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Review: Tuk Tuk in Hongdae

restaurants | November 27, 2015 | By

IMG_0976Yeonnam-dong, just off Hongdae, is very trendy these days, which is enough to make me hesitant to go there, since I’m about as trendy as cardigans and corduroy (both of which I am planning to wear this weekend). But I make an exception for food, so I’ve been to check out Tuk Tuk, a Thai place that’s made lots of waves since it was opened a while back.

IMG_2042It’s very popular. On both my lunchtime visits, although we were seated immediately, the place was busy despite it being well after 1pm. On a Friday or Saturday night, you might struggle.

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Tuk Tuk is part of a small but growing chain of Thai restaurants in the area which also include Soi, just down the street.

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The interior is really nice, the lighting a little bit dim – this is a decent place to take a date. My lunch date was focused solely on the food, which was good because I was hungry. Service, despite the numbers of people still showing up towards 2pm, was pretty fast.

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The menu is extensive – so many pages, in fact, that I’ve parked it at the bottom of this post as there are too many photos to put in the middle here.

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Those little deep-fried shrimp cakes are a favourite whenever I go to a Thai restaurant. I can certainly say that these were among the best I’ve had. They’re often rubbery, but these were incredibly light and fluffy.

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With a soy sauce dip to make them a bit more interesting, they disappeared quickly.

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On both of my visits, I’ve had a dish of spicy stir-fried flat noodles, which comes with your choice of chicken, pork, beef or prawn. The chilli in this is real and noticeable. I was less wild about the addition of carrots, cherry tomato and broccoli, none of which are vegetables I’ve encountered in my travels in Thailand. Nevertheless, authentic or not – and “authentic” is a much-abused term, and everyone knows that there’s a massive difference between northern and southern Thai cooking, and most stir-fries in Thailand are basically Chinese recipes anyway, and yadda yadda yadda, there were cherry tomatoes in the noodles – it’s not a bad dish, but I don’t know that I’d order it again.

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The chicken panaeng curry was somewhat more successful. The foundations of this curry is a paste of peanuts and spices which are cooked in coconut milk to make a nutty, salty-sweet sauce. This version was… not bad. I would have liked a bit more spice – panaeng curry isn’t hot even when done properly, but this was quite anaemic. Luckily there are the usual dried and vinegar-soaked fresh chillies at the table to amp things up. No sign of any basil in the sauce, either, which was a fault – those green bits in the photo are chopped lime leaves.

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Even though I would have wanted a richer, spicier sauce – and indeed, after years struggling with the recipes in Thai Cooking, by David Thompson, I can make a better version myself – it was still pretty more-ish. For 10,000 won (which includes a bowl of boiled rice), it was also decent value. It was consumed very quickly.

IMG_0980A meal for two, with one appetiser and two mains (and no drinks), was around 30,000 won – not cheap, but not extortionate either. Given that we both left satisfied, I’d say it was fair value for money. But I noticed that there were a lot of pretty pricey menu items on there – literally everyone at every other table was eating a yellow soft shell crab curry which sells for 27,000 won, and they are flogging glass noodle salad with a BBQ’d half chicken for 24,000, which is surely just taking the piss. So, your mileage may vary.

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Afterwards we repaired to Coffee Libre, which is just round the corner and worth checking out.

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Overall? A mixed bag. I’ve enjoyed both my lunches there, but both meals seemed less impressive when I looked back on them later. The stir-fry was tasty but nothing special, the curry likewise. I felt that the food has been Koreanised somewhat. I want to go back again and try more menu items before I make a definitive judgement, but for the time being, I’d say Tuk Tuk is worth a visit, but not worth the hype. Amazing Thailand, on the other side of Hongdae, remains my go-to for Thai food.

  • Category: Thai
  • Price: $$$$
  • Must try:  Shrimp cakes
  • Subway: Hongdae (Hongik University / 홍대역) exit 3.
  • Directions: From exit of Hongdae station, walk up towards the intersection (away from Hongdae) and into Yeonnam-dong. You’ll come to Tuk Tuk after five minutes or so – look for a sign above a GS25, and it’s just tuck-tucked in to the right (see what I did there?), down in the basement. Coming from outside Hongdae, it’s much quicker by bus – the 110 or 740 from Noksapyeong both drop you within sight of the front door – just get off at the first stop after the bus turns right at Hongdae station.
  • Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 12:00-10:30.

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Review: Pham Thi Chinh in Wangsimni

restaurants | November 16, 2015 | By

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The flavours of Vietnam aren’t that easy to replicate here – beef bones for stock are tricky to source, and ingredients like Vietnamese herbs and limes are either hard to find or prohibitively pricey. Korean pho chains abound, but with few exceptions they are insipid and disappointing. But with a growing Vietnamese community here, there are a few places where one can find a legit bowl of pho (phở is apparently the proper spelling), the spicy-sour beef noodle soup that you find everywhere in Vietnam and dream of for months after you leave.

IMG_2347Foremost among these is a restaurant which is a little out of the way, a well-kept secret that was new to me until this week and which is now my first choice for this excellent soup. It’s called Pham Thi Chinh and it involves getting on the subway to Wangsimni. (Directions are at the bottom of this post.)

