The phrase “hidden gem” is wildly overused in all walks of life, not least among pretentious bloggers writing about food and drink. But in this case it is quite justified, because this new HBC cafe is about as well hidden as any establishment could ever be. It’s no exaggeration to say that you could spend a day looking for it and never find it unless you knew exactly where to look. Let me tell you about Orang Orang.
To be honest I’m reticent about sharing this particular hidden gem, because the last thing I want is for it to be invaded by the Instagramming hordes, but since I first discovered it I notice that it’s popped up on Naver and netizens have picked up on it, so there’s no harm in sharing it.
Orang Orang means “people” in Malay, though the cafe’s cute logo is of an orangutan and the [slightly random] quote is from Zorba the Greek (a santouri is a Greek musical instrument). It’s a converted 식당 that has been repurposed into a funky two-level cafe.
On the ground floor you can order your drink from the small menu. There’s a gorgeous-looking coffee roaster and a warm, welcoming glow. The coffee is full flavoured and I particularly like their cappuccino, which goes down as smooth as silk, even if it is frustratingly small.
Walking up some very steep stairs takes you to the seating area. I’m not one to gush about cafes, but this is really nice. Old jazz records play on the sound system, and during the day the whole room is bathed in sunlight. At night, the atmosphere is amazing. I’d love to see them sell wine – I’d totally come here with a couple of friends to get quietly inebriated.
If I have one quibble it’s that all the seating is trendy wooden-box style and even my well-padded arse was a bit sore after 45 minutes sitting down. If there were a couple of soft chairs in here it would be nirvana.
What elevates Orang Orang above the ordinary, at least for me, is its location. It’s situated a stone’s throw from the Haebangchon o-gori, but hidden underground. Right in the middle of the half-deserted Sinheung Market (신흥시장), in fact, which once was the bustling heart of HBC life but now, sad to say, is reduced to a small handful of shops selling rice, vegetables and the usual market fare to almost no customers.
For those like me who treasure these last pockets of traditional life in Korea, it’s quite a depressing job picking your way around the puddles and boarded-up shops.
As you walk around the bowels of the market, deep down below street level, you begin to doubt you’re in the right place. A cafe here? Really? But suddenly, round a corner, you encounter a glass frontage rather out of keeping with its surroundings, and you’ve found it. It really is almost magical.
Imagine if this sort of clever but sensitive repurposing of old shops and restaurants caught on. Wouldn’t it be great if other young Korean entrepreneurs opened up little restaurants and cafes in the bowels of this old market? Imagine a small craft beer pub, a soju bar, a sandwich shop. A bagel place where people in HBC could grab some breakfast on their way to the bus stop to work. A Japanese ramen shop! Sinheung Market could live again as the hub of a vibrant community. It could be amazing.
For the time being, though, these are merely daydreams. Orang Orang is real, so get down there and give it a try. Haebangchon needs a happy heart.
- Category: Cafe
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: It’s worth trying their brewing coffee (5,000 won) but also worth pointing out that you can get a free refill of Americano if you prefer quantity over quality.
- Subway: Noksapyeong (녹사평역) exit 2.
- Directions: Unless you have very strong quad muscles, this is a job for the little green bus #2. You can catch it from Noksapyeong station (the stop is on the other side of the road, underneath the bridge) or walk up into HBC, where you’ll find a green bus parked opposite the kimchi pots waiting to take you up the hill. Get off at the o-gori and you’ll see a Tous les Jours bakery – take the road immediately to the right of that. After two or three minutes, just before you get to the large church, you’ll see the steps down to Sinheung Market on your right, as in the photo above. Go down a few steps, turn right into the market, and Orang Orang is on the second little alleyway to the left. Or maybe the third. Just walk around the market until you see a cafe that looks like it doesn’t belong there. (You can also use the back entrance to the market, if you can find it.)
- Hours: Daily from 11am to 11pm.