I don’t usually post about cafés in Seoul, because (a) there are too many cafés in Seoul already, and (b) I am not a girl, so I feel I should be posting about manly things like beer, meat, you know, stuff like that.
Seoul doesn’t really have a coffee culture, or at least not much of one; what it has, which is very different, is a café culture. A lot of those cafés, of course, are fairly soulless chains like Starbucks, Twosome Place, and various Korean knockoffs of varying quality (Angel-in-us? Coffine Gurunaru? Bugger off.) But appreciation of coffee itself is still quite a specialist pursuit here. Anyway, I digress.
If Seoul has a coffee culture at all, it’s in places like Hongdae, which is really carving out a distinctive bohemian niche for itself as time goes by, playing host to some of the city’s best foreign restaurants outside of the Itaewon waygook bubble, a few genuinely cool bars, and about ten thousand cafés, many of which are too quirky for their own good.
Nonetheless, it’s a really great place to hang out of a day off, so here are three of Hongdae’s most notable cafés, each very different in their own way, but each trying to sell good coffee to the discerning, not just churn out macchiatos to the masses. All three are pretty hard to find, but isn’t that part of the charm? What? Oh.
Tucked away in achingly trendy Yeonnam-dong, Coffee Libre is maybe a bit hipsterish for its own good, but the product and the atmosphere are both on point. It’s tiny, with space for maybe eight or nine people in the back, so you may want to get your coffee (or beans) to go.
There are only four items on the menu: a single-origin French press coffee (which is what I went for), espresso, Americano or latte. You can choose from a geographically diverse selection of blends.
The interior of the café is pleasingly funky; if you can get a seat, you’ll feel like you’re in a little oasis of calm from which you never want to get up.
Coffee Libre also have outlets in Myeongdong and now Express Bus Terminal, and their main business is selling coffee, including an interesting-looking subscription service whereby you can get beans sent to you on a regular basis. Check out their website for more.
Coffee Lab is a complete contrast from Coffee Libre – a much more modern look to the interior, with trendy metallic-effect menus (you know the ones I mean, they look and feel like they’re steel-plated), and dozens upon dozens of filter handles suspended from the ceiling like a coffee-lover’s dream (or nightmare).
The menu here is much more extensive, with about every kind of coffee drink you can imagine, as well as an “adult” menu of drinks that have shots of various kinds added.
Coffee Lab also sell beans, though I haven’t tried them. The café was founded by Bang Jong Koo, who apparently won the 2005 Korean Barista of the Year award, which marks him out as a real trailblazer of the Seoul coffee scene (though I can’t help wondering how many entrants there would have been back then!). The staff are of the usual young-guys-in-skinny-white-shirts variety, which maybe explained why the proportion of female customers here was unusually high even by Seoul standards.
This is a really nice café, one I can easily spend an hour or two in, and it is quite centrally located, about five or six minutes from the front gate of Hongik University and just a short walk from one of my favourite galbi restaurants in Seoul, the mighty 철길왕갈비 (Railroad Galbi), which I also heartily recommend. I’m not sure it’s the best coffee in Hongdae, though.
Anthracite Coffee Roasters
As a building, as a café, Anthracite is hands-down my favourite, though your mileage may vary. It’s literally a converted factory in the middle of an otherwise very pleasant residential district south of Hongdae, near Sangsu station, that has very little else around it.
The ground floor is devoted to a long counter – which on closer inspection is actually an old conveyor belt! – some shelves with beans and other bits and bobs for sale, and a couple of big roasters. This really does retain the feel of the original industrial shop floor that it used to be – on my last visit, guys were busy bagging and tagging freshly roasted coffee beans from the huge machines at the back.
The main seating area is upstairs, and it’s similarly cavernous. But despite appearances, the place is actually really comfortable. I haven’t been in the depths of winter so I’d be interested to know if it gets chilly inside, but I really love this space. It’s perfect for catching up on work or studying. There’s also rooftop seating for warmer days, which is really delightful.
Beans are available for sale on site and online, and they also have a subscription service for the serious coffeeholic. I like the coffee here, though I’ve only tried a couple of varieties.
Anthracite may not be the place to go if you’re looking to curl up on a sofa with a good book, but I’m a huge fan. A favourite café is as personal as a pair of slippers, but Anthracite is it for me. Off the beaten track, but totally worth it.
