soju sunrise

Review: Gusto Taco at Yongsan Army Base

restaurants | July 30, 2014 | By

IMG_1441OK, so there’s good news and bad news, and some additional good news. Following me so far? Good.

The good news is that while we await the opening of the new Noksapyeong branch of Apgujeong’s Coreanos Kitchen, there is another new taco place in the area most frequented by foreigners, and it’s pretty damn good. The bad news? It’s on the US base at Yongsan, so unless you have base access, or access to someone with base access, you’ll have to give it a miss. Fortunately I fall into the latter category, and am not above bribery as a means of getting to good food. So, armed with a promise to pay for dinner, I inveigled myself onto US soil and headed on down to the new USAG Yongsan branch of Gusto Taco with a friend in uniform to show me the way.

IMG_3791This being the US base, everything is denominated in dollars, though you can pay in won or by card as well. Gusto Taco is known for its tacos, but also does quesadillas, taquitos, nachos, burritos, and so on. Regular readers, if there are any, will know that I am a diehard Don Charly fan, but this is far more like American food than Mexican – and none the worse for it.

IMG_1445 - Version 2The manager recommended the chipotle pork tacos (above), so they were our first stop, along with some chicken tacos by way of comparison. The pork is slow-cooked for hours before being shredded, and it showed. It was soft and tasty; the meat was possibly, dare I say it, a little dry, but it was a damn fine taco nonetheless.

IMG_1435The chicken tacos (above) were possibly even better; cheese, pico de gallo, sour cream and finely chopped raw onion in perfect proportions. Yeah, I liked this. A lot.

IMG_1439We got beef quesadillas as well. My dining companion raved about these, and indeed they were also really well judged. Everything was spicy and generously filled.

Still hungry – give me a break, I hadn’t eaten all day – we went up to the counter for round two. This time we added some huevos rancheros tacos to the mix, as well as a chicken burrito.

IMG_1448I’m not a big fan of burritos; I find them just a bit bland compared to the concentrated flavours in other Mexican food. I have to say that I thought this was pretty good – again, generously filled, lots of rice but also plenty of chicken, and not too much lettuce and beans, in stark contrast to a lot of Korean burritos which pile on the tasteless filler like there’s no tomorrow. At $9.50, it’s not terribly cheap, but it hit the spot.

IMG_1450By now I was beginning to get seriously stuffed, but there was just space for the huevos rancheros (above) – chorizo, egg and salsa, to those of us who don’t speak Spanish. This tasted to me exactly like a bacon and egg taco; it was a bit like eating a full English breakfast in a corn taco shell. That’s a compliment, by the way.

IMG_3789The restaurant itself has a somewhat… canteen-y feel. It’s functional rather than comfortable, bright and cheerful, and good for larger groups and families (both were in evidence on the day that I visited). By the nature of its location, it’s not really somewhere you’ll go to linger for hours, unless you have a few friends on base and can knock back a few beers. The service was extremely friendly and efficient and we were made to feel very welcome.

IMG_3783IMG_3784The last bit of good news, then, is that even if you can’t get on to the base at Yongsan, you can still enjoy Gusto Taco’s original location near Sangsu station in Hongdae. I haven’t been to that outlet, but on the basis of my visit to this one, and the reports I have heard from Hongdae, I can certainly say that I’ll be paying it a visit.

This is a much more American experience than Don Charly, but there’s no reason one can’t have two Latina mistresses, is there? The food was fresh, fairly priced and very satisfying, and marks another step forward for Mexican food in Korea. Me gusta.

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  • Category: Mexican/American
  • Price: $$$$
  • Must try: Chicken taco
  • Subway: Samgakji (삼각지역) exit 13, Noksapyeong (녹사평역) exit 1
  • Directions: Gusto Taco is a little way past the Dragon Hill Lodge on the South Post at USAG Yongsan, in the USEA building near Jamba Juice and the Korea Palace “Fusion Korean” restaurant. To be clear, you’ll need base access, or a friend who does.
  • Hours: Monday – Saturday 11am -9pm, with extended hours and Sunday opening planned in the future. Check out their Facebook page or their website for more details.

