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.
Note from Andy: This is the second in an ongoing series of interviews with restaurateurs and chefs around Seoul. The previous interview was with Wahid Naciri of Casablanca and Morococo Café, and can be found here.
Jungsu Lee is from Seoul. He opened his restaurant Villa Guerrero in Samseong-dong in 2015, serving Michoacán style carnitas and chorizo tacos.
Here it is, the most eagerly awaited post of the year; the second annual Soju Sunrise Food Awards, showcasing the best foreign food that I think Seoul has to offer. No doubt squadrons of restaurateurs are reading this with fear in their souls, whole chains poised to collapse if they aren’t mentioned in my year-end review. What can I say? With great power comes great responsibility.
As with last year’s favourites – quite a few of whom return this year – I don’t present this list as a definitive “best of” but rather a compilation of my favourites, the places I return to again and again, the places that made 2016 worth persevering with. No doubt in each category there are better places around, and you should feel free to set me right in the comments – but these are the places that pop up again and again on my Instagram feed.
Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year and see you all in 2017!
The humble Philly cheesesteak takes two of my favourite things – steak and cheese – and puts them into a sandwich for easy consumption. What’s not to like?
Up till now my go-to place for Philly cheesesteak has usually been Rye Post in Itaewon, which does a more than serviceable version. American Mood may be better.
Rumours have abounded in recent months of a new taco place in the middle of nowhere, at least from a culinary point of view. So when details of Villa Guerrero were posted up on social media for the third or fourth time, I resolved to get on the subway to a station that didn’t even exist a year or two ago, and check it out.
I’m going to cut the “dance of the seven veils” shit and get to the point. Villa Guerrero’s carnitas tacos are the absolute bomb, as Americans say. The meat is chopped to order, with a combination of soft, slow-cooked pork, some skin, and various other bits and pieces that are best not to inquire into but which add considerably to the overall effect. If you are squeamish about stomach lining, tongue or anything else, just ask them to leave it out. Then they add onion, guacamole, though they were out on Friday lunchtime when we visited, and copious cilantro (coriander).
The tacos came to the table quickly – we got lucky, apparently, since they were out of their regular five inch tortillas, so we got extra big tacos for the same price. The meat was juicy, unbelievably moist and tender, and packed with flavour. Goddamn, it was good. The sort of food you look forward to eating again, even as you’re eating it the first time. To adapt Raymond Chandler, this was a taco to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.
We also ordered some chorizo tacos (above), made with Villa Guerrero’s handmade chorizo meat. This was something wonderful as well – oily, as you can see from the photos, the chorizo oozed paprika-red juices all over the plate. A hint of spice but no more, and messy, but really good. They weren’t as special as the carnitas, but I’d have these again in a heartbeat. Both the carnitas and the chorizo tacos are 4,000 won each. Superb value, even if we got unusually large portions on the day we were in.
The star, for me, was the carnitas. I went with my coworker, who’s quite new to Korea and was craving something that didn’t come with rice. Having ordered six tacos in total, and consumed four in the space of about thirty seconds, I nobly gave him the choice between the remaining chorizo and carnitas taco. He went for the carnitas in a nanosecond. I was quietly sad, but resolved to go back again this week without the selfish bastard, and eat six carnitas tacos all by myself. I really think I can do it.
- Category: Mexican
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Carnitas taco
- Subway: Samseong Jungang Station (삼성중앙역) exit 7.
- Directions: Samseong Jungang is a new station on line 9, on the way to Coex. Come out of exit 7 and turn left at Woori Bank. Villa Guerrero is 50 yards down the road on the right.
- Hours: 12-2:30 for lunch and 6-10pm dinner, Monday – Friday. They don’t open on weekends, and when they run out, they’re out! Check out their Facebook page, website or follow them on Instagram at @vgtacos.
What is it about the hot sweaty weather that makes me crave the flesh of the pig? This time last year, almost to the week, I was engaged in a batshit crazy scheme to travel round Seoul looking for the best dwaejigukbap (돼지국밥), or pork and rice soup, that I could find, eventually plumping for one near Sinsa station as my favourite. (I don’t propose to go back over the finer points of this great Busan dish – you can find lots more explanation of what it is and how it should be served at that old post.)
Recently a well-known gukbap franchise opened a store a few moments’ walk from my work, so I’ve popped in there a couple of times to have some soup over lunchtime. But to be honest, it’s a pale imitation of the real thing and I always leave feeling a bit meh. So when I had an unexpected long lunch break today, I decided to do a little Naver-ing to see if there was anywhere nearby that I’d missed. And there was.
Dureban is just a block from Gangnam-gu Office station on the confluence of line 7 and the Bundang line. It has immediately vaulted to the top of my list, and I intend to become something of a regular, because the 돼지국밥 here was great.
The soup is served bubbling hot, as is customary in Korea. While you wait for it to descend from boiling to merely scalding, you set about adding your seasonings to taste. Salty, fermented baby shrimp (새우젓) add saltiness and umami; gochugaru (고추가루) adds some heat and depth; ground perilla seeds (들깨) add, well, 들깨ness.
Unlike many other places I’ve visited, though, Dureban also provides you with your own chives and chili to add as the whim takes you – useful for those of us who like to personalise our lunch to taste.
As the bubbles subsided and the steam cleared, I began to realise that the plethora of condiments wasn’t the only point in this place’s favour.
The soup was absolutely crammed with pork. A couple of the places I visited last year were good, but a little skimpy on the swine, with little shavings of pig where big chunks should be.
Here at Dureban, there’s a combination of the two – generous thinly sliced pork meat throughout the bowl, but two or three larger chunks lurking in there too, with just the right amount of fat. With a nice bit of kimchi on top, they were just begging to be despatched, and quickly were.
The broth is great here – not transcendent, but far better than some of the weak, blander bases I’ve tasted in the past. By now the sweat was building on my forehead, but I finished every drop.
There’s a sundaeguk on the menu too, as well as some other meaty dishes for the evening visitor, but I can’t speak to those.
Dureban was great, and as I exited through the outside “tent-bar” style annex (below), which would be great for night-time drinking, I found the bus stop back to my office not four paces from the front door. It’s like God wants me to come back. I will.
- Category: Korean
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Dwaejigukbap (돼지국밥)
- Subway: Gangnam-gu office (강남구청역) exit 3.
- Directions: Come out of exit 3 and double back to the intersection before turning left. Dureban is 150 metres or so on the left, look for the black sign as above.
- Hours: Uncertain, though open lunchtimes and Saturdays, at least. Try calling them on 02-514-8229.