first glance, it’s just another Korean gogijip (meat restaurant), and indeed you can dine on the regular pork and beef favourites to your heart’s content. But this restaurant also, uniquely, serves lamb. And it’s pretty good, too.
The chops are delivered raw on a tray, and you grill them yourselves. Once they’ve attained a certain level of doneness, you cut them up with scissors just as you would a slab of samgyeopsal, and eat with garlic, ssamjang, lettuce and kimchi, not to mention copious soju. Same as usual, only different. A slightly disconcerting experience, but a tasty one! Before our visit, we worried that trying such an unusual meat in Korea, it might turn out to be of dodgy quality, but not at all; we found it to be tasty and succulent. Gnawing on the leftover bones was, for me, a deeply satisfying experience.
That said, there are two downsides to this spin on regular Korean BBQ which are worth pointing out. The first is that giving the lamb chops the local treatment actually had the effect of masking the taste. With a slice of garlic and a large dollop of ssamjang, you could easily have been eating beef. This might persuade your Korean friends to give lamb a try, but coming from a country where good quality lamb is usually presented very simply so as to really bring out the flavour, it seemed a bit of a shame.
Particularly given the second issue with this restaurant: the price. A 180g portion of lamb costs 22,000 won, and given that a fair amount of that is bone, it really is not good value for money. The two portions we initially ordered added up to just four lamb chops and a cool 44,000 won. Overall, between five people eating and drinking fairly moderately, our bill came to 30,000 a head pretty quickly, and could easily have been higher. The price is understandable, given that the meat is imported (the lamb is from Australia); but if you’re on a budget, or a big eater, this may not be the place for you.
Overall, we had a great time and a very good meal. I recommend it to anyone, and I’ll definitely go back to satisfy my lamb craving, but it won’t be a monthly pilgrimage for me. Not when there are thousands of meat places serving fantastic food for a lot less.
- Category: Meat
- What to ask for: “Yang-galbi” (양갈비) – lamb chops.
- Price: $$$$
- Subway: Itaewon exit 4
- Directions: Come out of Itaewon station exit 4, and head down the road to Taco Bell. Immediately after passing Taco Bell, turn left into the alleyway which is filled with little shops and restaurants. The lamb place is about 50 yards on your left, with a big red and yellow sign outside (see above) advertising “Mutton Lamb”.