 

Review: Linus’ BBQ in Itaewon

restaurants | July 20, 2014 | By

IMG_1397My first experience of American BBQ – the real thing, not a gloopy plate of ribs in TGI Friday’s – came at the mighty Dreamland BBQ in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the best part of two decades ago. The menu was simple: ribs and sliced white bread, with a sign on the wall warning you that there were “no fries, no slaw… don’t even ask!” The food was a thing of beauty, one thing done eminently well, and from that time on I was hooked, with the disastrous effects on my waistline that are there for all to see.

Being Scottish, I am no expert in American-style barbecue (though I am a world expert on deep-frying stuff), but I know what I like. What I don’t like are ribs, chicken and assorted other meats coated in multiple layers of sickly-sweet BBQ sauce, indifferently cooked and then served up at inflated prices. In Korea, that has certainly been the way of things, with the odd honourable exception such as Beale Street in Hongdae which does a decent approximation of southern-style barbecue, albeit at very un-Tuscaloosa prices.

IMG_3728Linus Kim has enjoyed underground fame for some time now, his pop-up events emerging in Itaewon and around sporadically like golden tickets hidden in a candy bar, his band of loyal fans growing with each unheralded appearance, lines of happy eaters queuing for seconds and third of his great pulled pork and ribs. So it was with considerable excitement that we discovered that Linus was opening his very own BBQ restaurant in a well-hidden backstreet of Itaewon. I ended up going about four times in the fortnight of his soft opening phase, but with the “Grand Open” having taken place this past Friday, I can now share this gem with you, albeit reluctantly.

IMG_3720The menu presented to us in recent weeks has varied, depending on what’s good, what’s available and what’s cookin’. As the menu becomes less experimental, that may change. The staple standby is the pulled pork sandwich (above), and it’s great. Linus also offers a pulled pork plate for 3,000 won or so more, which gives you a bigger helping of meat with fries, slaw and a couple of slider buns for company. I would have liked a bit more bread – it wasn’t sufficient for the meat in the serving – but otherwise this was top-notch fare.

IMG_3714The brisket sandwich (slightly fuzzy photo, above) is also magnificent, perhaps my favourite. Juicy, tasty… just yeah. Good food, presented simply. And everything comes with some very fresh and tasty slaw – not really my thing, but well made nonetheless.

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Over my visits we tasted ribs two ways; first deep-fried, which I present here in all their malevolent goodness:

IMG_3718I won’t lie: even I found this a bit much, a very rich item indeed. It was damn good, but I don’t think I’ll be ordering this again soon without a cardiologist on speed-dial. The more traditional ribs come very lightly sauced, with a small squeeze bottle of BBQ sauce on the side – brought to the table warm, a fantastic little touch. I so much prefer this model to the dump-a-gallon-of-sauce paradigm you get at other places.

IMG_1400The ribs were tender, succulent and full of flavour – an instant favourite. On a subsequent visit we were offered a rib sandwich, which in true Alabama style is three ribs, bone and all, sticking awkwardly out of a white bun like Peter Crouch on a beanbag chair. Also great, though I never quite got the point of the bread (I used it for the surplus pulled pork).

IMG_1406At various points, our food came with onion rings or shoestring fries. There was also some great mashed potato and gravy, and the frankly outstanding deep fried mac’n’cheese balls (below) with a little bit of bacon and jalapeno mixed in there. Cut in half and dipped in that warm BBQ sauce..God, I’m salivating just thinking about them.

IMG_3717What else does Linus’ BBQ have going for it? A selection of proper beers such as Magpie Pale Ale and imported American options such as Heretic and Indica, and some bourbons for those who like to partake in such sinful activities. A generous outside seating area, which is pretty horrible in the July weather but will be absolutely lovely on a warm and dry late summer’s night (or, looking ahead, next May and June). Friendly and attentive service, which one hopes will cope with what will surely be a huge influx of visitors in coming months.

