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.
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.)
I love dakgalbi. For some reason – I don’t know why – the Korean tourist and food promotion agencies don’t believe me. Their marketing campaigns concentrate, usually witlessly, on the undoubtedly healthy properties of bibimbap and the much more dubious health-promoting properties of kimchi. Whenever the authorities are asked what they think foreigners want, the usual foods come up again and again – see this 2010 post at ZenKimchi, for example – but dakgalbi is often nowhere to be seen. A shame, because for me it encapsulates so much of what Korean food is about – a huge bubbling dish, cooking at the table and waiting to be shared, red as the fires of hell and hopefully just as hot. In addition, I don’t review enough Korean restaurants on this blog, and one of my resolutions for 2016 is to write up some more of them (this is not a kimchi-free zone ㅋㅋㅋ).
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.
Always on the lookout for new things to try and new lunch spots within an easy reach of my HBC redoubt, I stumbled upon something interesting last week – a small chain of restaurants that serve one of my favourite Korean soups, yukgaejang (육계장) with a big bowlful of kalguksu noodles to pour into your soup. Just perfect for a filling lunch in this chilly weather, I thought I’d give it a try.
Munbaedong’s Samgakji branch is about as hole-in-the-wall as it gets, a real ajosshi hangout on the “wrong side of the tracks” near Samgakji station. Inside it’s wall-to-wall with people slurping back bowls of spicy beef soup. On my first attempt to have lunch here, there were people waiting outside in the cold for a seat, so I came back a few days later, and managed to bag a small table in the corner.
There’s just three items on the menu (though I never saw a menu): yukgaejang spicy beef soup (육계장), kalguksu noodle soup (칼국수), and the combination of the two, “yuk-kal” (육칼) that I was here to try.
The soup came out in less than a minute, a pleasingly deep red in a big silvery bowl. I added about half the noodles, which were very soft, like overcooked linguine.
Snapping away with my camera brought some eye-rolling from the ajumma, but there were a few young people in there who were also taking photos on their phones, so Instagram away.
The portion of noodles was extremely generous, so much so that adding all of them to the soup, as I eventually did, made it almost more like a soupy bowl of pasta than a soup.
As for the soup itself, it would probably divide opinion. It was spicy but not overly so – after the initial hit of chilli, I barely noticed much heat. It was thick, though that might have been down to the starch from the noodles, and almost tasted like there was a tomato base, though I’m pretty sure there wouldn’t have been.
There also wasn’t much “filler” in the soup, which normally comes piled with bean sprouts, little fronds of fern bracken and some boiled taro stems along with the beef. This was pretty much beef and spring onion. Now, I really liked that about it, because I enjoy yukgaejang despite all that crap, not because of it. But it’s fair to say that without the noodles, I’d have probably thought this was a decent 육계장, but nothing special.
It was only afterwards that I realised that maybe the little dish of beansprouts and greens served next to my kimchi was supposed to be added to the soup, not eaten as a banchan…? Duh!
So, in summary, check it out next time you’re at Samgakji, or near one of the other locations about town (see below). It didn’t rock my world, but I’ll be back to have it again, because I really liked the combination and it makes a change from soup with rice, and because I’d rather eat in places like Munbaedong than fancy Gangnam dessert cafes every day of the week.
- Category: Korean
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Yuk-kal (육칼) (8,000 won)
- Directions: Munbaedong is a little tricky to get to. It’s at the base of the bridge across the train tracks at Samgakji – from Samgakji station exit 6 or 10, walk up and over to the “wrong side of the tracks” and it’s just on the left. An easier, if slightly more circuitous route, is to get the green No.3 bus that runs from the Hyatt down Gyeongnidan via Noksapyeong towards Samgakji – after some twists and turns, it will turn back towards the railway tracks, and you should get off there and match the map on your phone with my map, below.
- Hours: 9:30am – 6pm every day, though they may stay open a couple of hours later. It gets busy at peak times, so consider visiting after 2pm, especially if there’s more than one or two of you.