- Subway: Hongdae Station (홍대입구역) exit 3.
- Directions: From the subway, walk along the main road until it turns right, and then head up into Yeonnam-dong. After four or five minutes’ walk, just before you get to a small junction, turn left into the small sidestreet and Coffee Libre is down there on the right. Yes, it’s hard to find. That’s part of the charm.
- Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 12 – 9pm. Closed Mondays.
- Subway: Hongdae Station (홍대입구역) exit 9.
- Directions: The easiest way to get here is probably from the front gate of Hongik University: walk along the main road for seven or eight minutes until you see a couple of roads to the right, one heading uphill and the other downhill. (If you cross the bridge over the old railway, you’ve gone too far.) Turn left down the street, and Coffee Lab is just there on the right-hand corner. It’s hard to find. Yes, that’s part of the charm.
- Hours: Open every day. Sunday – Thursday 11am – midnight; Fridays and Saturdays until 1am.
- Subway: Sangsu Station (상수역) exit 4.
- Directions: Walk along the road until you get to the first major junction, and take the second of the two streets going left. After five minutes you’ll get to another main road, where you have to turn right and right again. Look, it’s easier if you just look at the map. It’s hard to find. That’s part of the charm.
- Hours: 11am – midnight every day, though they may close a little earlier on Sunday nights.
Long before there was Villa Guerrero, Little Baja, or even (I think) Vatos and Coreanos, there was Don Charly, a little hole-in-the-wall taco place up the road towards the Hyatt, with five seats and a couple of overworked Mexicans serving top-quality tacos in polystyrene plates to hungry foreigners.
Time passed and Don Charly opened up next to Craftworks in Gyeongnidan – a very solid spot, but some have grumbled that it isn’t the same as the old days, when we used to stand on the street and lick meat juices from our fingers like taco junkies. So now they have returned to their roots with a brand new taquería, just a couple of hundred metres from their original location, and though it’s only been open a day, I’m pleased to report that it’s a hit.
[UPDATE, JULY 2017: This location has now closed, unfortunately. The main Don Charly branch next to Craftworks remains open.]
On this gorgeous sunny autumn afternoon, I braved the hordes of Instagramming girls to walk up the infamous churro street in Gyeongnidan, past all the new places that have popped up back here, to a street which just 12 months ago was empty. Now it’s full of new restaurants, cafes, bars and shops, as well as the inevitable queues of people for their chicken, melted cheese sandwiches, gelato and churros.
The new restaurant, which is under the same ownership as both the original and the existing Don Charly (though it won’t have Carlos cooking in the kitchen) evokes the look and feel of Mexico, and the aim is to remain close to the idea of quick, simple food that you eat with your hands – “street food” is an overused phrase, but that’s essentially what we’re talking about.
The restaurant opened its doors yesterday, so the menu remains limited at time of writing. There are three tacos available; two pork and a beef offering. Each portion comprises two small tacos, no bigger than the palm of your hand, each one of which is made from two corn tortillas, doubled up to guard against disintegration. (More about the tortillas later.)
I ordered everything.
First up was the suadero (above), which is a taco with braised beef, onions and plenty of cilantro. One of the tacos comes out with green sauce, the other with red (no doubt they have fancy Spanish names, but “green” and “red” they will remain to me), and sauce bottles are also brought to your seat for you, just like in the old days.
Fabulous. The beef was reasonably tender, the balance of everything just right. The corn tortilla really lifts the flavour. At two for 5,000 won, I could have eaten ten. One day, I might.
Next up (picture above) were the carnitas tacos. Now, after sampling the gloriousness that is Villa Guerrero in Gangnam, trying someone else’s carnitas might have set me up for disappointment – like hoping for Beyoncé but ending up with Solange. And I won’t say they were as good as Villa Guerrero, because I can’t lie, especially on a Sunday, and me skipping church every weekend for the last two decades.
But I will say; these were tasty tacos, and if I was forced to eat these every day for lunch I would do so uncomplainingly, and I could face my premature death with equanimity. The owner was fretting that the pork was a bit dry, saying that once they have more customers they’ll be able to get a better workflow going and the carnitas will be better. Maybe. Until then, this’ll do me fine.