IMG_3731And, most of all, the reasonable prices. I haven’t attached price tags to the dishes I’ve talked about because we were there in Linus’ soft opening stage and the prices may go up (though you can see some of those price tags on the menu pictured near the top of this post). But I really hope that they don’t, or at least, that they don’t go up by very much.

Could there be criticisms? I don’t know. Some people may find the food undersauced or underspiced – it’s not hot, it’s doesn’t jump out on your palate with hobnailed boots, it doesn’t reek of hickory smoke let alone Liquid Smoke. Barbecue devotees from Alabama or North Carolina reading this may be able to list all sorts of ways in which this restaurant falls short of the ideal from your own home town. So be it.

But this is great food at a very fair price – more expensive than eating samgyeopsal down the road, yes, but less money than other comparable places in the city, foreign and Korean-owned alike, for a far better product, the product of a lot of time, care, planning and training, and I for one am happy to pay a premium for damn fine stuff like this. The foreign food scene in Seoul has changed so much in just the past three or four years, and Linus’ BBQ is, hopefully, at the heart of a new iteration in this trend. There will be imitators, but they probably won’t be as good. Go, before Tasty Road finds it and you can never get a seat again.

  • Category: American
  • Price: $$$$
  • Must try: Brisket sandwich, ribs
  • Subway: Noksapyeong (녹사평역) exit 4 or Itaewon (이태원역) exit 4
  • Directions: Just to the left of McDonald’s in Itaewon is a staircase leading down to the basement floor of the clothing arcade next door. Walk down past the clothes shops and Linus’ BBQ is at the end of the corridor and out the door. Alternatively, you can walk along the little alleyway behind the Itaewon main street – keep your eyes peeled for the outside seating area, which is well hidden. No, no map this time. I don’t want it to be too easy to find. I want to be able to get a table next time.
  • Hours: Generally 6-10pm Tuesday – Friday and possibly all day on the weekends, though I wouldn’t swear to any of this.

 

In search of pig and rice Nirvana

restaurants | July 11, 2014 | By

IMG_3538Recently I was in Busan for work [sic] and had the opportunity to try the great non-fishy specialty of that city, dwaejigukbap (돼지국밥), pork and rice soup. In an alleyway tucked behind the teeming shopping streets of Seomyeon in Busan, a whole row of spit-and-sawdust restaurants serve up bowls of filling, life-affirming soup, with great seething vats of boiling pork out front to entice you in. These are real ajosshi hangouts, with nary a tourist to be seen – one old guy couldn’t take his eyes off me all through my dinner, and I don’t think he was admiring my fine pectoral muscles. For 6,000 won you get a big bowl of meaty, warming soup, as well as all the side dishes you can eat.

IMG_3540After this, I was hooked. But Busan is a long way and the KTX ticket adds several zeroes to the cost of that soup. Surely I could find something comparable in Seoul? Alas, my Korean friends told me, there aren’t many places in the capital that can do a decent 돼지국밥, and certainly nowhere that compares to Busan. Put it out of your mind, they advised. Stick to traditional Seoul specialities, they suggested, like budaejjigae, or sweet potato pizza.

Well, said I, balls to that. Somewhere in this teeming metropolis of fifteen million souls, there must be someone who knows how to boil a piece of pork in some water for six hours, surely? And so I went on a hunt for the best dwaejigukbap I could find, with the help of some generous Seoul Eats Facebook group members and some Naver-ing of my own. My search would take me to all four corners of the city, going through five pigs, three gallons of those little salty shrimps, two dining companions and half a dozen bowls of rice.

The basics of dwaejigukbap are simple. According to Jessica Steele – whose awesome and insanely comprehensive blog post on this subject is here (seriously, there’s music videos and everything) – pork bones are boiled three times to make the broth, to which soft slices of pork, spring onion and various other seasonings are added. Brought to the table along with the soup are the regulation bowls of rice and kimchi. An indispensable side dish is radish (깍두기), which I’m assured is the key to any good dwaejigukbap joint, “as central to dwaejigukbap as the chips in fish and chips”, or so I was told.

