Back in November of last year, when Mexican restaurant El Pino 323 opened in a little hole in the wall space near Aeogae station, I wrote in my review that “I wouldn’t be all that surprised if they are expanding or moving to a bigger location before too long”. You didn’t have to be Nostradamus to see that the tacos and enchiladas being dished up by Chef ‘D’ Morales would quickly draw a wider audience than could fit into a slightly poky basement room next to kimbap joints and nail salons.
Fast forward nine months or so and the prophecy has come to pass even more quickly than most of us would have expected. El Pino 323 has outgrown its original location, and moved on to bigger and better things. Now in a bright and airy second floor space near Noksapyeong station, the new version of this restaurant could scarcely look or feel more different, but the food continues to be some of the best, if not the best, Cali-Mex food to be found anywhere in the city.
Three of my favourite things; good Korean beef restaurants, restaurants that offer great value for money, and restaurants that offer food in portions large enough to fill my big ol’ belly. So when I heard from my friend Thomas of an all-you-can-eat Korean beef restaurant that combines all three, I was immediately interested.
AYCE deals are nothing unusual around Seoul, but quality varies enormously – unlimited samgyeopsal deals for under 10,000 a head are especially dubious – and there’s usually various conditions attached that annoy me (pay in cash up front, eat up within 90 minutes, and so on). But if Thomas, a trained chef who knows his beef, was impressed by Sododuk, a new restaurant in Gangnam offering unlimited beef at a reasonable price, I was keen to give it a try. And so it was that I found myself venturing to Cheongdam, not an area I frequent when I can avoid it.
Last week I took advantage of the holiday to take a few days around the southern half of Korea. It was a short trip but I managed to pack some decent food into those four days.
Always on the lookout for new things to try and new lunch spots within an easy reach of my HBC redoubt, I stumbled upon something interesting last week – a small chain of restaurants that serve one of my favourite Korean soups, yukgaejang (육계장) with a big bowlful of kalguksu noodles to pour into your soup. Just perfect for a filling lunch in this chilly weather, I thought I’d give it a try.
Munbaedong’s Samgakji branch is about as hole-in-the-wall as it gets, a real ajosshi hangout on the “wrong side of the tracks” near Samgakji station. Inside it’s wall-to-wall with people slurping back bowls of spicy beef soup. On my first attempt to have lunch here, there were people waiting outside in the cold for a seat, so I came back a few days later, and managed to bag a small table in the corner.
There’s just three items on the menu (though I never saw a menu): yukgaejang spicy beef soup (육계장), kalguksu noodle soup (칼국수), and the combination of the two, “yuk-kal” (육칼) that I was here to try.
The soup came out in less than a minute, a pleasingly deep red in a big silvery bowl. I added about half the noodles, which were very soft, like overcooked linguine.
Snapping away with my camera brought some eye-rolling from the ajumma, but there were a few young people in there who were also taking photos on their phones, so Instagram away.
The portion of noodles was extremely generous, so much so that adding all of them to the soup, as I eventually did, made it almost more like a soupy bowl of pasta than a soup.
As for the soup itself, it would probably divide opinion. It was spicy but not overly so – after the initial hit of chilli, I barely noticed much heat. It was thick, though that might have been down to the starch from the noodles, and almost tasted like there was a tomato base, though I’m pretty sure there wouldn’t have been.
There also wasn’t much “filler” in the soup, which normally comes piled with bean sprouts, little fronds of fern bracken and some boiled taro stems along with the beef. This was pretty much beef and spring onion. Now, I really liked that about it, because I enjoy yukgaejang despite all that crap, not because of it. But it’s fair to say that without the noodles, I’d have probably thought this was a decent 육계장, but nothing special.
It was only afterwards that I realised that maybe the little dish of beansprouts and greens served next to my kimchi was supposed to be added to the soup, not eaten as a banchan…? Duh!
So, in summary, check it out next time you’re at Samgakji, or near one of the other locations about town (see below). It didn’t rock my world, but I’ll be back to have it again, because I really liked the combination and it makes a change from soup with rice, and because I’d rather eat in places like Munbaedong than fancy Gangnam dessert cafes every day of the week.
- Category: Korean
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Yuk-kal (육칼) (8,000 won)
- Directions: Munbaedong is a little tricky to get to. It’s at the base of the bridge across the train tracks at Samgakji – from Samgakji station exit 6 or 10, walk up and over to the “wrong side of the tracks” and it’s just on the left. An easier, if slightly more circuitous route, is to get the green No.3 bus that runs from the Hyatt down Gyeongnidan via Noksapyeong towards Samgakji – after some twists and turns, it will turn back towards the railway tracks, and you should get off there and match the map on your phone with my map, below.
- Hours: 9:30am – 6pm every day, though they may stay open a couple of hours later. It gets busy at peak times, so consider visiting after 2pm, especially if there’s more than one or two of you.
Regular readers will be aware of my enjoyment of Vietnamese pho, which for the uninitiated is a beef and noodle soup served with herbs, thinly sliced onions, lime and chilli sauce to taste. Most Korean chain pho is rubbish, but there is the odd gem here and there doing it right, most notably Pham Thi Chinh in Wangsimni.
