Seoul ~ Julio’s Mexican & a Saturday Walkabout in Jongno

We exited the subway, squinting in the June sun, onto the busy streets of Jongno, with old ladies hustling and old men playing Chinese checkers. Everybody’s shoes seemed to be half on and their hats half off. Also, people are still pissed about Park Geun-hye, except these folks were pissed that she was arrested. Loud and repetitive it was.

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IMG_5550When I crave Mexican food in Seoul, disappointment is sure to follow. Besides Vatos and a few other places, the Korean food from America’s southern neighbor is mostly forgettable. Add Julio’s in Jongno to that list. The food isn’t bad, but it isn’t great either. It fills you up but doesn’t satisfy the way a really good taco can. We ate decent shrimp fajitas with runny queso and over sweet guacamole. The salsa needed some more spice and the burrito was very ricey. The saucy enchilada was a belly warming winner.

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IMG_5559After lunch, we hit the road walking. We passed through the Cheongyecheong river, the little creek that was refurbished from a dilapidated raised city highway. On this early summer weekend, the side street was full of identical taco trucks and fried food for sale.

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IMG_5572We bought Jordyn some fancy Sisley face lotion in the posh Shinsegae Department Store while enjoying the A/C then back onto the sticky evening streets under the shadows and cool breezes of Namsan mountain.

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IMG_5584In February 2018, the winter Olympics will come to Pyeongchang, Korea, so the push is on for a big show of Korean pride.

IMG_5580Finally, we ended up on what I could only describe as “puppy mill boulevard”. It was store after store of tiny little puppies in windows looking for a home. The crowded glass cages made you think that Koreans were lining up looking for pet doggies, when in fact only about 12% of the 50 million Koreans have dogs. Millions of dogs are caged and tortured for consumption. It’s a brutal practice that was downplayed before the 1988 Olympics and again facing intense criticism before the next one 30 years later. I eat meat; yet, want to hypocritically condemn Asians eating dog meat. It’s not 1952 anymore Korea. Korea is the 11th largest economy in the world and there are BBQ shops on every corner–meat isn’t hard to find. Dog meat should be off the menu, but the suffering of cows, pigs, chickens and the others we consume shouldn’t be discounted just because they aren’t pets. One day, after lab grown meat, synthetic meat or plant based “meat” becomes the normal, we will look back at this time of savagery and be appalled at our behavior.

Hopefully, these cute little mutts licking and pawing the glass will all find decent homes with loving owners who won’t abandon them after they pee on the carpet, all but assuring their fate to end up in those sad metal cages, bound to be boiled.

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Yangyang Beach~ A Snowy Start to 2017

I know it’s late spring now and this post is overdue, nevertheless, we proceed.

Yangyang is smack in the middle of the two larger and more famous coastal cities of Sokcho and Gangneung. It’s tiny and cute and frozen in the winter. We went there because the Pine Beach Condotel was pet friendly, beachside and turned out to be a nice, clean place. The snow fell the day before and the highway from Seoul was plowed and safe when we arrived at midnight to check in and take a dog walk.

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The next morning was bright and sunny, a perfect day for a naked scrub;)

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We headed for Sokcho’s most famous seafood shack: Bong-po Meoguri-jip. They specialize in weird seafood that I don’t recognize nor especially enjoy. But Jordyn might be a mermaid who sold her voice to a wicked octopus in exchange for legs by how much she loves the food from the ocean depths.

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The mul-hwe (물회) or fresh fish soup is not really fish nor really a soup. It’s sort of a mush of random sea creatures who fell into a fisherman’s trap and a few hours later found themselves shucked and in my bowl. Jordyn also ordered a sea urchin noodle dish which is distinctly mucus in both texture and taste if the mucus was marinated in salt water.

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The beer was cold. The squid rings (abayi-sundae) were filled with a tasty paste and there was a nice bit of real crab in the rice salad.

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We went to a beachfront temple, Naksansa (낙산사), to waste time before dinner. It was beautiful at sunset and very cold. There was a small museum with little trinkets, old ceramics and paintings from past dynasties.