As well as these, you’ll usually get garlic (마늘), green chillis (고추), garlic chives (부추) and noodles (면). Some restaurants will offer you additional portions of sundae (순대), or variations in which the meat is plated up and served separately. Any and all of these can be thrown in, munched separately, or whatever; this is not fine dining, but rather a meal whose origins, like budaejjigae, lie in resourceful Koreans, in this case Busanites, making the best of what they had to hand in the darkest days of the Korean War. In most of these places, the locals will be surprised enough to even see a foreigner, so don’t stop to give a toss what the proper etiquette is.

IMG_3611Finally, and crucially, you will find little pots of salted shrimp (새우젓) and hot red pepper paste (gochujang – 고추장), along, sometimes, with more familiar salt and pepper. These do need to be added, since the soup as brought to table is fairly bland and will definitely need at least a little bit of salt and spice added, depending on your taste. Since the saltiness of the shrimp and the heat of the gochujang varies from place to place, proceed with caution at first and add more after a couple of exploratory spoonfuls.

IMG_3619First stop on my porky odyssey was Donsubaek (돈수백), which describes itself on its website as a “Premium Pig Rice Soup Franchise”. There are branches all over the city, but we went to the Sinnonhyeon branch, which coincidentally is right next to the mighty Ceramic House, which I reviewed a couple of weeks back. (Directions to all of these restaurants are at the bottom of this page.)

As a restaurant experience, it was about as far from Busan’s food alley as you could imagine; all air-conditioning, clean surfaces and a resolute lack of noisily slurping ajosshis in hiking gear. I will leave it to you to decide if this is a good thing or bad. Service was quick and efficient, and the spread of side dishes all present and correct.

IMG_3612So, how was the soup? Short version: pretty damn good. As usual, it needed plenty of seasoning, which turned it from the milky white colour in the first photo below into the richer pinkish hue of the final, ready-to-eat version.IMG_3613

IMG_3617All in all, this was a fine bowl of soup. It didn’t quite hit the heights of Busan (spoiler alert; none of the dwaejigukbap places reviewed in this blog post will), but to be honest it was pretty damn good. The biggest pleasure was the price: just 6,500 won in the heart of Gangnam for a filling meal. My dining companion, who describes herself as a gukbap obsessive, pronounced herself satisfied, although she admitted that she is easily satisfied. For convenience (24 hours a day), locations all over the city, a good quality broth and side dishes, and overall value, Donsubaek gets 8/10.

Could we do better? I was sure that we could. And so, the very next day – actually, the lunchtime after the evening before – I headed up to Chungmuro to the second stop in the trail, Chungmuro Dwaejigukbap (충무로 돼지국밥), about which I had read good things. But disaster! Naver had lied to me; the restaurant was gone, replaced by – I can barely bring myself to type the words – a bloody Paris Baguette café. Dispirited, I glumly searched the map, but salvation was at hand; an alternate option a couple of stops along the subway in Sindang (신당). Fifteen minutes later, and getting hungry now, I was at 국밥이야기, and I was quickly sitting down to my second bowl in the space of a day.

IMG_3626IMG_3625This place was a bit more rough-and-ready than the franchise restaurant of the previous night. No noodles were forthcoming, and seasoning was restricted to shrimp and gochujang but no salt and pepper, but otherwise everything was present and correct. The ajumma was delighted to see a white man on the premises and, mistaking my hesitation to spoon the boiling liquid into my gob for some sort of waegook ignorance, made a point of showing me how to eat the soup with the rice and generally clucking over me.

IMG_3624My general feeling was that this soup wasn’t quite as tasty as the previous night. The pork was a bit fattier (no bad thing, in itself), the broth just a bit meh. The chives had been pre-added, so that was one less variable for the diner to control. The price was even better than the previous day, though, at 6,000 won, and the serving was generous, with an even bigger one on the menu for just a couple of thousand more. Overall, if I lived within walking distance of 국밥이야기 I’m pretty sure I’d be in there at least once a week, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend travelling across the city for it. 7/10.

