A quick note about eating out

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

I wonder if this guy is still around. He reminds me of my high school history teacher, by the way, so if you're reading this, Mr. Trupe, hi!
I live on Daehakro, which was once an artsy area of Seoul packed with indie theatres, quiet and genteel cafés and bookstores catering to the students of the many nearby colleges (yes, believe it or not, Daehakro means "College Street," and it was named that for a reason). Now the place is overrun with McDonald's, Caffes Benes, Olive Youngs, and BlackSmiths, not to mention young women running around in the latest fashions, which these days seem to consist of huge platform heels and the omission of pants. Ticket-hawking theatre reps scrabble for a livelihood on the sidewalks alongside possibly the best-fed and least-clean pigeons you will see anywhere in the world. Even the picturesque ancient gingkos in Marronnier Park—that rain down showers of gold leaves in autumn—are being threatened by a recent building project ("Design Seoul," my ass). So you can imagine, while still a good place for people-watching, Daehakro is no longer—if it ever was—a place that brings out the romance in one's soul. Even less is it a place to get truly good food, the kind that seeps down into your soul and makes you crave it again and again.

And yet, even under these less-than-ideal circumstances, I have finally got a start on my 맛집* compilation for the Seoul area. And it starts right here, on this pigeon-tart-infested street. Yes! On Daehakro! I just blew my own mind! Probably only my own, but without further ado:

Menyasandaime does authentic, intensely flavorful Japanese ramen that seriously blew my tastebuds. Since everything is based on a stick-to-your-ribs, sodium-saturated donkotsu broth, eating an entire bowl gives me heartburn, but there's no better comfort food...

Except perhaps Shin-Eui-Joo Chapsal Soondae, where they do all their traditional blood sausage from scratch, stuffed not with the bland glass noodles that you find in most soondae, but rice and chopped vegetables and ground meat and even nuts in addition to the blood mixture. Lovely steamed on a platter with suyuk, or floating in a bowl of milky pork broth.

Even if I'm not in the mood for anything that heavy, I still have options, like the tteokbokki at Auntie Ok's Place, studded with crispy tempura-fried squid and 김말이, with fragrant perilla leaves scattered over the top that wilt into the sauce.

Now, I don't find it a coincidence that none of these places have much variety on the menu. I really do respect the American commitment to freedom of choice, but honestly? I've already chosen the venue. Rather than someplace with a menu that dazzles with the variety of choice and then fails to deliver on a similar level of quality (I am talking to you, Simply India, ahemmmrm!)I personally would rather go to a place that specializes in a few key dishes and totally owns them.

Honestly, I think that's what's wrong with so many eateries these days. They spend too much energy on wowing the customer, not on doing their job and actually feeding him. In fact, I rather wish Daehakro would get back to being itself, not whatever sells best at the time.

*"Restaurant worth visiting." In Korean, it literally means "taste house".



gordsellar said...

Ha, yeah, it seems like every part of Seoul and the outlying cities that once had any kind of music, arts, or theater scene has instead become packed with, well... consumerist crap. I discovered from a cabbie once that Bucheon use to be (back in the 80s, I think it was? Or maybe the early 90s? I forget...) a hotbed of live music. So much so that people would make the trip out from Seoul to see shows. So claimed the cabbie, anyway. Now? Not so much...

I never got to this area of town, which may be why I never found good Japanese ramen in Seoul. I looked, oh, how I looked. But I have to agree: the places that had one or two dishes on the menu, maximum, are the places that usually do that food right.

You may be onto something with the idea most restaurants are trying too hard to impress with choices, and then not following through on cooking at the highest level... but they're also not going out of business, which is to say: they're giving people what they want. Even Simply India. It's hard to be a person with discerning tastes in this world, especially for things that are underappreciated, either globally or locally. But, that's what happens when corporations convince us to jettison culture wholesale in exchange for the chance to buy (or marvel at) SHINY! NEW! CRAP!

As for Saigon, I can report, the one Korean restaurant we've found here suffers from what foreign food restaurants worldwide must endure, but with a characteristically Korean twist: a number of things on the menu are weirdly very high-priced, along with being not-quite-right if you know how it's supposed to taste according even to the crappy local standards in Seoul. Plus the banchan is just kind of weird.. finger sandwiches is the only example I can think of, but there were a few things that made us ask one another, "What's that?"

Anne said...

Yeah, there's Dolsoene's, a bunshik--i.e. tteokbokki and odeng and ramen--place whose salient feature is putting mozzarella cheese in everything, and the place is always PACKED, with a line about 15 feet long. Me, I went there a couple times long before it suddenly became some sort of pilgrimage site (I sound like such a hipster) and the food is nothing to write home about: it doesn't really compare to Auntie Ok's Place, for example.

And yet, everyone who comes to Daehakro for the weekend is somehow determined to "leave a stamp on" that place... and none of them are locals. Most of them are young couples, or groups of young women, and I suspect they're mainly there because Dolsoene's hits that balance between accessibility (it's located in a small side street, never mind that street branches directly off Daehakro itself) and securing the illusion of "authenticity" (the decor is worn wood and chipping paint, in that "vintage" aesthetic that's so popular these days... and it HAS been around since before Daehakro was a tourist destination). Exactly the kind of place trendy young people who fancy themselves a cut above the other trendy young people want to be seen frequenting.

I think Menyasandaime has a branch in Hongdae, too. They seem to be owned by different branches of the same family, from Japan.

A Deceit of Lapwings

All happy people are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy people are more or less alike.