I don’t usually post about cafés in Seoul, because (a) there are too many cafés in Seoul already, and (b) I am not a girl, so I feel I should be posting about manly things like beer, meat, you know, stuff like that.
Seoul doesn’t really have a coffee culture, or at least not much of one; what it has, which is very different, is a café culture. A lot of those cafés, of course, are fairly soulless chains like Starbucks, Twosome Place, and various Korean knockoffs of varying quality (Angel-in-us? Coffine Gurunaru? Bugger off.) But appreciation of coffee itself is still quite a specialist pursuit here. Anyway, I digress.
If Seoul has a coffee culture at all, it’s in places like Hongdae, which is really carving out a distinctive bohemian niche for itself as time goes by, playing host to some of the city’s best foreign restaurants outside of the Itaewon waygook bubble, a few genuinely cool bars, and about ten thousand cafés, many of which are too quirky for their own good.
Nonetheless, it’s a really great place to hang out of a day off, so here are three of Hongdae’s most notable cafés, each very different in their own way, but each trying to sell good coffee to the discerning, not just churn out macchiatos to the masses. All three are pretty hard to find, but isn’t that part of the charm? What? Oh.
Tucked away in achingly trendy Yeonnam-dong, Coffee Libre is maybe a bit hipsterish for its own good, but the product and the atmosphere are both on point. It’s tiny, with space for maybe eight or nine people in the back, so you may want to get your coffee (or beans) to go.
There are only four items on the menu: a single-origin French press coffee (which is what I went for), espresso, Americano or latte. You can choose from a geographically diverse selection of blends.
The interior of the café is pleasingly funky; if you can get a seat, you’ll feel like you’re in a little oasis of calm from which you never want to get up.
Coffee Libre also have outlets in Myeongdong and now Express Bus Terminal, and their main business is selling coffee, including an interesting-looking subscription service whereby you can get beans sent to you on a regular basis. Check out their website for more.
Coffee Lab is a complete contrast from Coffee Libre – a much more modern look to the interior, with trendy metallic-effect menus (you know the ones I mean, they look and feel like they’re steel-plated), and dozens upon dozens of filter handles suspended from the ceiling like a coffee-lover’s dream (or nightmare).
The menu here is much more extensive, with about every kind of coffee drink you can imagine, as well as an “adult” menu of drinks that have shots of various kinds added.
Coffee Lab also sell beans, though I haven’t tried them. The café was founded by Bang Jong Koo, who apparently won the 2005 Korean Barista of the Year award, which marks him out as a real trailblazer of the Seoul coffee scene (though I can’t help wondering how many entrants there would have been back then!). The staff are of the usual young-guys-in-skinny-white-shirts variety, which maybe explained why the proportion of female customers here was unusually high even by Seoul standards.
This is a really nice café, one I can easily spend an hour or two in, and it is quite centrally located, about five or six minutes from the front gate of Hongik University and just a short walk from one of my favourite galbi restaurants in Seoul, the mighty 철길왕갈비 (Railroad Galbi), which I also heartily recommend. I’m not sure it’s the best coffee in Hongdae, though.
Anthracite Coffee Roasters
As a building, as a café, Anthracite is hands-down my favourite, though your mileage may vary. It’s literally a converted factory in the middle of an otherwise very pleasant residential district south of Hongdae, near Sangsu station, that has very little else around it.
The ground floor is devoted to a long counter – which on closer inspection is actually an old conveyor belt! – some shelves with beans and other bits and bobs for sale, and a couple of big roasters. This really does retain the feel of the original industrial shop floor that it used to be – on my last visit, guys were busy bagging and tagging freshly roasted coffee beans from the huge machines at the back.
The main seating area is upstairs, and it’s similarly cavernous. But despite appearances, the place is actually really comfortable. I haven’t been in the depths of winter so I’d be interested to know if it gets chilly inside, but I really love this space. It’s perfect for catching up on work or studying. There’s also rooftop seating for warmer days, which is really delightful.
Beans are available for sale on site and online, and they also have a subscription service for the serious coffeeholic. I like the coffee here, though I’ve only tried a couple of varieties.
Anthracite may not be the place to go if you’re looking to curl up on a sofa with a good book, but I’m a huge fan. A favourite café is as personal as a pair of slippers, but Anthracite is it for me. Off the beaten track, but totally worth it.
- Subway: Hongdae Station (홍대입구역) exit 3.
- Directions: From the subway, walk along the main road until it turns right, and then head up into Yeonnam-dong. After four or five minutes’ walk, just before you get to a small junction, turn left into the small sidestreet and Coffee Libre is down there on the right. Yes, it’s hard to find. That’s part of the charm.
- Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 12 – 9pm. Closed Mondays.
- Subway: Hongdae Station (홍대입구역) exit 9.
- Directions: The easiest way to get here is probably from the front gate of Hongik University: walk along the main road for seven or eight minutes until you see a couple of roads to the right, one heading uphill and the other downhill. (If you cross the bridge over the old railway, you’ve gone too far.) Turn left down the street, and Coffee Lab is just there on the right-hand corner. It’s hard to find. Yes, that’s part of the charm.
- Hours: Open every day. Sunday – Thursday 11am – midnight; Fridays and Saturdays until 1am.
- Subway: Sangsu Station (상수역) exit 4.
- Directions: Walk along the road until you get to the first major junction, and take the second of the two streets going left. After five minutes you’ll get to another main road, where you have to turn right and right again. Look, it’s easier if you just look at the map. It’s hard to find. That’s part of the charm.
- Hours: 11am – midnight every day, though they may close a little earlier on Sunday nights.
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.