On! A few days later I found myself heading out from work late on a Friday night, and Gangnam traffic was typically nose-to-tail, so a hop onto the subway seemed in order. Was there somewhere on my route home that I could grab some dinner, I wondered. So I took a look at Naver, and lo and behold… could it be…? A gentle stroll from Seocho station, there was another dwaejigukbap joint. Perfect.

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So the next stop on my tour was Iga (이가돼지국밥). Down a small flight of stairs – there’s something very exciting to me about Korean basement restaurants, because you never know what you’re going to find – I was about to have the best pork and rice soup yet.

IMG_3661The restaurant was neither ghetto nor upmarket, but somewhere in between; pretty big, spotlessly clean once again, with a couple of tables of office workers grazing on bossam and soju. The ajumma looked at me with that familiar panic-stricken face as I walked in, but relaxed when I addressed her in my shitty Korean. Quickly the side dishes and accessories were delivered to my table, and after three or four minutes, I got my soup. Iga offered up the usual bits and pieces – including chopped green chillies, a tight coil of noodles, and earthenware pots of radish and kimchi – the latter just to my foreign taste, aged but not too bitter, hot but not insanely so.

IMG_3664But of course, no-one comes here for the kimchi. So, how was the soup? A first exploratory taste, with only a smattering of seasoning added, was inconclusive. It looked a bit – well, meh. As I started to add seasonings, the sympathetic ajumma hovered, warning me not to add too much spice for my delicate foreign palate and helping me with the odd dish, but mostly just standing around watching me with rapt interest, the way you might watch Roger Moore disarm a ticking atomic bomb. A spoonful or two of shrimpy saltiness, gochujang and black pepper later, and the soup was transformed. Goddamn, this was good.

IMG_3666The ajumma knew her stuff. The broth was subtler than at the previous establishments, but as I supped it grew on me. I think the gochujang may have been more concentrated, I don’t know; certainly the picture above suggests a darker and spicier soup than I’d had before, and the chili slowly began to draw beads of sweat out on my brow, to her immense satisfaction. The pork was sliced more thinly than I’d had elsewhere, more like thin sliced roast pork than bossam meat. I did slightly miss the hearty chunks of pork of my earlier meals, but I would be lying if I said this was anything other than utterly satisfactory. On taste it was level with the 돈수백 soup, or maybe a chive’s-width superior; but the personal touch gave it a slight edge over the chain-restaurant efficiency of the first stop on my journey. The price was right, at 6,000 won. And this was the sort of place I could picture getting pissed in with a bunch of friends, which is always a good sign. 8.5/10.

Next, I found myself in Daehan Gukbap (대한국밥), in a tangle of streets near Samgakji station. Near the train tracks the fancy apartments of Yongsan give way to low rise buildings of an altogether more modest vintage; the area behind 대한국밥 consists of little but shacks that have probably not seen a lick of paint since the Park Chung-Hee era. But this wasn’t quite the gritty taxi-driver hangout that I was beginning to expect; instead, it is part of the Baek Jong-won empire, he of the ubiquitous meat restaurants and cute pop-star wife 15 years his junior. I arrived just after twelve on a weekday, and got the last free seat; soon there were office workers lining up under the warm drizzle outside for a bowl of soup. Cheek by jowl with slurping Koreans, I only got one photo before the stares of those queuing patiently for their lunch shamed me into putting my phone down and getting tucked in.

IMG_3738Verdict: meh. A solid bowl of soup, this had a few things going for it. The pork was not as lean as some of the other establishments, which I consider to be a plus; though sliced thin, there were plenty of authentically fatty slices lurking in there. The gochujang was either home-made or tarted up with some extra chilli and garlic, and the chopped green gochu was almost Thai in its fieriness. The broth was so-so, however, and I felt that I was adding a lot of seasoning to dial up the flavour. When I stepped outside and discovered that the stop for the green number 3 bus that would take me all the way back home to HBC was right outside, I knew that I would be back, but there’s no way I would travel cross-town for this soup. 7.5/10.

