soju sunrise

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.

Pham Thi Chinh

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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Don Charly Taquería in Gyeongnidan

restaurants | October 25, 2015 | By

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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.]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

new don charly map

Review: Da Korner in Itaewon

restaurants | October 4, 2015 | By

 

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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.

IMG_0305Third time lucky, I got there at midday to finally find it open, so I piled in.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

IMG_0321The 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.

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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.

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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.

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Review: The Little Pie in Gyeongnidan

restaurants | September 22, 2015 | By

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Inexcusably, it’s been a month since I posted in this blog. It’s not like I’ve not been eating; on the contrary. I guess most of my visits have been to places that I know and love already, so there wasn’t much to post.

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Anyway. Always on the lookout for something approximating food from home, and alerted by Gemma, I headed up to the Street Churros street in Gyeongnidan, which is not a locale I often go to, despite the presence there of one of my favourite bars (that’s a subject for another post). The destination was The Little Pie, which promises a hot filled meat pie which where I come from is the foundation of a good meal.

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The food menu at Little Pie is extremely minimalist; there’s chicken pie, and meat pie. Also some nachos. That’s it. On my first visit, the meat pie wasn’t available, so chicken pie it was.

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I was underwhelmed. It wasn’t that little a pie; goodly-sized with a very nice crust. But the filling was, for me, distinctly meh. Then again, it was a chicken and mushroom pie and I loathe mushroom, so it wasn’t really a fair benchmark for The Little Pie, or any pie, to meet.

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Between the somewhat ungenerous chicken to mushroom ratio and my hatred of mushroom, I departed a little unsatisfied but willing to give it another shot. In fairness, it was a nicely made pie, and if you like chicken and mushroom, you may well find it to your liking.

Second time round, the meat pie was available, and I tucked in.

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This was much more like it, for me. Plenty of meat, well cooked, the onions just nicely caramelised. The overall flavour was a bit peppery and a bit sweet – a bit too sweet for my tastes, but not overly so. The sauce was, I don’t know, just a little bland, lacking a bit of meatiness – back home it would probably have a stronger, meatier, more gravy-like taste – but it wasn’t at all bad. Again, the crust was perfect, just so.

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Both pies are currently priced at 4,500 won, which is very fair indeed, and for another 1,000 you get your choice of bottomless soft drink from a soda fountain. No beers, no sides, nothing else, at least at the time of writing. If you come here and you don’t like pie, you’re out of luck.

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The interior is much more like a cafe than a restaurant, and very funky – a nice place to pass an hour or so on a warm day. And indeed there is coffee available once you’re all pie-d out.

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I’d probably love Little Pie more if they had some craft beers to go with your pie, or some mashed potato to help soak up the sauce. Since they do takeaway, that would probably be my preferred option in the future, popping the pie in my little Samsung oven to reheat while I make some mash, Bisto gravy from a packet and crack open a can of Guinness. Pop a replay of Scotland losing a rugby match on the telly, and it’ll be just like home.

  • Category: British / Australian
  • Price: $$$$
  • Must try: Meat pie
  • Subway: Noksapyeong Station (녹사평역) exit 2.
  • Directions: Little Pie is on the Street Churros street in Gyeongnidan. Approaching from Itaewon or the subway station in the direction of HBC, it’s the street with Chansbros Coffee on the corner. Little Pie is 50 yards up the road on the right.
  • Hours: Unknown.

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Bite-size Review: Sid Burger near City Hall

restaurants | June 30, 2015 | By

2015-06-30 13.28.35On Facebook there is a rather great page called Burger Lovers Seoul, which does exactly what it says in the description. When two of the most venerable members of the group posted within a few hours of each other to say that there was a new place we should try, it was a no-brainer. So today, with a day off, I braved the humidity to walk through the city streets in search of Sid Burger.

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The newest venture from Sid Kim, the co-founder of Vatos, Sid Burger is no more nor less than a hole-in-the-wall concession stand in a food court in the middle of the city. Don’t let that put you off, though, because it’s a great burger, and well worth seeking out, especially if you find yourself anywhere near City Hall on a lunchtime.

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Once inside the “Over The Dish” food court (directions are at the bottom of this post), keep walking past the other counters and you’ll come to Sid Burger further inside.

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The menu is pretty simple: several varieties of burgers, all of which come with an order of fries, and all of which can be served up either as one traditional-sized burger or as two sliders. There’s a couple of variations on the fries if you’re there in a group, a couple of good beers, and a chicken sandwich which is also highly spoken of.

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Whatever. When I saw pork belly on the menu, I was hooked. The “bossam burger” (as it’s rendered in Korean) comes with a couple of chunks of deep-fried belly pork, a perfectly sunny-side-up fried egg, and a hit of ssamjang aioli. I knew that was my destiny, so I ordered up, paid my 11,000 won, took my buzzer and waited for it to buzz.

7 or 8 minutes later, the buzzer buzzed and I sat down to enjoy my food.

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As is my weird custom, I started with the chips (fries). They had a light dusting of sweet paprika and were served with a small side of ketchup. They were… OK. Neither fantastic nor bad, just OK. A little dry and crumbly, but with the ketchup I wolfed them down quickly enough all the same.

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On to the main event. The burger was great. The patty was perfectly seasoned and well-cooked, maybe a little on the well-done side of medium but very juicy, flavourful, and just – yes. The pork belly was seared to perfection and the egg worked well on top.

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Some on the Facebook group had commented that the burger fell apart very easily. Mine didn’t. It was a completely satisfying burger which I devoured in record time, even by my standards.

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Bear in mind this is a food court, albeit a superior one – there are a whole bunch of other franchises and people milling around eating whatever takes their fancy. So it has the ambience of a food court – don’t go expecting white linen napkins and personal service.

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That proviso aside, I would thoroughly recommend Sid Burger to anyone in the area. I wouldn’t necessarily travel across town for it, given that places like Left Coast and Brooklyn offer a fuller dining experience, and Firebell is right next to my office – but that’s not the market Sid is aiming for. A very nice burger in a part of town not overburdened with good quality foreign food options. Sid Burger was terrific, and I’ll be back to try the other offerings soon.

  • Category: American
  • Price: $$$$
  • Must try: Try all of them. With the mini-burger concept, this is a great place to come with friends and share a few different varieties of burger.
  • Subway: City Hall (시청역) exit 10
  • Directions: Come out of City Hall Station exit 10 and walk along the road for a hundred yards or so. You’ll come to a Paris Baguette Cafe on your right; turn down that street. Another 50 yards in front of you to the right you’ll see the large sign for the Over The Dish food court – you can’t miss it.
  • Hours: Open 7 days to the best of my knowledge, but I am not certain.

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