Throughout Gyeongnidan and HBC, new restaurants and cafes are popping up faster than moles on the golf course in Caddyshack. The latest opening is Cali Kitchen, which marks the first foray into bricks-and-mortar for Chuck Chun, who brought us the popular pop-up Chuck’s Table in recent months.
Unusually for the area, Chuck has decided to open on a Monday, which is great news for us long-suffering HBC residents whose days off fall at the beginning of the week rather than the more usual weekend. So I dropped in to see what was what.
[UPDATE, JULY 2017: This location has now closed, with Cali Kitchen reopening a little further up the street in more spacious premises. See my review for more information.]
Cali Kitchen occupies the spot previously occupied by a trendy curry place much beloved of the Tasty Road crowd, but apparently not beloved enough. That accounts for the slightly odd blue chocolate-box decor, which may or may not survive into the future.
The menu’s still very much in its introductory soft-open phase (as are the prices, possibly). Burgers, burritos and chili all feature, as do some good beers. I decided to get a burrito, with a choice of carnitas or carne asada. The carnitas was recommended to me, and I am a sucker for slow pulled pork, so that was what I picked, with some extra guacamole packed in there for an extra 3,000 won.
Good choice. The burrito came out freshly made to order with a little side dish of salsa. I was pleased to see that it was properly Andy-sized.
Biting into it gave me a good hit of coriander (cilantro) and plenty of soft, succulent pork. There were some black lentils in there rather than the more traditional beans – a change-up of which I thoroughly approve – as well as some corn, which personally I’m less wild about, but whatever. The ratio of fillings to rice was also pleasingly generous.
As I went on, the guacamole began to assert itself – lots of garlic in there, it was far better than some of the anaemic guac you get here in Seoul.
Sold. A really good burrito. The owners were friendly and chatty and I didn’t want to leave the airconditioned goodness of Cali Kitchen. I’m looking forward to seeing how it evolves and grows into the neighbourhood. With Revolucion just up the hill for an after-dinner beer, this neighbourhood continues to move onward and upward.
- Category: American
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: The burritos. Mind you, it’s the only thing I’ve tried, so who knows?
- Subway: Noksapyeong exit 2
- Directions: Come out of Noksapyeong exit 2 and walk up towards Namsan / HBC. Cross the road at the underpass and walk up Gyeongnidan-gil. Turn right at Maloney’s Pub, and Cali Kitchen is just a few metres further, on the left hand side.
- Hours: Open 7 days for lunch and dinner, with a mid-afternoon break. Check out their FB page for more details.
What is it about the hot sweaty weather that makes me crave the flesh of the pig? This time last year, almost to the week, I was engaged in a batshit crazy scheme to travel round Seoul looking for the best dwaejigukbap (돼지국밥), or pork and rice soup, that I could find, eventually plumping for one near Sinsa station as my favourite. (I don’t propose to go back over the finer points of this great Busan dish – you can find lots more explanation of what it is and how it should be served at that old post.)
Recently a well-known gukbap franchise opened a store a few moments’ walk from my work, so I’ve popped in there a couple of times to have some soup over lunchtime. But to be honest, it’s a pale imitation of the real thing and I always leave feeling a bit meh. So when I had an unexpected long lunch break today, I decided to do a little Naver-ing to see if there was anywhere nearby that I’d missed. And there was.
Dureban is just a block from Gangnam-gu Office station on the confluence of line 7 and the Bundang line. It has immediately vaulted to the top of my list, and I intend to become something of a regular, because the 돼지국밥 here was great.
The soup is served bubbling hot, as is customary in Korea. While you wait for it to descend from boiling to merely scalding, you set about adding your seasonings to taste. Salty, fermented baby shrimp (새우젓) add saltiness and umami; gochugaru (고추가루) adds some heat and depth; ground perilla seeds (들깨) add, well, 들깨ness.
Unlike many other places I’ve visited, though, Dureban also provides you with your own chives and chili to add as the whim takes you – useful for those of us who like to personalise our lunch to taste.
As the bubbles subsided and the steam cleared, I began to realise that the plethora of condiments wasn’t the only point in this place’s favour.
The soup was absolutely crammed with pork. A couple of the places I visited last year were good, but a little skimpy on the swine, with little shavings of pig where big chunks should be.
Here at Dureban, there’s a combination of the two – generous thinly sliced pork meat throughout the bowl, but two or three larger chunks lurking in there too, with just the right amount of fat. With a nice bit of kimchi on top, they were just begging to be despatched, and quickly were.
The broth is great here – not transcendent, but far better than some of the weak, blander bases I’ve tasted in the past. By now the sweat was building on my forehead, but I finished every drop.
There’s a sundaeguk on the menu too, as well as some other meaty dishes for the evening visitor, but I can’t speak to those.
Dureban was great, and as I exited through the outside “tent-bar” style annex (below), which would be great for night-time drinking, I found the bus stop back to my office not four paces from the front door. It’s like God wants me to come back. I will.
