Taking up the funky space once occupied by the late lamented Hassdog is a new-ish venture called Head Lock Sandwich (헤드락), which has been operating for a couple of months now. The concept is simple: prawn sandwiches (or shrimp, if you prefer).
[UPDATE, JULY 2017: This location has now closed, unfortunately.]
For years, I’ve been saying that a proper bagel place in HBC / Gyeongnidan would make a fortune. For years! I even considered opening a bagel shop on the HBC main road. The only thing that stopped me was (a) I don’t have the money to open a bagel shop (b) I don’t know how to make bagels. I was so close, though, dammit!
[UPDATE, JULY 2017: This pop-up has now ended. You can find Pick a Bagel at their main location in Apgujeong.]
I’ve travelled quite widely in the States, and ate my way from Tex-Mex in Texas, through Cincinnati chili (don’t ask) to some awesome NY pizza in the tourist traps of Bleecker Street and beyond, but one thing that had evaded my radar until this week was Chicago-style deep dish pizza. I knew it existed and knew that it was thicker, deeper and just… different from what I was used to, but the reviews of Chicago pizza places in Seoul were so uniformly negative that I stayed away.
Fortunately, that’s changing. James Yu has done what most armchair internet critics of foreign food in Korea dare not attempt, and is putting his time and money where his mouth is. His fledgling business, if we can call it that, is named Windy City Pizza and he’s done a couple of pop-ups in Hongdae and Gyeongnidan, bringing the genuine Chicago deep dish pie to a hungry expat audience. I’m pleased to say that it’s a winner.
I wouldn’t know real Chicago pizza from a hole in the head, so Google it if you want more details on what it is and how it’s made. The short version is; it’s terrific. I had two slices of the sausage pie, which is priced at 7,500 won per large slice. I’m a big man, but two slices nearly defeated me – one would be enough for many normal people, particularly at lunchtime.
The sausage is made by Hassan from Hassdog and the rest is handmade by James. The crust is totally different from a thin crust NY pizza, let alone the cardboard crusts of many Korean pizzas – this is more like the pastry crust on a Scottish meat pie, which I mean as a compliment. The tomato sauce was garlicky and packed with flavour. Basically the whole thing was on point and completely delicious, which my photos may or may not demonstrate. Quite a hard thing to photograph well.
James is also making two other versions at present, a spinach and a mushroom slice, which I didn’t try because spinach and mushroom. But if it’s anything like this, it must also be great.
Check out the Windy City FB page for details of more pop-ups, the next of which is happening from Monday at Cali Kitchen in Gyeongnidan (which is also well worth your while even outside of special events like this). James sold out in record time this week, so make sure you reserve a slice so you don’t end up disappointed.
- Category: American
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Sausage slice (7,500 won)
- Directions: Cali Kitchen is just behind Maloney’s pub in Gyeongnidan. See map below. Future pop-ups may be in other locations, of course.
- Hours: Check out Windy City’s Facebook page for latest news and advance notice of any further pop-ups.
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.
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.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.