Mexican food in Korea sucks, as we all know, though those in the know can always find a decent taco somewhere or other. The chains such as On The Border serve up decent fare, though I’m not a big fan, and you can get a pretty mean enchilada on the US base if you’ve got the right access (or a friend who can get you in). And then of course there’s Vatos, with lines out the door almost every night of the week. Vatos divides opinion, but I’m firmly on their side; the food is great and the flavours never disappoint, though that’s a matter for a whole other post.
[July 2017 update: This restaurant has moved, now in larger premises next door to Craftworks in Gyeongnidan.]
Hands down the best tacos that I’ve had in Seoul, though, are at the mighty Don Charly, a tiny little hole-in-the-wall place on the main Gyeongnidan street as you head up towards the Hyatt.
When I say tiny, I mean tiny. Technically there is space for six or seven people inside, but it’s crammed with even four (especially when one of them is me). The only way to guarantee yourself a seat is to be there when they open (times vary, but normally about 12), or perhaps by visiting during a major earthquake, asteroid strike, or nuclear attack by the Norks. Otherwise, you’re eating on the street like the rest of us bums.
For this reason above all else, I hesitate to write this review, since even one person reading this is one potential rival for a spot in the line for Don Charly’s tacos. Still, I will take the risk.
There are no frills here; tacos are served on a styrofoam plate, street-food style. Everything is cooked up fresh and in short order. Tacos are available in twos and threes and in a variety of styles. All of them (or at least, all the ones I’ve had) are great.
The Alambre taco is beef, fresh raw onions and peppers. Incredibly tasty but lacking spice, for my money – but there are little pots of green and red salsa at the table, so you can punch up the chilli to suit your own tastes.
My favourite taco on the list is the Cochinita Pibil – slow braised carnitas pork with a bit of orange and some sliced pickled onion. A strong flavour which not everyone will like, but I could have eaten ten of these. Perhaps, one day, I will.
Don Charly also does big Mexican-style tortas and a range of beers and tequilas, but it’s probably not a place to linger that long – it’s just too small. Perhaps one day the restaurant will move to slightly larger premises, but I hope they never lose that fresh-off-the-griddle immediacy, because that’s half the charm.
- Category: Mexican
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Cochinita Pibil taco
- Subway: Noksapyeong (녹사평역) exit 2
- Directions: Come out of Noksapyeong station and walk up towards Namsan / HBC. Cross the road and turn right at Noxa and walk up Gyeongnidan street, past the Wellbeing Mart. Don Charly is about three or four minutes up the hill. If you get to the Wellbeing Gym, you have gone too far. Turn back and banish all thoughts of fitness.
- Hours: Opening times do vary, but generally 12:30-9:30pm Tuesday – Friday with a mid-afternoon break, 1-9:30pm Saturdays, 1-6:30pm Sundays. Check out their Facebook page for more details.
The cuisine of South East Asia is poorly served by restaurants in Korea. Yes, Thai places are thick on the ground, but let’s face it; most of them are pretty average, and those that aren’t (Wang Thai in Itaewon, say) are fairly pricey, so you end up paying through the nose for something that in Chiang Mai would cost you a couple of bucks. I’m a fan of Kkaoli Pochana, in Gyeongnidan – not everyone is, mind you – but even there, if you can possibly get a seat, your street food experience comes at distinctly un-streetfoody prices.
[July 2017 update: This location has now closed, unfortunately.]
As for Vietnamese food, well, Pho Bay, Pho Mons… just… no. (There was a place in Gangnam years ago called What the Pho, but I never went in.) There are a couple of legit hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese eateries that buck the trend, in Wangsimni and way out in Ansan. But basically if you crave the flavours of anywhere south of Hong Kong, but aren’t able to get there, you’re generally out of luck.
Kitchen Nyonya aims to buck that trend by providing authentic Malaysian food at reasonable prices in a nice, reasonably upscale eating environment – an almost unheard-of trifecta anywhere in Seoul, let alone at Gangnam Station. Does it succeed? Well, largely and with one major caveat, which we’ll come to, the answer is: yes.
(The Baba-Nyonya are ethnic Chinese, also known as Straits Chinese, who settled in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. Anyone who has been to Melaka, for example, may have eaten Nyonya food, which is a sort of fusion of Chinese and Malay, as you might expect. If you haven’t, go! Melaka is great and the food is fantastic.)
Travelogue / history lesson over. Kitchen Nyonya is, I think it’s fair to say, more generically Malaysian cuisine than specifically Nyonya. The menu is an eclectic and occasionally awkward mix of stirfries, curries and Malay dishes. It’s rare to find a restaurant in Malaysia where you can pair roti canai bread with Chinese stir-fried beef noodles, but here you can, if you really want to.
We ordered a range of dishes. The aforementioned stir-fried beef was really nice, a little spicy but nothing too fiery. Rice-based dishes like nasi goreng were also good, and their nasi lemak (above and below), which is served with a choice of chicken, curry or seafood, was filling and reasonably priced.