Last up was the al pastor taco; grilled pork with a sliver of pineapple. I am a sceptic of fruit with meat – any British person my age will remember tough gammon steaks at school topped with a huge pineapple ring, and shudder. But this worked well. The pork had a decent char on it and the sweetness of the pineapple complemented it nicely. It was like a deconstructed kebab.
This was probably my least favourite of the three varieties, but it was still a solid seven out of ten. Even though I’d eaten my way through the menu, I wolfed them down in record time.
The new Don Charly is bigger than the original hole in the wall, with space for twelve seated counter-style or at a communal table, and there’s also a bit more space for people to stand around and eat on the go.
Most impressive of all, perhaps, is a tortilla machine imported direct from Mexico. This monster rolls the tortillas, flame-grills them and then deposits them on a little rack for the chefs to transfer to the kitchen. It took six months to ship from Mexico and is probably the only object in the neighbourhood that weighs more than I do.
The owner was chatty and told me all about her concept for the new place and her enthusiasm for introducing more Korean people to the joys of good honest Mexican food. On the early evidence, I hope she succeeds. I don’t think these tacos are going to change your life, but even the fact that I can say that about such a damn good product speaks volumes about how far Mexican food has come in Seoul in the last three or four years.
- Category: Mexican
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: All of them – they’re small enough that you can try them all in one or two visits.
- Subway: Noksapyeong (녹사평역) exit 2.
- Directions: You can approach from two directions. From the subway or from Itaewon, walk up towards Namsan until you get to the famous churro stand on the second road to the right, where Chansbros coffee is. Walk up to the top of that street and turn left. Don Charly will be 50 yards or so further on, on your left. From Gyeongnidan-gil, take the first right opposite the galbi restaurants and walk up the hill – eventually you will get to Don Charly, which will now be on your right.
- Hours: 12-10pm Tuesday-Friday, with a 3-5pm afternoon break. Weekends will be 12-10pm with no break. Closed on Mondays.
I know jack-all about ramen except what I’ve picked up from three visits to Japan, the last one of which was spent slurping down bowls of the stuff in various parts of Tokyo. As the saying goes, I don’t know much, but I know what I like. And I like Nagomi Ramen. A lot. It’s like a Japanese guy strangled a pig with a fistful of noodles and squeezed until there was a bowlful of happy juice in front of me.
It’s in Hongdae, and so well-hidden you’ll need a map to find it – which, luckily, you’ll find at the bottom of this capsule review. On my first visit years ago, I remember being really happy, but Hongdae is a long way to go for lunch, so despite retaining a good memory of the place, I hadn’t been back.
But I was in Hongdae during the day this week, so I got hold of a compass and some orienteering gear and managed to track it down.
The menu is quite short, offering just four types of ramen.
I went for the char siu ramen, since I love the meaty broth and the charred pork on top. At 8,000 won, the most expensive option on the menu.
It was superb. According to other blog posts about this place, this is Kyushu-style ramen, with a stock based on pork bones with added chicken or vegetable broth to lighten and modulate the overall flavour. Whatever.
The broth was very meaty and just the right kind of oily – I’d have happily drunk a bowl of this without any noodles or anything else. There was plenty of roughly chopped garlic in there, a goodly amount of spring onion (scallion), lots of thin noodles lurking under the surface, and no bean sprouts – which I don’t mind, but which I feel are overused in some other places.
Look at that pork. Definitely the best and most generous serving of pork I’ve had in any ramen shop in Korea, there was more pork in this ramen than I get in Menya Sandaime in Itaewon (my normal lunch go-to) even when I order with the “extra pork” 추가 option, which I usually do.
Unbelievably, the menu says you can get extra char siu for another 2,000 won. Does that apply to the char siu ramen as well, I wonder? If it does, I don’t know where they’d fit it in the bowl.
A little dish of pickled thingummybobs comes on the side, and they have small pots of kimchi on the table, to which I helped myself freely.
I’m calling it: Nagomi Ramen is without doubt the best ramen I’ve had in Seoul. No doubt some reader with a PhD in Applied Noodleology will be able to advise me on why I’m wrong and where I should go instead, but in the interim, head to Nagomi and enjoy.