By now, I won’t lie, I was beginning to flag. The weather was getting hotter and clammier, and wandering the streets of Seoul looking for hot soup was beginning to seem like an insane waste of my time. You think it’s hard work reading this? Try visiting all these dwaejigukbap joints day after day. Just try typing “dwaejigukbap” all these times. In my feverish dreams, pigs danced in front of my eyes, little shrimps screamed in their salty mass graves. But I wasn’t going to give up quite yet. Not while those pigs still roaming the earth unslaughtered. One more push, Andy.

My final stop was supposed to be a gamjatang and dwaejigukbap place near Isu station, but ten minutes of fruitless wandering around there in the boiling midday sun persuaded me that Naver had lied again, the restaurant gone and replaced by what seems to be a sexy bar (I’ll leave it to you to decide whether this represents progress or not). So I clambered back on the subway and headed across to my fallback choice, Busan Dwaejigukbap (부산 돼지국밥) near Sinsa station. What a lucky choice it was.

IMG_3754This restaurant got almost everything right. Although the chives were, again, pre-added, the soup made up for it. By far the porkiest-flavoured of all the broths I tasted, I could actually believe that the pleasingly fatty slices of meat had actually simmered therein for hours on end.

IMG_1428The shrimpy seasoning was very salty, the gochujang nicely hot. There was no chopped chilli, unfortunately, but to make up for it a small metal canister arrived at my table, unbidden, with a fried egg inside.

IMG_3751A couple of spoonfuls of rice, beansprouts, radish and lettuce, and I was shaking up a nice dosirak to eat alongside my soup – a lovely and unexpected little bonus.

IMG_3750The soup was spot on and I couldn’t fault it in any way. Overall it was every bit as good as the offering from Iga down in Seocho and, at 6,500 won, will definitely join my rotation of regular haunts in this part of town. 8.5/10.

And so I proclaim joint winners of my (utterly arbitrary and meaningless) award for best 돼지국밥 in Seoul: Iga in Seocho and Busan Dwaejigukbap in Sinsa. I would suggest the former for dinner with friends and a couple of drinks, the latter for lunch on the go.

IMG_1431So, the takeaways from this experiment? 1. There’s no such thing as a bad bowl of 돼지국밥. 2. The broth matters above all, but the bits and pieces that come with it make the experience, allowing you to personalise it to taste. I know that I like my dwaejigukbap quite salty and quite spicy, but others will disagree. 3. Ajummas will always help you out, even if you aren’t sure exactly what to do or what to add to your meal; staff in a chain restaurant will be far more scared of talking to a waegook, if you are indeed a foreigner. 4. Schlepping around Seoul eating bowls of almost identical soup make a man go just a little bit mad. 5. They are all trumped by the dwaejigukbap of dwaejigukbap alley in Seomyeon, Busan. Go to Busan.

Directions:

Donsubaek (돈수백) – branches all over the city. To get to their Sinnonyheon outlet, come out of exit 4 and walk down the alley in the general direction of Gangnam station, and then take the first left. Donsubaek will be on your left. Open 24 hrs.

Gukbap Iyagi (국밥이야기) – Sindang station exit 9. Walk a minute or two and turn right at Starbucks. The restaurant is about 50 yards down the sidestreet on the left. Opening hours unknown.

Iga (이가돼지국밥) – Seocho station exit 1. Turn right immediately after exiting the station down the sidestreet running parallel with the main road. Iga is about 5 minutes down the road on the left, look out for the big white sign. Open 24 hours.

Daehan Gukbap (대한국밥) – Samgakji station exit 8 or 9. Walk straight from the exit up and over the railroad tracks, and Daehan Gukbap is in the block of shops and lunch places at the foot of the other side of the bridge. Alternatively the No. 3 green bus from Gyeongnidan will stop here – keep your eyes open for the railway and get off before it turns down towards Yongsan. Opening hours unknown.