- Category: Korean
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Dwaejigukbap (돼지국밥)
- Subway: Gangnam-gu office (강남구청역) exit 3.
- Directions: Come out of exit 3 and double back to the intersection before turning left. Dureban is 150 metres or so on the left, look for the black sign as above.
- Hours: Uncertain, though open lunchtimes and Saturdays, at least. Try calling them on 02-514-8229.
Gamjatang is one of my favourite Korean soups, though even to call it “soup” is stretching a definition, as we’ll see. Made with pork neck bones, potatoes and a rich red broth, it’s one of the most visually striking dishes you can get, the huge bones poking out of the dark liquid like the skeleton of some fearful creature of the deep. It’s not entry-level Korean food and no mistake, but if you can get over the slightly scary appearance of your lunch – or if, like me, you see it and instantly want to try it – you really shouldn’t miss it.
Anyway, my mind turned to gamjatang this week when Dan Gray posted up his favourite five places to get this soup, over at Seoul Eats. When I saw his photo of the offering from Dongwon Jip, in the city centre, I knew what I wanted to eat. So I made the expedition to Euljiro 3-ga yesterday at lunchtime to see if the taste matched the photos.
Dongwon Jip is a little hole-in-the-wall place in the industrial area of Euljiro 3-ga, surrounded by little hardware shops selling copper wire, metal sheeting, paint and tools and God only knows what else. This is a dreadful old cliché, but it looks unchanged from what Seoul must have looked like in the 1970s, an ever-shrinking island of stasis in the midst of a sea of rapid change.
Daniel Tudor, the erstwhile Economist correspondent for Korea and co-owner of the Booth pizza pub chain, talks about how some people are Gangnam style while others are Gangbuk style, preferring north of the river to the clean open but characterless avenues of the south side of Seoul. Well, call me a Gangbuk saram, even if a big sweaty white guy sticks out in the streets round Dongwon Jip like a nun in a strip club.
This isn’t a place to take a girl on a first date, unless she likes sitting among soju-swilling ajosshis picking shards of pork off a huge pig bone. (If she does, for God’s sake propose to her immediately.)
It’s no-frills, and while there’s other stuff on the menu, the soup is the star. There are group-sized portions, as you’d expect, but at lunchtime most people are eating the individual servings for 7,000 won, so that’s what I got.
Gamjatang – here known as “gamjaguk” (감자국), but it’s the same stuff – can be fiddly to eat. The bones are cooked for ages, so that the meat is literally falling off them, but there’s still a bit of surgery to do with chopsticks and spoon to pull all the pork from the skeleton. I’ve been to places where this needed scissors or a very firm grip, but the meat is so well cooked here that it really does fall from the bones with just a nudge of a spoon.
As you slowly work your way through the bowl, discarding bits of spine as you go, you’ll occasionally encounter smaller pieces of bone in the bowl, so be careful. Again, this soup was so well made that was barely an issue. Despite its deep red colour, the broth wasn’t spicy, or at least not especially so. Instead, it was rich and flavourful, with lots of spring onion and garlic to pep it up. Huge chunks of potato help the soup live up to its name (though there is some dispute about whether the “gamja” in the name refers to the pork neck, the potatoes, or both). So filling, even for a big man like me.
You can eat the soup with rice and little bits of pork in it. Larger pieces can be smeared with ssamjang and maybe a small shard of garlic and eaten with chopsticks. I got some odd looks for pulling bones out of the soup with my fingers, but then again I was getting a lot of curious looks anyway, perhaps because I was a foreigner, or perhaps because despite it being lunchtime, I was the only person in the restaurant not pounding back soju.
The kimchi here is lovely, tangy and fresh, and there’s some radish as well to keep you going. I can’t imagine you’d need it – such a generous portion of soup for 7,000 won. I hate to imagine what the big size looks like.
Dongwon Jip serves up a really, really good bowl of soup. God, it was satisfying, hearty and rich. I was sweating like bejesus, more from the humid day than the spice of the soup, but it was totally worth it. I can imagine it being even better in winter. But there’s no way I’m waiting until then to come here again. About as down to earth a Korean food experience as you can have, but one of the best. Recommended.
- Category: Korean
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Gamjaguk (감자국)
- Subway: Euljiro 3-ga station / 을지로 3-가 역) exit 4.
- Directions: There’s more than one way to get here, but the easiest is as follows: come out of exit 4 and turn immediately left into the little alleyway in the second photo of this post. Walk along the street for a couple of minutes and you will come upon the restaurant on your right, next to a chicken place. There is no English signage at all, so you should look for the shopfront shown in the photos above. Once inside just ask for the gamjaguk. If it’s full, there’s a staircase leading up to a second floor, just to the left of the main door.
- Hours: Monday – Saturday all day until 10pm.
