Last week I took advantage of the holiday to take a few days around the southern half of Korea. It was a short trip but I managed to pack some decent food into those four days.
Wherever you go in Korea you’re never far from great mandu, and even those who are partial to a good gyoza are spoiled for choice. But when it comes to the Chinese variety, good dumplings are thin on the ground; and having been lucky enough to try the real thing in Sydney, Hong Kong and various other points around the globe, it didn’t take me long to work out that Seoul dim sum is hit and miss at best and pretty rubbish most of the time.
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.
I seem to have written quite a lot about Vietnamese pho on this blog – at least that’s the way it seems. I live close to Pho For You and rather further away from the mighty Pham Thi Chinh, for which you have to go all the way to Wangsimni (but rest assured it’s well worth the trip).
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.
Regular readers will be aware of my enjoyment of Vietnamese pho, which for the uninitiated is a beef and noodle soup served with herbs, thinly sliced onions, lime and chilli sauce to taste. Most Korean chain pho is rubbish, but there is the odd gem here and there doing it right, most notably Pham Thi Chinh in Wangsimni.
Pho For You is much closer to where I live – a four minute walk rather than a 40 minute journey. So when it opened up a few weeks back I was intrigued, and a positive review on a Facebook page made me curious to go in.
Advertising itself as an American pho restaurant, Pho For You is a nicely appointed restaurant with plenty of seating just past Craftworks Namsan, in Gyeongnidan. The menu is quite small; a couple of spring rolls, rice dishes, and the main event, the pho. I had been told that pho in the States is usually made with a deeper and darker broth, which often leads people to be disappointed with the “real thing” when they actually visit Vietnam.
Certainly as soon as it comes to the table you can see and smell the difference. The broth is certainly darker and a bit more intense. I’m not sure it tasted all that rich to me, but there was no mistaking the depth of colour. I added some bean sprouts, coriander, a bit of green chilli, Sriracha and hoi sin, and squeezed over some lime.
Verdict? Pretty solid. The portion of meat was quite generous, as I’d have expected for the slightly high price of 9,000 for the regular bowl (I ordered the version which comes with two cuts of meat, brisket and deckle; you can get it with other bits and pieces, including tripe, if that’s your fancy). I felt it lacked much in the way of complexity; the broth was flavourful, but not particularly aromatic. I ended up adding more of everything to amp up the taste.
I also ordered some shrimp spring rolls, but they were out, so I didn’t get to try that. I’ll be back to experiment with some of the other menu items, and its convenience so close to my bus stop to work means that this is likely to be a semi-regular lunch stop for me. But Pham Thi Chinh retains its crown, for now.
- Category: Vietnamese
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Pho with brisket and deckle (9,000 won)
- Directions: Pho for You is at the base of the footbridge which connects HBC with Gyeongnidan, just a bit past Craftworks. From Noksapyeong, walk up towards Namsan until you get to the bridge, and you’ll see Pho for You on the other side of the road.
- Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, lunch and dinner – I think.