We took photos of the beautiful scenery as the snow had settled and become part of the wintry landscape.

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It was getting dark and colder, and that means soju time with BBQ’d shell meat.

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The next day we rested in a coffee house looking at pictures, nibbling sugar cakes and chatting over Americanos. There were bronze statues frozen mid song on the beach.

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Hershey dog had made a friend. They ran around and chased each other all over the snowy beach freaking out dog-fearing Koreans. The tallest mountain in South Korea, Seoraksan is visible behind the beach.

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We ate a big fish lunch with some ginseng wine before leaving on the slow road home. I wanted to drive through the country roads instead of the boring old highway.

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Squid legs and weird red squishiness

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raw flounder

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It was a wonderful jaunt into the country to get ready for 2017.

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Incheon Chinatown ~ Jjajangmyeon

Back in January, we were in the port city of Incheon, famous for McArthur’s amphibious landing during the Korean War, to pick up Jordyn’s son who had been attending a winter camp at the brand spanking new campus of Yonsei University at Incheon. There was a small fenced basketball/soccer court where we let the dogs run, strange murals and plenty of clean winter air to breathe. We talked about dorm life, studying and how hard it was to live without a cell phone for two weeks, and he actually made it about a half hour before he cranked up the YouTube and got plugged back into the net.

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We were headed to Chinatown.

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The Chinese settlers who came to Korea during the hermit kingdom’s awakening period of the late 19th Century settled in Incheon and it has since remained the country’s largest Chinatown. The town is definitely known for a few foods, namely Jjajangmyeon.

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These are three big places on the main street for Chinese food.

It’s a black bean sauced noodle dish with an assorted mix of vegetables, seafood or meat. I was never crazy about it, but I wanted to try an authentic one. Mostly it is a city delivery staple. Korean Jjajang delivery uses hard plastic plates that, when finished, you put outside your door like in a hotel and the drivers will return the next day to retrieve the soiled dishes. We also ordered the mushily fried scallops and were given a nice warm soup of egg and a small piece of crab as an appetizer. I wasn’t impressed and left feeling very empty despite the full belly, as the whole meal ran close to 80$.

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There was lots of places selling puffed fried sugar bread. We bought a giant bag of 10 and found it was good for dipping in yogurt. But lots of places were selling custard bread, which was much better and similar to a cream filled cake.

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Finally, we ended the day by escaping the freezing cold and relaxing in a beautiful and clean sauna.

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Namyangju ~ Sujongsa Temple at Ungilsan

We were off to hike Ungilsan (운길산) to see Sujongsa Temple. It was late on a Saturday afternoon, and the tables at the base weren’t yet filled with thirsty hikers.

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Getting off the outer city train, following signs to the temple, past cute little houses and restaurants that looked as if they’d been closed since 2006. Most of the beginning hike was up a road, which was not cool as there was much more road noise and exhaust than I’m used to on a hike.

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We came across a standing Buddha in the hills.

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After a pretty easy hike with terrible annoyances by the passing cars, we made it to the temple. It had good views of “Two Heads”, where north and south Han rivers merge.

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It was a beautiful temple, complete with tiny Buddhas, HD satellite TV for the monks, cute plants, amazing views and a tree that appears to be 1,000 years old.

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After a snack break of beef jerky, nuts and water, we were back down the mountain in the fresh air of the forest. We went down the tree path this time and avoided the cars from the way up. We also spotted the tomb mounds that can be seen on most Korean mountains.

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After the hike comes Korean rice wine and pancakes made of green mountain vegetables. We ate under the road in a red lit underpass.

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After a long train ride back to Seoul, we were hungry again and went to eat Vietnamese pho simply because it was on the way home and bedtime was rapidly approaching. But, in case you’ve never seen the shared bar soap in bathrooms that have become normal to me, here it is.

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Pho and a cold one: always satisfies.

