El Pino is a well-known landmark in East Los Angeles, and despite being open for just a couple of weeks, its namesake El Pino 323 is already well on the way to becoming an equally notable landmark of the Seoul food scene. Opening officially last weekend, hidden in a basement near a little-frequented subway station on line 5, this takeaway-turned-restaurant is dishing up some of the most authentic and certainly best, Cali-Mex food that you’ll find anywhere outside the 323 L.A. area code.
[UPDATE, JULY 2017: This location has now closed, with El Pino reopening near Noksapyeong Station. Please see my new review for details.]
I’m just back from a wonderful twelve days in Vietnam and oh my lord, the street food. So much pho, banh mi, bun cha, and everything served with a mountain of fresh herbs and a bill for $1-2 at most. Vietnamese food seems to be having a moment in Seoul right now, as everything does eventually. Everyone and his wife is churning out banh mi and some of them are doing a pretty decent job.
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.