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.)
Such is the pace of change in Haebangchon, the little favela I have called home for nearly five years, that I’m a bit jaded by the plethora of new places around here and Gyeongnidan that open up, serve mediocre or baffling food, and then close a year or so later. So when a small restaurant pops up that’s selling good-quality, honest and non-bullshitty food, it’s worth giving it a little love.
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.
I know jack-all about ramen except what I’ve picked up from three visits to Japan, the last one of which was spent slurping down bowls of the stuff in various parts of Tokyo. As the saying goes, I don’t know much, but I know what I like. And I like Nagomi Ramen. A lot. It’s like a Japanese guy strangled a pig with a fistful of noodles and squeezed until there was a bowlful of happy juice in front of me.
It’s in Hongdae, and so well-hidden you’ll need a map to find it – which, luckily, you’ll find at the bottom of this capsule review. On my first visit years ago, I remember being really happy, but Hongdae is a long way to go for lunch, so despite retaining a good memory of the place, I hadn’t been back.
But I was in Hongdae during the day this week, so I got hold of a compass and some orienteering gear and managed to track it down.
The menu is quite short, offering just four types of ramen.
I went for the char siu ramen, since I love the meaty broth and the charred pork on top. At 8,000 won, the most expensive option on the menu.
It was superb. According to other blog posts about this place, this is Kyushu-style ramen, with a stock based on pork bones with added chicken or vegetable broth to lighten and modulate the overall flavour. Whatever.
The broth was very meaty and just the right kind of oily – I’d have happily drunk a bowl of this without any noodles or anything else. There was plenty of roughly chopped garlic in there, a goodly amount of spring onion (scallion), lots of thin noodles lurking under the surface, and no bean sprouts – which I don’t mind, but which I feel are overused in some other places.
Look at that pork. Definitely the best and most generous serving of pork I’ve had in any ramen shop in Korea, there was more pork in this ramen than I get in Menya Sandaime in Itaewon (my normal lunch go-to) even when I order with the “extra pork” 추가 option, which I usually do.
Unbelievably, the menu says you can get extra char siu for another 2,000 won. Does that apply to the char siu ramen as well, I wonder? If it does, I don’t know where they’d fit it in the bowl.
A little dish of pickled thingummybobs comes on the side, and they have small pots of kimchi on the table, to which I helped myself freely.
I’m calling it: Nagomi Ramen is without doubt the best ramen I’ve had in Seoul. No doubt some reader with a PhD in Applied Noodleology will be able to advise me on why I’m wrong and where I should go instead, but in the interim, head to Nagomi and enjoy.
- Category: Japanese
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: I’ve only tried the char siu ramen (차슈면), which is the one on the top right if you don’t read hangeul. I’m sure they’re all good, but that’s the one I vouch for.
- Subway: Hongdae (역) exit 9.
- Directions: Yeah, you’re just going to have to look at the map, which I promise you is accurate. Easiest is probably to come out of Hongdae exit 9 and walk along the main road and take the first road left after the main street up to Hongik University. After that, turn third left when you see the CU Mart. You might need to ask someone, or paste “나고미앤겐로쿠” into Naver Maps and follow the little blinking dot on your phone to porky heaven.
- Hours: 11:30am – 9pm every day.
- Address in Korean: 서교동 370-24 지하 1층 Tel: 02-324-8545