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Petite France ~ A Place for Selfies and Romance (if you can ignore the ridiculousness)

“Little France” outside of Seoul, in Gapyeong, could also be called “Gauche France” or “Faux France.” It’s a ridiculous caricature of the world’s most visited country. We saw tiny alleyways made of hollow plaster, fake wooden framed cottages, cute cafes that sell ddeokboki for 7$, lame replicas of Parisian iconography, broken fountains in manicured cobblestoned plazas and generic ideas of France as imagined by someone who believes French culture to be epitomized by puppets, mimes and berets. It’s not wholly without charm, it’s just a smarmy charm. A charm that requires ignorance, the Michael Bay kind of charm. Yes, it’s a movie, but nothing is real. The place is replete with symbolic French roosters, Little Prince statues, and dubiously authentic memorabilia.

Yes, I know. I’m in Korea. What did I expect? You don’t get the moniker “Hermit Kingdom” for hundreds of years and then leap into the modern age with a fully realized vision of globally relevant cultural minutiae. Once I got past the fake, forced cute of the little hillside village asking “you think you’re better than me because you’ve been to France?” routine, and suspended my haughty disbelief, I enjoyed our time there. It’s a beautiful setting, the air is clean, people are happy and holding hands, and if you squint your eyes real tight, only letting in the dimmest glow, maybe you could think yourself among the winding streets of Montmarte or the grand boulevards of the “City of Lights”…until an ajumma pushes you out of the way to take 13 solemn pictures in front of a two meter Eiffel Tower.

Here is a collection of several of the hundreds of pictures we took this cloudy, breezy, late fall afternoon in “Petite France.”

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A Traditional Time for Jordan in Japan: Kusatsu Onsen, Mt. Asama and Fukuoka

My beautiful girlfriend, Jordyn, traveled to Japan for work last month, and since she speaks fluent Japanese, she was able to get deep into the local history and experience some authentic traditions. This one is in Fukuoka, where Jordan visited the beach with pine trees, blue skies and clear water with mountains in the distance.

 

Next, she arrived in the ryokan, a hot spring fed by the local volcanic springs. You can see how clean and amazing the mineral water appears. The old ladies are stirring the water to ensure an even temperature throughout the bath. At the bottom is the day and night view of the little town, Kusatsu Onsen. It’s a twelve hundred year old bathhouse located right in the middle of Japan, west of Tokyo.

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Near the hot springs, lies a picturesque mountain that belies the murmuring belly of a volcano that most recently exploded in 2006. You can barely see the drizzles of smoke escaping the volcanic mouth. The little red monster, Oni, is believed to have created the volcano. There are two cute pictures of Japanese daily life in the nearby town.

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Fukuoka is known as one of the best places for eating in Japan. Here is a very popular ramen noodle shop near Fukuoka Tower, Senda Honteng, with a long line of hungry customers.

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There is also a viewing tower from Fukuoka Tower with cool 3-D floor art.

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Japan loves presentation of food.

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Night arrives in Hita, Kyushu island, with beautiful reflections.

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Summer Seafood, Spicy Chicken, Mountain Streams & Plenty of Pizza

It’s deep into the sticky Korean summer. High humidity and heavy heat keep us sweating in or out of the air/con. We begin with some lamb-chops. Dusted with rosemary seasoning and very juicy, a bottle of soju and some cold beers sooth jangled nerves.

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IMG_1687Jordyn and I went for a nice walk with Hershey in the forests of Chuncheon. We had the local specialty of dalkgalbi 닭갈비 which is spicy chicken with vegetables and rice cake. Pictured are the before and after, as well as the Hershey dog.

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The giant Lotte Tower, which will be the 5th tallest building upon completion, shines in the background of the local royal tombs/park.

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Selfie with Lotte Tower.

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A rare beach treat of a long summer weekend found us soaking in seafood and sun. We ate some wickedly delicious and pricy crab, and freshly grilled fish in the seaside village of Jumunjin 주문진. There was also some aquatic life that I didn’t recognize served. I tried most of it. It tasted as you’d expect–oceany.