Busan Dwaejigukbap (부산 돼지국밥) – Sinsa station exit 4. Turn left out of the exit and walk past the petrol station, along the main road west from Sinsa station. Busan Dwaejigukbap is just a couple of minutes along the road. Opening hours unknown.

There are plenty of other places in Seoul selling the same dish. Some, no doubt, are better. Which is your favourite? Let me know. I’m not porked out yet!

Bite-size Review: Quân An Asean in Wangsimni

restaurants | July 9, 2014 | By

Ever since I visited Vietnam five years ago, I’ve hankered after an authentic bowl of their finest creation, pho (or phở as apparently it should be written). This great beef soup is probably familiar to you, but (at the risk of being a Lonely Planet bore) it doesn’t taste the same outside of Vietnam, and there is certainly nothing in Seoul to rival the glorious versions I had in Hanoi and Saigon. Vietnamese-style chains were all the rage here a while ago, and there are still lots of Pho Meins, Pho Bays and even a What the Pho to be found in Korea, but they are, almost always, garbage, pale imitations of the real thing.

I used to be a big fan of Le Saigon in Gyeongnidan, but my last few visits there have been pretty meh and I fear the quality there has been compromised for the sake of the local palate. I’d also been told that there was good pho to be had out in Ansan, where many migrants from SE Asia live, but that seemed a bit of a trek even for a noted glutton like myself.

For some time, though, I had heard tell of a place in Wangsimni that served up huge steaming bowls of the authentic stuff from the bowels of an otherwise unremarkable food court. So when I found myself transferring subway lines at lunchtime it seemed too good an opportunity to miss.

IMG_3744The restaurant really isn’t a restaurant; it’s a counter in the food court of an apartment block in the middle of nowhere. There was no doubting the authenticity of the enterprise, though; the menu has just a few items, all in Vietnamese, including my target for the day, a great-looking beef phở.

IMG_3741Within a couple of minutes, the lovely Vietnamese lady was ladling up a big-ass bowl of this stuff. She added spring onions, sliced white onion and some pepper and who knows what else. The clinching sign that I was no longer in chain-restaurant hell was the side-plate of accompaniments; not only some fiery red chillies far removed from the bland nonsense you get in Pho Bay, but a healthy pile of fresh herbs on the stem, twigs and all – coriander (itself quite rare in Korean “Vietnamese” restaurants) and something resembling mint that I couldn’t identify but threw in anyway. A squirt of two of brown sauce, Sriracha and lemon juice, and I was good to go.

IMG_1410The soup was a little sweeter than I had recalled it from my long-ago holiday, and it needed a generous hand with the chilli and the lemon to amp up the flavours. Since it was a swelteringly humid July day I went a little easy on the heat, and afterwards somewhat regretted it. On the other hand, the fresh herbs really lifted the taste and the noodles and beef were just right.

Overall, I enjoyed it and the somewhat grungy ambience only added to the feeling that you really could be, just for a moment, back in Hanoi sipping on a 30 cent beer. It wasn’t by any means amazing, and I’m not sure I’d make the trip especially… but if you are in the area or you have a craving for the real thing, this may be as close as you’ll get without heading out to Ansan – or Saigon.

IMG_1411Quân An Asean (once known as Little Vietnam I believe) is a little tricky to find, but that’s all part of the fun. Come out of Wangsimni Station exit 2 (a solid five minute schlep from the tracks before you get above ground) and walk along the road for four or five minutes until you reach a petrol station, like so.

IMG_3748Hang a left at the gas station and you will quickly see a Holly’s Coffee and, opposite it and to the right, the Centerville apartment and grandly titled “shopping mall”, which has perhaps seen better days.

IMG_3746Down to the right of the main entrance you go down some steps to the B1 level and the food court is on your left. Quân An Asean is the first counter you will come to.

IMG_3745If you don’t speak Vietnamese or Korean then just point to what you want. The ladies are very helpful and the service is swift. They have some great coffee, as you would expect, but don’t expect a fancy atmosphere – this is food court central.

