Readers occasionally complain that I don’t write about enough places outside the Itaewon “bubble” – a bit unfair (as a quick look at my Seoul food map page will demonstrate), though I do see their point. Well, today I am reviewing a restaurant so far out of the city that I won’t even attempt to put it on the map; the mighty Sweet Oak in far-flung Wonju.
Since it opened in late 2015, Sweet Oak has been serving up authentic American BBQ to the lucky denizens of this Gangwon-do city, as well as those Seoul foodies enthusiastic enough to brave the 90-minute ride from Express Bus Terminal. Last weekend, a group of us travelled out to see what all the fuss is about. I’m glad we did, because we had a terrific meal.
[Note: No money, free food or other inducement was asked for or received in return for this post. Soju Sunrise accepts freebies only very occasionally and will always explicitly state if this is the case.]
Owner / “grill sergeant” Augustin Flores, a Guam native, wanted to bring the taste of the South to this slightly unlikely corner of Korea, and he’s succeeded triumphantly. The best way to describe Sweet Oak is probably as a smokehouse pub; with a warm and inviting interior, and an excellent drinks list which includes plenty of good beers, there’s plenty more to recommend the place than simply the lure of smoked meat; you could happily just sit here and drink all night, if that was your wont, and there’s plenty of snack food, chicken wings and bar bites on offer to sustain you if you did.
But let’s not kid each other; you’re not here for the Jamieson. The meat’s where it’s at, and Sweet Oak delivers. The main offerings, most of which need to be purchased as part of a set, will naturally change from time to time, but at this writing include beef rib, brisket, pulled pork, chorizo and chicken.
Reader, I tried them all. For your sake, of course; always for your sake. The Pit Platter is an assortment of four meats and three sides, as well as some fries dusted with the house-made dry rub, and bread. Each is designed for two people, and our group of diners demolished two sets in less than the time it’s taken me to write this paragraph. Conversation was suspended as meat was shoveled into mouths. Bliss was it in that moment to be alive.
The pulled pork was moist and flavourful, not life-changing but scooped up in an impromptu sandwich with the slightly-too-sweet bread rolls, it more than hit the spot. The chorizo sausage was fantastic – definitely the spiciest I’ve had in Korea, this had several of us reaching for the water (or wine) glass. I would have happily eaten a plate of this on its own.
I had been advised beforehand not to skip the chicken, and I’m glad I didn’t. It comes, served off the bone, in two varieties, a Hawaiian-style umami flavor – slightly sweet for my tastes, but perfectly cooked – and a piri-piri chicken that was off-the-charts good. Again, some of our party found it a little spicy, but I would walk to Wonju in the depths of winter just to eat this chicken, and we quickly ordered more.
Many visitors have talked up the quality of the brisket at Sweet Oak, and overall I’d agree. With our initial sets we got some great moist meat that passed the “pull test” – not undercooked and unyielding, not overcooked and falling to bits, but just right. Our second round of orders included some brisket that to this inexpert palate seemed overdone and a bit dry. One of the few things that was less than exceptional in our entire meal.
The crowning glory is probably the beef rib here (above), which we got served to us ready-chopped with a pair of bones criss-crossing the meat, a pleasingly piratical flourish. It was fantastic – smoky crust and juicy on the inside. Again, if I’m being hyper-critical, I personally would have preferred it chopped into larger pieces, or even just served on the bone, but I am splitting hairs now, and between six people that would have been impractical anyway. [EDIT: I’m advised that the beef rib is normally served in bigger slices than we received, so your mileage may vary.]
At the end of our meal, whether in recognition of our schlep out from Seoul or how much food we’d ordered, Augustin brought us some complimentary pulled pork sliders (above), served in black brioche buns with a little pickle and thinly sliced apple. We loved these, and they’d be perfect with a beer or two.
Sides are of the traditional variety – Augustin told us on Facebook that they were deliberately going for the look and flavour of the sort of simple sides you’d get served in a Styrofoam cup in a BBQ restaurant back home. The potato salad is loaded with mayo and egg, perhaps nothing special but I probably ate about three bowls of the stuff on its own. Beans and slaw are also available, as well as a tomato salad that was gone in sixty seconds. I didn’t think there was anything here to rival the green chile mac’n’cheese at Manimal, to give one example, and the set ordering system meant that we probably got more sides than we strictly wanted or needed – but as an accompaniment to the meal, they were tasty and more-ish.
As I stated earlier, the drinks list at Sweet Oak is quite extensive. There’s Hand and Malt beers and plenty of spirits for shots and cocktails. I found the wine selection to be small and overpriced, but then again a smokehouse pub perhaps isn’t the place to come for a fine Burgundy. We had brought our own wine and paid a corkage charge, and that seemed like a reasonable compromise. If you’re a beer or spirits drinker, you’ll be more than happy. The atmosphere inside the pub was bustling and lively, and the music was great (no Justin Bieber here). I’d happily just sit here and drink.
We left Sweet Oak stuffed, and were surprised that the damage was limited to 37,000 a head, of which about 7,000 was the corkage we paid on our wine – so a round 30K a head for food. Considering all the meat we ate, I consider that an absolutely fair price and none of us had any complaints.
Of course, when you factor in two or three beers, and the 20,000won round trip on the bus, I can’t imagine that Seoul residents will be nipping down to Wonju for too many midweek dinners, and the 6pm opening time rules out a lunch or afternoon visit – though it’s close enough to the bus station that you can easily get back to the capital after your dinner if you need to.
But don’t let that put you off – although Wonju itself doesn’t have a whole lot to recommend it, there’s plenty of hiking and skiing in the region, and you could do a lot worse than make a weekend of it. We’re glad we did, and I plan to return soon to fill up with some more quality smokehouse meat. Recommended.
- Category: American
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Piri-piri chicken (21,000 / 28,000 depending on set ordered)
- Subway: N/A
- Directions: Sweet Oak is in Wonju in Gangwon-do, some 90 minutes outside of Seoul. The easiest way to get there is by intercity bus from Express Bus Terminal in Seoul. Look for the Gyeongbu line (in the older building to the left of Shinsegae) and you’ll find departures every 10 minutes or so, with tickets just over 10,000. Once you get to Wonju, it’s a short and cheap taxi ride to Sweet Oak. The address is 원주시 봉바위길 76-2 and it’s next to Seolsaem elementary school (솔샘초등학교) if your taxi driver is as useless as ours was. There are loads of motels in the bus station area if you want to stay over and don’t mind something a little grungy, but the last bus back to Seoul is usually around 11pm.
- Hours: 6pm – 1am six days a week except Sundays. More info on their Facebook page or Instagram, and if you are coming from out of town, you might be wise to book ahead by calling 033-746-7625, as it gets busy.