- Category: Japanese
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: I’ve only tried the char siu ramen (차슈면), which is the one on the top right if you don’t read hangeul. I’m sure they’re all good, but that’s the one I vouch for.
- Subway: Hongdae (역) exit 9.
- Directions: Yeah, you’re just going to have to look at the map, which I promise you is accurate. Easiest is probably to come out of Hongdae exit 9 and walk along the main road and take the first road left after the main street up to Hongik University. After that, turn third left when you see the CU Mart. You might need to ask someone, or paste “나고미앤겐로쿠” into Naver Maps and follow the little blinking dot on your phone to porky heaven.
- Hours: 11:30am – 9pm every day.
- Address in Korean: 서교동 370-24 지하 1층 Tel: 02-324-8545
Rumours have abounded in recent months of a new taco place in the middle of nowhere, at least from a culinary point of view. So when details of Villa Guerrero were posted up on social media for the third or fourth time, I resolved to get on the subway to a station that didn’t even exist a year or two ago, and check it out.
I’m going to cut the “dance of the seven veils” shit and get to the point. Villa Guerrero’s carnitas tacos are the absolute bomb, as Americans say. The meat is chopped to order, with a combination of soft, slow-cooked pork, some skin, and various other bits and pieces that are best not to inquire into but which add considerably to the overall effect. If you are squeamish about stomach lining, tongue or anything else, just ask them to leave it out. Then they add onion, guacamole, though they were out on Friday lunchtime when we visited, and copious cilantro (coriander).
The tacos came to the table quickly – we got lucky, apparently, since they were out of their regular five inch tortillas, so we got extra big tacos for the same price. The meat was juicy, unbelievably moist and tender, and packed with flavour. Goddamn, it was good. The sort of food you look forward to eating again, even as you’re eating it the first time. To adapt Raymond Chandler, this was a taco to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.
We also ordered some chorizo tacos (above), made with Villa Guerrero’s handmade chorizo meat. This was something wonderful as well – oily, as you can see from the photos, the chorizo oozed paprika-red juices all over the plate. A hint of spice but no more, and messy, but really good. They weren’t as special as the carnitas, but I’d have these again in a heartbeat. Both the carnitas and the chorizo tacos are 4,000 won each. Superb value, even if we got unusually large portions on the day we were in.
The star, for me, was the carnitas. I went with my coworker, who’s quite new to Korea and was craving something that didn’t come with rice. Having ordered six tacos in total, and consumed four in the space of about thirty seconds, I nobly gave him the choice between the remaining chorizo and carnitas taco. He went for the carnitas in a nanosecond. I was quietly sad, but resolved to go back again this week without the selfish bastard, and eat six carnitas tacos all by myself. I really think I can do it.
- Category: Mexican
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Carnitas taco
- Subway: Samseong Jungang Station (삼성중앙역) exit 7.
- Directions: Samseong Jungang is a new station on line 9, on the way to Coex. Come out of exit 7 and turn left at Woori Bank. Villa Guerrero is 50 yards down the road on the right.
- Hours: 12-2:30 for lunch and 6-10pm dinner, Monday – Friday. They don’t open on weekends, and when they run out, they’re out! Check out their Facebook page, website or follow them on Instagram at @vgtacos.
Da Korner is the unlikely name for a new place in Itaewon serving up South American-style empanadas, which are small pastries filled with savoury ingredients like meat or fish. I spent a glorious four months traipsing round South America this time last year, and ate quite a few empanadas along the way, so when I found out about this new venture, I determined to give it a try.
It wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped. Despite being simple enough to find – hidden off the main drag in Itaewon, it’s still pretty straightforward once you have directions, which are at the bottom of this post – my first two lunchtime visits to Da Korner were unsuccessful, because despite the sign proclaiming it to be open, it was firmly shut.
The menu is pretty minimalist. At time of writing, they have three flavours of savoury empanada; beef and potato, beef and tomato, and shrimp. There’s a couple of sets available and a small but solid beer menu. The lunch set (6,500W) comprises two empanadas with a soft drink, though you can also get a dinnertime sharing set with chips and a couple of other permutations.
I ordered the beef and potato empanada set and was advised that there would be a short wait; all the pastries are heated in the oven to order, though I suspect they were probably part-baked beforehand and then returned to the oven for a final reheating.