Hongdae has always been known for its partying, but I’m too old for all of that. In the unlikely event they ever let me into a club, I’d try to find a quiet corner and sip an IPA. My idea of modern music is Pink Floyd and any attempt to chat up a girl would probably end with the police and swift deportation.
Luckily, Hongdae is increasingly standing out for its food, and especially its non-Korean eating options. Though I’m keen to review more Korean food on this blog, it’s also important to highlight the fact that there are a growing number of good places outside the HBC / Gyeongnidan / Itaewon bubble where you can get a real taco, or pasta, or burger. A lot of these places seem to be in Hongdae these days.
One such is Amazing Thailand. I’d heard good things about it, so when one of my friends announced a craving for green curry, I braved the subway after work and made the long trip out west to see what all the fuss was about.
We’d been concerned about getting a table, but by the time we eventually rocked up, at 8:15 or so, there was plenty of space. The other customers were two large groups of Thai people, which, at the risk of repeating a hoary old cliché, we took as a good sign.
The menu is extensive and as you’ll see, most of it is pretty reasonably priced compared to some other Thai places in town. Here are the various pages of the menu to give you an idea of what we are talking about.
We went for a classic selection: green chicken curry, phad thai with shrimp, and papaya salad, with some fried shrimp croquettes and spring rolls to start. The food arrived quickly and almost all together. Service was excellent and the Thai wait staff certainly spoke better Korean than I do.
They brought us some little pork skin scratchings while we waited. Quite addictive snacks.
The shrimp croquettes were a good start. I’ve had these elsewhere and they are always a firm favourite, especially with a cold Singha beer. The texture was a little rubbery but the flavour was good. With the sweet chilli sauce, we were sold.
Spring rolls were a bit meh. They aren’t really a Thai specialty, despite their ubiquity on menus; you are better off eating them in Vietnam, where the fresh herbs and shredded vegetables combine to make a really special appetiser. It’s probably an unfair comparison, but these couldn’t match the fresh taste of a Hanoi street vendor and we probably could have done without them. Mind you, we ate a fair few, so they can’t have been that bad.
Main courses were great. The papaya salad, such a staple dish in Thailand, didn’t quite have the zest and zing I’d hoped for, but it was really tasty nonetheless – tart, sour, lots of crunch and plenty of heat. 7.5 out of 10.
The phad thai was really good. It wasn’t dry at all, the shrimp well cooked, the noodles and bean sprouts in good proportion. I might have wished for a little more chopped red chilli but I’m nitpicking. I’ve had a lot worse in the country itself – there’s a lot of really crap phad thai served to tourists in Thailand, and I’ve consumed my share – and I could have happily eaten this on its own.
The star was the green curry, which is just as well given that it’s what we had come for. Thai cooking, at its best, is a subtle blend of sweet, sour, hot and salty (which is why, even with my copy of the legendary “Thai Food” by David Thompson at my side in the kitchen, I struggle in vain to make a properly authentic-tasting curry). This dish hit all the spots. It was creamy, a little sour, sweet and just spicy enough. Goddamn, it was good.
As usual, I wanted to pick out all the vegetables and just eat the chicken, but that’s the fussy twelve year-old in me. Everything was just so and I wanted to order another one. If I could have bottled the sauce to use as an aftershave, I would have.
We accompanied our meal with a couple of cold beers (which tasted better than I remembered Thai beer tasting, perhaps because I’ve been conditioned to drink Cass), and a weird iced pink tea concoction which my dining companion insisted on ordering just because it was pink. It tasted like bubble-gum flavoured milk. Not a great success, though I can see how it might be nice over ice on a hot day.
The restaurant itself is a nice space. The staff, who may all have been one family, were attentive and friendly, the portions generous and the prices, a couple of more expensive “signature dishes” aside, were very reasonable.
Is it the best Thai food in Seoul? Well, Wang Thai in Itaewon is a pretty good spot, and I have a fondness for Kkaoli Pochana in Gyeongnidan, albeit it’s one that not many foreigners seem to share. And glorious things are spoken of Tuk Tuk, also in Hongdae, if you can get past the lines of Tasty Roaders waiting to get in. Everyone has their favourite.
But my vote goes, for the time being at least, to Amazing Thailand. Lovely meal at a good price, and handy for hitting the clubs after dinner. If you’re young enough for that sort of thing.
- Category: Thai
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Green curry
- Subway: Hongdae (Hongik University / 홍대역) exit 1.
- Directions: Come out of exit 1 and walk straight. You’ll cross the main road which heads up towards Hongik Uni: keep going. Take the first right after that road and you’ll see a CU Mart about 50m ahead of you. Amazing Thailand is to the left of that – you can’t really miss the facade.
- Hours: They are open for lunch and dinner, but I’m not sure if it’s seven days or not (though they are definitely open weekends). Contact details are on the sign, pictured below. Last orders on a Sunday night were at 9pm, so don’t show up too late.