Even on the sunniest of summer Seoul days, it isn’t exactly easy to close your eyes and imagine yourself on a Jamaican beach with the sand between your toes. At Trenchtown, a new Caribbean rum bar and restaurant in Itaewon, they’re doing their best to help you try.
Yeonnam-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.
Tuk Tuk is part of a small but growing chain of Thai restaurants in the area which also include Soi, just down the street.
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.
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.
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.
With a soy sauce dip to make them a bit more interesting, they disappeared quickly.
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.
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.
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.
A 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.
Afterwards we repaired to Coffee Libre, which is just round the corner and worth checking out.
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.
Hongdae has always been known for its partying, but I’m too old for all of that. In the unlikely event they ever let me into a club, I’d try to find a quiet corner and sip an IPA. My idea of modern music is Pink Floyd and any attempt to chat up a girl would probably end with the police and swift deportation.
Luckily, Hongdae is increasingly standing out for its food, and especially its non-Korean eating options. Though I’m keen to review more Korean food on this blog, it’s also important to highlight the fact that there are a growing number of good places outside the HBC / Gyeongnidan / Itaewon bubble where you can get a real taco, or pasta, or burger. A lot of these places seem to be in Hongdae these days.
One such is Amazing Thailand. I’d heard good things about it, so when one of my friends announced a craving for green curry, I braved the subway after work and made the long trip out west to see what all the fuss was about.
We’d been concerned about getting a table, but by the time we eventually rocked up, at 8:15 or so, there was plenty of space. The other customers were two large groups of Thai people, which, at the risk of repeating a hoary old cliché, we took as a good sign.
The menu is extensive and as you’ll see, most of it is pretty reasonably priced compared to some other Thai places in town. Here are the various pages of the menu to give you an idea of what we are talking about.
We went for a classic selection: green chicken curry, phad thai with shrimp, and papaya salad, with some fried shrimp croquettes and spring rolls to start. The food arrived quickly and almost all together. Service was excellent and the Thai wait staff certainly spoke better Korean than I do.
They brought us some little pork skin scratchings while we waited. Quite addictive snacks.
The shrimp croquettes were a good start. I’ve had these elsewhere and they are always a firm favourite, especially with a cold Singha beer. The texture was a little rubbery but the flavour was good. With the sweet chilli sauce, we were sold.
Spring rolls were a bit meh. They aren’t really a Thai specialty, despite their ubiquity on menus; you are better off eating them in Vietnam, where the fresh herbs and shredded vegetables combine to make a really special appetiser. It’s probably an unfair comparison, but these couldn’t match the fresh taste of a Hanoi street vendor and we probably could have done without them. Mind you, we ate a fair few, so they can’t have been that bad.
Main courses were great. The papaya salad, such a staple dish in Thailand, didn’t quite have the zest and zing I’d hoped for, but it was really tasty nonetheless – tart, sour, lots of crunch and plenty of heat. 7.5 out of 10.
The phad thai was really good. It wasn’t dry at all, the shrimp well cooked, the noodles and bean sprouts in good proportion. I might have wished for a little more chopped red chilli but I’m nitpicking. I’ve had a lot worse in the country itself – there’s a lot of really crap phad thai served to tourists in Thailand, and I’ve consumed my share – and I could have happily eaten this on its own.
The star was the green curry, which is just as well given that it’s what we had come for. Thai cooking, at its best, is a subtle blend of sweet, sour, hot and salty (which is why, even with my copy of the legendary “Thai Food” by David Thompson at my side in the kitchen, I struggle in vain to make a properly authentic-tasting curry). This dish hit all the spots. It was creamy, a little sour, sweet and just spicy enough. Goddamn, it was good.
As usual, I wanted to pick out all the vegetables and just eat the chicken, but that’s the fussy twelve year-old in me. Everything was just so and I wanted to order another one. If I could have bottled the sauce to use as an aftershave, I would have.
We accompanied our meal with a couple of cold beers (which tasted better than I remembered Thai beer tasting, perhaps because I’ve been conditioned to drink Cass), and a weird iced pink tea concoction which my dining companion insisted on ordering just because it was pink. It tasted like bubble-gum flavoured milk. Not a great success, though I can see how it might be nice over ice on a hot day.
The restaurant itself is a nice space. The staff, who may all have been one family, were attentive and friendly, the portions generous and the prices, a couple of more expensive “signature dishes” aside, were very reasonable.
Is it the best Thai food in Seoul? Well, Wang Thai in Itaewon is a pretty good spot, and I have a fondness for Kkaoli Pochana in Gyeongnidan, albeit it’s one that not many foreigners seem to share. And glorious things are spoken of Tuk Tuk, also in Hongdae, if you can get past the lines of Tasty Roaders waiting to get in. Everyone has their favourite.
But my vote goes, for the time being at least, to Amazing Thailand. Lovely meal at a good price, and handy for hitting the clubs after dinner. If you’re young enough for that sort of thing.
- Category: Thai
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Green curry
- Subway: Hongdae (Hongik University / 홍대역) exit 1.
- Directions: Come out of exit 1 and walk straight. You’ll cross the main road which heads up towards Hongik Uni: keep going. Take the first right after that road and you’ll see a CU Mart about 50m ahead of you. Amazing Thailand is to the left of that – you can’t really miss the facade.
- Hours: They are open for lunch and dinner, but I’m not sure if it’s seven days or not (though they are definitely open weekends). Contact details are on the sign, pictured below. Last orders on a Sunday night were at 9pm, so don’t show up too late.