They were terrific. The pastry was really firm but not dry, so that the empanada didn’t crumble once opened but held its shape. I cut into them to open them up for the camera, though the photo doesn’t really do them justice. But this is finger food. In Argentina, in Uruguay and elsewhere, this is a snack served off plastic plates with a flimsy piece of tissue to clean your fingers on afterwards. Please don’t be Korean and cut each one into four pieces to share with your friends.
The filling could possibly have been more generous, though it probably settles and reduces in volume as it cooks, but it was pretty tasty. There’s beef, a little potato, and some cheese. I’d have liked a bit more spice or saltiness, and the cheese was very much on the mild side; but they were hearty, satisfying and really well made. There were two accompaniments; a vinegary tomato and onion relish, which was great piled on to the soft pastry, and a sort of fresh coriander (cilantro) sauce, which was also very more-ish.
The empanadas were reasonably sized, somewhere between the huge versions I had in Uruguay and the smaller, but nonetheless delicious, empanaditas I had in a famous Buenos Aires restaurant devoted to the craft. But two wasn’t quite enough for a big man with a long afternoon of work in front of him, so I rocked back up to the counter and asked for a shrimp empanada. Each pastry is just 2,900 won which is really very fair value, so having one more seemed like a no-brainer.
The shrimp version was even better. The filling seemed more savoury, reminding me a little of the peerless camarones taco at Don Charly. These were probably my favourites, and I could have eaten four of these on my own. Next time, I probably will.
The setup at Da Korner is perfect for these early autumn days; a lovely little garden set up with tables and artificial grass, a small oasis of calm away from the bustle of Itaewon. The restaurant itself is pretty small, with only four or five tables, so when winter sets in, hopefully there will be lots of business here and you will find it hard to get a table, at which point takeout might be a more sensible option.
Are they authentic? Well, on one level, it’s a meaningless question. There are as many different varieties of empanada in South America as there are provincial towns, corrupt politicians or dirty footballers. The most common flavours I encountered in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay were ham and cheese, or a mixture of beef, olives and chopped hard-boiled egg, and those aren’t on offer at Da Korner. But around the continent, they are made with pork, chicken, fish, corn, even tripe or shark meat. They are big or small, baked or fried, spicy or bland. (They can also be sweet – though I was very sceptical to see that Da Korner’s fourth variety of empanada is a cherry flavour, it’s not uncommon to see sweet fillings like jam or dulce de leche in South America, so I guess it’s legit.)
I’d love to see the owners at Da Korner branch out a little into serving more varieties of empanadas, and expanding their menu more generally. I’d particularly like to see a bit more savoury flavour in their fillings – some egg, olive, green onion or whatever. But for them to do that, they need to thrive. So go and check them out. It’s a great lunch spot, or a place to get an evening beer and a snack before heading out to one of Itaewon’s fast-dwindling selection of sinful fleshpots or dive bars. Me gusta.
- Category: South American
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Shrimp empanada
- Subway: Itaewon Station (이태원역) exit 4, Noksapyeong Station (녹사평역) exit 3.
- Directions: Da Korner is behind McDonald’s on Itaewon-ro. Walk into the little arcade immediately to the left of McDonald’s front door (resisting the temptation to walk down the steps to Linus BBQ). Da Korner is at the back.
- Hours: 11:30 until close, but you might want to check ahead, or have a plan B, in case they are shut. Given that Linus BBQ is about 50 yards away, coming up with a plan B shouldn’t really be too hard.
I was lucky enough to spend Chuseok in Bali, though in Ubud rather than the beaches and clubs of Kuta (I am too old for 5am partying these days).
I didn’t take photos of everything I ate – I’m Korean, but not that Korean! – and not everything I ate was worthy of being photographed, anyway. But here are a few highlights.
Babi Guling (roast suckling pig) at the mighty Ibu Oka in Ubud – now a bit overtouristified, but still magnificent.
I did a cookery class at Paon Bali, just outside Ubud (free pickup from the surrounding area). A large group size – some 16 people – but the lady in charge kept us all busy. One of the more entertaining classes I’ve done, and I now know how to make the basic Balinese sauce that is used to flavour so many dishes here.
Really nice pizza, too! This was at Mamma Mia in Ubud.