In order to properly assess the authenticity of the food, I brought a Malaysian friend with me to pass judgement. She is a harsh judge, and her initial reaction was a bit… meh. “Rice is not right”, she said. “It should have ginger in it. This is just plain rice. Roti is not home-made. The chicken is OK.”
As she ate – and there was little let-up in the pace of her eating – her views slowly became more favourable. “This sambal is awesome”, she drooled. “The chicken is pretty good actually.” Judging by the number of Malaysians that were dining in there by the end of her meal, she wasn’t alone in that view. Her final verdict? Not bad, and she would come here again.
Ah, but there’s the caveat, and a big one at that. As I was preparing this review, a message was posted on Kitchen Nyonya’s Facebook page; their landlord has cancelled their lease, and the restaurant closes this week. Disaster! Or perhaps not. They have vowed to reopen nearby at the earliest opportunity, and even sent me a message urging me to write the review anyway, which is what I’ve done, in the hope that by the time you read this, they’ll be back up and running somewhere else.
So, there we are. Only one month a food blogger and already my reviews are closing down restaurants. Perhaps I am a jinx… but if not, then good luck to the folks at Kitchen Nyonya, and we’ll hope to see them back soon.
- Category: Malaysian
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: nasi lemak
- Subway / Directions: Gangnam (강남역) exit… well, we’ll see.
It’s hard to imagine a country, and a food culture, more diametrically opposed to Korea than dear old Greece. To spend a week on Naxos or Corfu, you need to change down into a lower gear. Greeks wake up late, eat lunch around two and then head home for a nap. Dishes take an age to arrive and no-one seems in a hurry to go anywhere. There is no such thing as a “45 minute express lunch” in Greece. Land of the Morning Calm and Mid-Afternoon Snooze.
I’ll confess here to an inbuilt bias. I grew up with my family in Athens, and the taste of tsatsiki is, for me, the taste of home. It’s a bit like Koreans who travel abroad with ramyeon noodles and those little plastic containers of kimchi you get in convenience stores (and you all do, don’t deny it); it’s hardly the highest expression of your nation’s culinary arts, but comfort food doesn’t necessarily equate with logic. Santorini, in Itaewon, goes beyond the souvlaki-and-chips comfort zone to offer a wide range of dishes that attempt to bring a bit of Mediterranean sunshine to the cold snows of the Seoul winter.
Let’s get straight to it. Santorini seems to have a poor reputation among foreign residents in Korea. In all the times I’ve been in one of their two Itaewon locations (and I have, down the years, been in here at least a dozen times) I don’t recall seeing more than a handful of waygook faces. Why is this? It appears to be a combination of complaints about the food (greasy, inauthentic, etc etc) and poor value for money.
Now, I will happily defer to my American friends when it comes to what constitutes an “authentic” pizza or taco, and take the advice of my Korean friends for where the best samgyeopsal joints are. So, take it from one who knows; Santorini’s food is as authentic as you are going to get in Korea, and for the most part, it meets or surpasses expectations.
On my most recent visit, the tsatsiki was on point; garlicky, fresh-tasting and perfect with the lightly-toasted pitta bread. Hummus was so-so, needing lots more seasoning in my opinion (but then again I do like salty food). The Greek salad was good given the limitations of Korean ingredients.
The star of the appetisers were undoubtedly the cheese pies, almost as good as the tyropittakia on every street corner in Athens. I was pleasantly surprised by how flavourful the filling was. These vanished in moments.
We shared two mains, of which the better was the chicken souvlaki. With a generous squeeze of lemon over the nicely charred and moist chicken, lots of nice chips and the bread underneath soaking up all that lovely juice.
Moussaka was, again, acceptable rather than outstanding, though it looked great on the plate. The meat filling was a little ungenerous and the mince was crumbly rather than juicy. I’d give this a miss next time. (Incidentally, I’ve heard people complain that it wasn’t hot enough. Moussaka, like its near-relation pastitsio, is not meant to be served piping hot. It’s usually served merely warm or even at room temperature.)
Overall, in food terms, I’d give Santorini a solid score. The food is tasty, well made and well presented. It’s also pretty authentic compared to other so-called “Greek” places in Seoul (with the exception of the excellent El Greco’s in Gyeongnidan). In fact, the least authentic part of the whole experience is the brisk and efficient service.
But we come back to the issue of value, and here my blinkers have to come off. As nice as the food is, Santorini is overpriced, and I got the impression from looking at the menu that prices have increased in the last year or so. We paid nearly 100,000 won for four people without any drinks or dessert, and while replete at the end of our meal, we certainly did not order a huge amount of food – four or five appetisers and two mains, each of which were around the 20,000 – 22,000 won mark.
22,000 won for a couple of medium-sized souvlaki, a couple of pieces of bread, some chips and a little pot of tsatsiki; when you consider that you can get a souvlaki set at El Greco’s for half that, or for that matter a big shashlik at Samarkand in Dongdaemun for 4,000 won, this seems steep. Yes, Santorini is a full-service restaurant in Itaewon, not a snack bar or cafe in a cheaper part of town, but still.