Pho For You is much closer to where I live – a four minute walk rather than a 40 minute journey. So when it opened up a few weeks back I was intrigued, and a positive review on a Facebook page made me curious to go in.
Advertising itself as an American pho restaurant, Pho For You is a nicely appointed restaurant with plenty of seating just past Craftworks Namsan, in Gyeongnidan. The menu is quite small; a couple of spring rolls, rice dishes, and the main event, the pho. I had been told that pho in the States is usually made with a deeper and darker broth, which often leads people to be disappointed with the “real thing” when they actually visit Vietnam.
Certainly as soon as it comes to the table you can see and smell the difference. The broth is certainly darker and a bit more intense. I’m not sure it tasted all that rich to me, but there was no mistaking the depth of colour. I added some bean sprouts, coriander, a bit of green chilli, Sriracha and hoi sin, and squeezed over some lime.
Verdict? Pretty solid. The portion of meat was quite generous, as I’d have expected for the slightly high price of 9,000 for the regular bowl (I ordered the version which comes with two cuts of meat, brisket and deckle; you can get it with other bits and pieces, including tripe, if that’s your fancy). I felt it lacked much in the way of complexity; the broth was flavourful, but not particularly aromatic. I ended up adding more of everything to amp up the taste.
I also ordered some shrimp spring rolls, but they were out, so I didn’t get to try that. I’ll be back to experiment with some of the other menu items, and its convenience so close to my bus stop to work means that this is likely to be a semi-regular lunch stop for me. But Pham Thi Chinh retains its crown, for now.
- Category: Vietnamese
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Pho with brisket and deckle (9,000 won)
- Directions: Pho for You is at the base of the footbridge which connects HBC with Gyeongnidan, just a bit past Craftworks. From Noksapyeong, walk up towards Namsan until you get to the bridge, and you’ll see Pho for You on the other side of the road.
- Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, lunch and dinner – I think.
Gilbert Burger has been serving up top quality burgers in Garosu-gil for a few years now. Or at least, so they tell me: I’d never been. (EDIT: The members of Burger Lovers Seoul – a Facebook group that any lovers of burgers in Seoul should definitely join – inform me that Garuso-gil is the second branch, and the original branch is actually in Seocho-gu. I haven’t been to that one either.)
I make the occasional pilgrimage to Sinsa for my favourite spicy galbijjim at the mighty Dongin Dong, but Garosu-gil isn’t my style – the girls too skinny, the prices too high, the places too fancy. Yes, I know that’s a stereotype, but this is my blog, not yours.
So the opening of a new branch of Gilbert Burger within walking distance of my house is big news, and when I found that it was open Monday, which is one of my days off, it wasn’t a tough choice. Having been two consecutive Mondays for lunch, here are my impressions.
Perched on the hill just behind Manimal (directions are at the bottom of this post), it’s a nice, light, no-nonsense space with seating for about 30 people and a decent view.
On my first visit, I had the eponymous Gilbert Burger, which is basically a bacon-egg-cheeseburger. I love a fried egg on a burger, so it was an easy choice. The set menu option offers a side of fries and a soda, so that was what I picked up.
It was really good. The bacon was crispy, the bun perfectly cooked. The patty is beefy, no fillers, no nonsense, and cooked medium, exactly as advertised. It began to break up towards the later stages of my munching, which was probably due to the egg, which made the whole thing a bit slippery. Whatever, this was a very solid burger indeed. It disappeared in less time than it’s taken to write this paragraph.
The second Monday, I decided to order the Mr President burger, which I’d heard good things about. It’s essentially the straight-up cheeseburger, with a slice of raw onion, pickle, tomato and lettuce.
It was terrific. Goddamn, it was good. I wasn’t expecting it to be so good, because, you know, it’s the standard basic burger. But it was off the charts good. Bacon perfectly crispy, the onion sliced just thin enough to be able to eat it properly (are you listening, Jacoby’s?), the pickle just perfect – and I’m not a fan of pickles.
Gilbert Burger is a good burger place and you should go there. It may or may not be as good as Brooklyn Burger – that would be a big call, and I’m not yet ready to make it – but there was just nothing I could have improved in the two burgers I’ve had at Gilbert, especially the Mr President, and it’s much more convenient for Itaewon folk than Brooklyn. Even better, unlike Brooklyn Burger, there isn’t a line of people out the door to stand between you and burgery goodness – at least, not yet (eventually the Instagram crowd will find it). Get there before they do and let me know if you liked it as much as I did.
- Category: American
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Mr. President Burger
- Subway: Noksapyeong station (녹사평역) exit 2.
- Directions: To get there, walk up from the Itaewon main street as if you were going to Manimal or Coreanos, but before you get that far, turn right at the GS25, as in the photo below. From Noksapyeong, come out of exit 2, walk over the bridge and turn right, and pass Manimal and Coreanos until you get to the same GS25, whereupon you’ll want to turn left. Gilbert Burger is in the back of the yellow building that houses Butcher’s Daughter – you can just see a green sign in the window above Butcher’s Daughter. It’s open seven days for lunch and dinner.
- Hours: Open 7 days, 11:30 – 9:30pm.