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!
Ever since my first visit to Japan a couple of years back, I’ve been hooked on ramen. Coming from the west of Scotland, there wasn’t a whole lot of Japanese food around, so I’ve been making up for lost time ever since. Seoul can’t compete with Tokyo for quantity or quality, of course, but there are some decent ramen places around, and one of them is Ramen Truck.
It’s been very busy in the real world of Soju Sunrise, but things are quietening down so hopefully I’ll be posting some more reviews and notes on Seoul eateries very soon. In the meantime, here are some of the things I’ve been eating over the last few weeks. (You can see most of these pics, as well as many more, on my Instagram feed at instagram.com/sojusunrise.)
B’Mucho Cantina in Hongdae – more specifically, Yeonnam-dong, the new hipster hangout just to the north – has been on my radar for a while, but it took me until this month to get along there. I’m now cursing the delay, because it’s a terrific spot.
I’m a sucker for good donkatsu. It was one of the first things I ate in Korea – given to me by a solicitous 원장님 who was worried I wouldn’t eat anything spicy – and I often find myself wandering into a Saboten or Misoya when I need to grab a bite after work or I’m hanging around Gangnam station with time to kill.
There’s much better donkatsu out there, of course, and in recent weeks I’ve been making a bit of an effort to find it. The fruits of that labour will end up as a whole post in itself, but in the meantime it’s worth drawing attention to a place that is attracting the attention of Korean food bloggers, TV shows and the like; Samonim Donkatsu, which is just by Sangsu station in Hongdae.
It took me two attempts to get in here. The first time I came by, around 1pm on a Monday lunchtime, it was mobbed, with a couple of dozen people hanging around waiting to get in. Given that it was below freezing, I didn’t fancy waiting in line outside, so I went off to The Beastro and had one of their fantastic sandwich lunch deals (which are highly recommended).
I was determined, though, so I went back this week. Even though it was still 15 minutes before their noon opening time, on a weekday, the little covered waiting area was already full. I waited around until 12 and then found out that I had to put my name down on a list, along with my order, and come back in 40 minutes. FML.
Choosing what to eat was easy enough, as there are just three options: the signature Samonim donkatsu (사모님돈가스; 8,500 won), a spicy donkatsu served in a skillet drenched in hot sauce (매운돈가스; 9,500 won), and the same dish topped with cheese (치즈토핑 매운돈가스; 12,000 won). I signed up for the first choice, wandered around for half an hour, then came back to claim my seat. It was still bedlam in the waiting area.
I was served a small amuse-bouche of a creamy soup – I think chicken, though I’m not certain. It was delicious; probably just chicken stock thickened with milk and flour, but you could serve this out of espresso cups next to Gangnam Station for man won a pop, and make a fortune.
Next up was my salad, which came with a sweet cream dressing. I wasn’t so wild about this, but then again, it was a salad, so unless it came served with a steak and half the cheerleading squad for the Dallas Cowboys, there was always going to be a limit to how much I liked it. If you don’t care for sweet salad dressings, don’t mix it all up together before you taste it, as I did.
There’s no doubting the star of the show. The Samonim donkatsu dish is endlessly Instagrammable, thanks to its artful arrangement and the tomato cream sauce it’s served with. There’s also a small mound of rice under the well-proportioned cutlet, as well as some more salad and a most un-Korean but nonetheless welcome surprise, a nicely roasted potato.
The donkatsu was perfectly cooked, juicy and not greasy at all. The sauce was not at all spicy, as I’d imagined, but rather tangy and a little sweet, like a tomato soup with cream swirled in – I assume the white part was the same as the salad dressing. To be honest, it worked well; my major problem with a lot of those old-style Korean donkatsu places is the ultra-sweet sauce they slather it with, but here, though it was still a little sweet for my tastes, they don’t overdo it. This was subtle and moreish.
It was terrific. Was it worth waiting the best part of an hour for, though? Well, it’s donkatsu. Good donkatsu, but ultimately just a chunk of pork in breadcrumbs. I don’t like waiting in line for anything, and instinctively avoid anywhere that requires me to do so (it took me a year to go into Vatos for precisely that reason). Nor is there really much chance to go at off-peak times, which is my usual tactic in cases like this; they are open from 12-2pm for lunch, and then take a three hour break before re-opening 5-9pm for dinner. With portions of the spicy donkatsu restricted to a certain number each day (if I understood the sign right), your chances of getting in without having to queue are probably quite minimal.
I’ll be back, though. It was really good and I want to try it again. But I hope that the crowds move on, the locusts descend on a more photogenic dish somewhere else, and I can enjoy my donkatsu in peace. Until then, proceed with a little caution.
- Category: Korean / Japanese
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Samonim donkatsu (사모님돈가스) (8,500 won)
- Directions: Come out of Sangsu station exit 1 as if you were heading up to Hongdae, but turn left immediately into the little alleyway – literally, it’s no more than fifteen feet from the subway steps. Follow the alleyway; it’ll bend right and then left again. Samonim Donkatsu is on your left on the second floor. Likely there’ll be people milling around waiting to get in. (If you keep walking a few more feet, you’ll get to Fell and Cole, which is one of the best gelato / ice cream places in Seoul, and an excellent place for dessert afterwards.)
- Hours: 12-2pm and 5-9pm, or whenever they run out, seven days a week.
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.