Santorini comes recommended, and I will always go back. But I understand why many foreign residents in Korea prefer to look elsewhere.
- Category: Greek
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Cheese pies, chicken / pork souvlaki
- Subway: Itaewon station exit 1 or Noksapyeong station exit 3
- Directions: From Noksapyeong station, go out of exit 3 and walk across the road onto the Itaewon main street, and Santorini is on the right on the second floor. The second location is in the alley behind the Hamilton hotel: look for the little sign, again on the second floor near Copacabana Grill.
There’s no doubt in my mind that, as far as wine shopping in Korea goes, the best balance of variety and value for money is to be found at E-Mart. In the last two or three years the range and quality of bottles carried in your average E-Mart has improved no end, even if it’s not a patch on the selection on offer in comparable stores back home.
That’s not to say that E-Mart is a bargain-hunter’s paradise, far from it. It remains true that paying anything under 15,000 won for wine in Korea is a major gamble. But there are a few decent drops to be found even so, and as the tag heads north towards 30,000 won (which seems to be a very common price anchor for wine in E-Mart, for some reason) some delicious wines.
White wine in Korea is definitely still a developing market. Consumers here have traditionally preferred sweeter whites, but here again, things are on the move. I’d hardly describe E-Mart’s selection as great – they’re much stronger on red wines – but things are looking up.
As far as “bargains” go – that word really needs bigger inverted commas – some countries’ offerings are better bets than others. Perhaps the most reliable source of decent quality white wines in Korea is Chile. A number of labels crop up again and again: Cono Sur, Concha y Toro, Errazuriz, Montes. All of them offer good quality at reasonable prices, even if the bog-standard bottlings are rarely anything special. Chile has one of the longest-standing FTAs with Korea and the wines from here are generally good value by local standards. There are some nice Chardonnays if you’re willing to pay a little more.
New Zealand whites are world-famous, principally Sauvignon Blanc, and they are well represented at E-Mart, though never at the cheapest price points. Generally speaking, any NZ Sauvignon Blanc you see here will be worth picking up, but it’s not necessarily true that more expensive is better. The legendary Cloudy Bay, for example, does pop up at E-Mart from time to time before quickly being snapped up. Don’t get me wrong, it is gorgeous, but it sells here for about 60,000 won and you’re paying at least a third of that just for the name. If you’re a fan of grassy, gooseberry-and-lime Sauv Blanc – and I emphatically am – try the Palliser Estate or Staete Landt, both damn good wines and half the price of Cloudy Bay at 30,000 won. Or try Kim Crawford, below.
Australian wines are the most popular choice back home in the UK, but the range of Aussie whites in Korea is relatively poor. American wines are fairly good value in Korea, but again, the whites are conspicuous by their absence; most US wines here are Cabernets from California and the odd Pinot Noir from Oregon. Finally, there are some good white wines from France available, especially Chablis and some bone-dry Sancerre. If price is less of an issue, there are some nice wines to be had, but value is quite poor. One pleasing development, at least for me, is the sighting of some wines from Alsace, with their peppery, spicy notes a welcome change from the norm. Try the Hugel Riesling, which I’ve listed below; if you want something really different, and you’ve just been paid, splash out a little more for the slightly off-dry, floral Gewürztraminer (42,000 won).
Here are three nice white wines that you can pick up at non-insane prices. Bear in mind that wine prices in E-Mart, as everywhere else in Korea, can be volatile and random price cuts and special deals are quite common. Remember wines you have enjoyed and scout the shelves to see what’s on offer on any given day.
As Sauv Blanc goes, this is pretty damn good at the price, and E-Mart have had it on offer for under man won, which is miraculous. While Root:1 obviously doesn’t stand comparison with the very best expressions of this grape, if you are on any sort of a budget you should snap it up whenever you see it. Come June, when you’re sitting on top of your roof enjoying the sun, you’ll give thanks to whatever God you believe in that you have that bottle in the fridge door.
This wine has been popping up all over the place recently – they even have it in Family Mart (or whatever it’s called nowadays) for more or less the same price. The full price is 42,000 won but that would definitely be pushing it. However, it seems to be on perpetual offer in E-Mart and at this price it is definitely worth considering. Citrus, tropical fruits and plenty of acidity. Drink with seafood or on its own.
A bit more of a personal recommendation, this one. Alsace was the first place I ever got properly paralytic on wine, on a field trip in the last days of my school life, and it was Hugel Rieslings and Gewürztraminers that did it. That pretty much spoiled me for anything else after that, especially since Alsace wines are rarely cheap even in Britain. But everyone should try an Alsace Riesling at least once and the Hugel version is the most economical one available in Korea. (Actually, it’s pretty much the only one I’ve seen in Korea.) In Alsace they would normally drink this with choucroute garni – smoked pork with sauerkraut – so why not try this with samgyeopsal and kimchi? Yeah, you’re intrigued now, aren’t you? Try it. Do it. Do it today.