IMG_3742

  • Category: Vietnamese
  • Price: $$$$
  • Must try: phở.
  • Subway: Wangsimni (왕김니역) exit 2
  • Directions: Come out of Wangsimni Station exit 2 and walk along the road for four or five minutes until you reach the petrol station, then turn left. Opposite the Holly’s Coffee is a small apartment block with some steps down to the right. The food court is down there on the left.
  • Hours: Your guess is as good as mine, but I first tried to go there on a Monday and it was closed, so I’m going to say office hours Tuesday – Friday at the least, and maybe the weekend as well. But please don’t take my word for it.

Quân An Asean map

Review: Firebell Burger in Daechi-dong

restaurants | July 5, 2014 | By

 

IMG_3713It’s pretty much impossible to find a decent burger in Gangnam, certainly one that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. The Alibi near Gangnam station, on the site of what used to be Craftworks, claims to have a 7-star Michelin chef making burgers in their kitchen, but the food and drink there is priced to match and it’s not exactly the sort of place you’d pop in for a quick bite at lunchtime. Basically your choices are to schlep to Seorae Maeul or Samseong for a Brooklyn Burger – admittedly, a superb choice that is well worth the journey – or to check out the new Burger B franchise in COEX, which (if it’s as good as the Hongdae branch) would be a more than acceptable option.

Three cheers, then, for Firebell, which has just opened up in Daechi-dong between Seollung and Hanti stations. Coincidentally, the restaurant is in the same block as my work, which I took to be God’s sign that He needs me to eat more burgers. So in I went. Who am I to question Him?IMG_3707Firebell looks and tastes like an American diner, which I mean as a compliment. They have a red and white theme going on and no more than a handful of tables, I reckon about six. You can watch them making your burger in the compact kitchen. IMG_3648On my first visit I ordered the Habana burger. This has a slightly spicy jalapeno / cheese topping reminiscent of the CREAM burger at Brooklyn, and the similarities do not end there. The 5oz patty was perfectly seasoned and cooked, with a nice char on the outside but pink inside, and the bun was soft (perhaps even slightly too much so). IMG_3711On my second trip – no, I didn’t eat both of these at the same sitting – I just had to try the Mac n’ Cheese burger. This is exactly what it sounds like: a burger with some macaroni cheese, as we’d call it back home, on top of the burger. The effect was nice but a bit odd – it was basically like a cheeseburger with some random pasta shapes on top of it. Is this a thing in America? Whatever, it’s another sign of your nation’s greatness.IMG_3712All burgers are 5oz (apart from the double) and very reasonably priced at between 7,000 and 8,500. For 4,000 won you can add fries and a soda, which include the option of Dr Pepper or Cherry Coke for the homesick expats among you. IMG_3708They also have some decent imported beers available and some very nice-looking shakes, which I haven’t yet tried – more shades of Brooklyn Burger.IMG_3651To be clear, these burgers are great. There’s no bullshit toppings on them, no sweet sauce, no Korean-style eight slabs of lettuce to clear off the bun. Just a really good, well-cooked burger. On the modest size, it’s true, but the fatties can always order the double; for a lunchtime treat, it’s perfect. I’m not saying I’d travel across the city for it – that honour remains with Brooklyn the Burger joint – but as a neighbourhood diner, Firebell is pretty much perfect in every way. If you live or work south of the river, give it your custom, and let’s make sure they don’t go anywhere.

  • Category: American
  • Price: $$$$
  • Must try:Habana burger
  • Subway: Seollung (선릉역) exit 2 / Hanti (한티역) exit 1
  • Directions: Coming from Seollung station, come out of exit 2 and walk down the street for 6-7 minutes until you pass an intersection with a pharmacy and an optician on the corner. There is a Pizza Hut and a Cafe Nescafe on the left. Turn left after that and Firebell will be on the left side of the sidestreet after about 50 yards. From Hanti exit 1, walk up towards the same spot and turn right at the Cafe Nescafe.
  • Hours: Open seven days 11am – 9:30pm. They occasionally take a mid-afternoon break so if you are coming from afar, call ahead or check their Facebook page.

Firebell map