There are two Vietnamese places in the same building complex, oddly enough. This is the superior of the two. (The other is Quân An Asean and you can read my review of it here.) It looks like any small Korean diner or kimbap place, but on any given day, a goodly number of the customers are Vietnamese, albeit there appears to be a healthy collection of Korean regulars as well.

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The menu is simple but has a few different options (there’s also a photo menu on the back if you don’t read hangeul or, um, Vietnamese). The pho is served with cilantro, bean sprouts and chopped red chilli on the side. Be careful with the latter – these are not the harmless Korean chillis but fiery little buggers that you should add in moderation. There’s also the usual sriracha-style chilli sauce, the brown sauce whose name I forget, and some little squeezy bottles of lime juice to add to taste.

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The pho was good, very good. I was told they make the broth the proper way, without loads of MSG and flavour packets which are common shortcuts elsewhere. I can believe it; it was satisfying and hearty, and due to the fact I emptied the whole side dish of chopped chillis into my soup, I was sweating with an intensity that belied the chilly temperatures outside. 7,000 for a goodly-sized bowl, and there’s also a fuck-off big bowl for 10,000 won.

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As well as the soup, I also ordered something called chả giò, which are little spring rolls filled with minced pork (amusingly referred to as “mandu” on the Korean menu). With a little sweet chilli dip, these were really great – not too greasy, not too crumbly, just right. I could have eaten two platefuls of these on their own, though it probably wouldn’t be good for my ever-expanding waistline. Just 5,000 won, I’ll definitely have these again next time.

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I ended with an iced coffee (cà phê đá). Goddamn, this was good – it took me right back to sitting on the sidewalk in Hanoi, mopeds flashing past my chair, trying to cool down in the evening heat. Caramelly, sweet and strong, this is the drink a Starbucks macchiato wishes that it could be when it grows up – and, at 3,000 won, not much more than half the price, too.

Overall, I’ll certainly be back to try the other items on the menu, with the possible exception of the Hanoi Vodka, which looked a bit lethal. It’s a bit of a trek to Wangsimni, but I’ll go a long way for a good bowl of pho, and this is the best I’ve found in Seoul by far. If you happen to be in the market for something similar, check it out – I don’t think it’ll disappoint you.

  • Category: Vietnamese
  • Price: $$$$
  • Must try: Phở bo
  • Hours: 11-9pm seven days a week, though possibly with a mid-afternoon break, depending.
  • Subway: Wangsimni Station (왕십리역) exit 2.
  • Directions: Come out of Wangsimni Station exit 2 and walk along the road for three or four minutes until you reach the petrol station (below), then turn left.

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  • At the top of the small road, on the right, is an apartment block. As you keep walking, with the apartment building on your right, Pham Thi Chinh is at the end of the little row of shops along the ground floor, to the left of the apartments’ main entrance.

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Bite-size Review: Food Truck at Fat Cat in Haebangchon

restaurants | November 13, 2015 | By

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With the weekend almost upon us, here’s a quick shout out for a new late-night food option in HBC. One corner of Fat Cat, the very nice cafe / restaurant formerly known as Indigo and Il Gattino, is now occupied by a takeaway sandwich window, styled as a “Food Truck” though there are no trucks to be seen.

[UPDATE, JULY 2017: This location has now closed. Fat Cat continues to serve excellent sandwiches in the same premises, and Leo Jehn runs a cocktail bar upstairs, which also offers sandwiches, empanadas and other snack foods.]

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Open from 6pm every day (except Monday) and until 3am on Friday and Saturday night, proprietor Leo Jehn is serving up three varieties of filled baguettes to the hungry revellers of HBC, and I’m pleased to say that they definitely hit the spot.

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There’s a Mexican chicken sub, with home-pickled onions, a bit of melted cheese, and tomato slices which Leo marinated, if I recall what he told me, in raspberry vinegar.

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Just mildly spicy, I drizzled a bit of extra sriracha on there once I got home to amp up the chilli level. As ever with things Mexican, it tastes a lot better than it looks.

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The star, for me, was the meatball sub (above). Three golf-ball sized meatballs with great texture and a hint of crushed red chilli in there, and a slather of marinara sauce.

IMG_2367I might have preferred a bit more sauce, but as Leo pointed out, these sandwiches are made for eating on the go and packing the baguette with another ladleful of piping hot tomato sauce would probably be a recipe for disaster. After making the sandwich freshly to order in front of you, it spends a couple of minutes in the oven to crisp up the bread and heat up the filling.

There’s also a tandoori chicken sub which I haven’t yet tried. All the sandwiches are 7,000 won and that represents fine value for money. They’re easy to eat, pleasingly filling, and a godsend for those of us who have to work (or play) late on a weekend night. Recommended.

  • Category: Sandwich
  • Price: $$$$
  • Must try: Meatball sub (7,000 won)
  • Directions: Fat Cat is on the main HBC drag, just opposite Bonny’s Pizza.
  • Hours: 6pm – late Tuesday – Sunday, with 3am closing time on Friday and Saturday nights.

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