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IMG_2024The Korean coast is so beautiful and wonderful. It’s rather unexploited as well. Luckily, the Korean fear of the ocean serves up barren beaches and a chill setting for relaxation. The lack of waves is always a bummer though. James, our Jim Carrey loving young man, adores the beach and plays in the sand and sea like a blissful seal pup.

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A random sushi meal’s mediocrity leaves us wishing for Japan.

IMG_1826This is the always crowded 묘형만두 (mandu/dumpling) restaurant in Guri. The Korean “pizza” (파전) was delightfully fried and the mandu soup was perfect and filled with clean meat and clear noodles.

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A brief visit to the dog cafe in Itaewon, where pups can socialize with their peers, left Hershey’s butt over-sniffed and a wallet under-served with a 7$ coffee. But, it’s worth it to watch how adept your dog is at socializing. In the back you can see the fun-size dogs who refused entry with their pint sized barks.

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Now for the pizza. At two different restaurants, I was able to find some pretty decently priced and acceptably satisfying pies in the Neapolitan style. The pasta Bolognese was also a warm comfort on a rainy afternoon.

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IMG_1865Finally, one Saturday, we happened to find a complete surprise in relaxation and coolness. Along a little mountain stream, we dined on spicy chicken and delicate duck soup. Beers in paper cups, chilly fresh water and plenty of floor sitting makes for an authentic Korean experience.

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IMG_2125Korea has plenty of simulation experiences. Flirtation bars with sexy, over-interested waitresses, singing rooms with alcohol delivery, and the awesome: screen golf. This particular screen golf is no screen, but in fact, more like a driving range with the ability to track your ball and a moving putting green. Don’t let the pro pose fool you, I’m 40 over par.

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IMG_3722Along the north-eastern parts of the Han River, where the pollution diminishes and the width widens, water sports are a popular summer activity. It was nice to test out the old wake-boarding skills, but I still miss the salty Jersey bay. Jordyn did great for her first time!

IMG_1830-COLLAGEIMG_1856Korean summer ends abruptly and promptly on August 31st every year. Despite the balmy September weather, the farmer’s almanac type belief in weather permeates Korean culture. Thus, the beaches become desolate with plenty of space for foreigners to prance about gleefully. Time for one last visit before the leaves fall. Annyeong!

Good Food in June

Summer is heating up, cold, crappy Korean beers are chilling and the spices are never lacking in Korea. Only one beach trip this month, but hopefully more to come. My overall consumption seems to wane in the summer, but my hunger for good eats never does. All the foods presented this month were pretty awesome. Let’s take a look!

First was a stop at a local Guri restaurant with constantly long weekend lines for the floor seating inside. We ate a big plate of fish, octopus and squid mixed among bean sprouts and spicy sauce, a delicate fish soup and some real nice 만두 dumplings as well as plenty of side dishes.

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It was time to get salty. Jordyn and I headed to the East Sea at Gangneung. We left Seoul in the early evening and caught a rice field sunset while driving the back roads. At the beach, the water was wicked cold but clean. We had a big meal of dried fish, tofu soup and rice wine 막걸리 for Saturday night, burgers for breakfast and a nice round of spicy ramen 라면 noodles by the beach before heading home.

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Selfie in the Gangneung city lights.

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15 - 15Two soups, both alike in dignity, in fair Korea, where I lay my spoon… The first is red and spicy, the second is cool and refreshing. Gukbap 국밥 is meat soup with bean sprouts and Naengmyeon 냉면 is chilled noodles with a slightly vinegary broth.

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15 - 16During the MERS scare, the lines at Korean theme parks thinned out, so we headed to a water park called Ocean World about 100km from Seoul. There are plenty of good slides and lots of people wearing lots of clothes while swimming. After making the kids wait for their dinner instead of snacking on overpriced theme park food, they were in a hangry mood by the time we got to the BBQ place, and I needed a beer. The wait was worth it! We sampled the chicken, pork and beef, and all were satisfied.

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15 - 19Before we got to the water park, we filled up on all-you-can-eat donkasu 도까스 at a little roadside eatery. The place was full of kitschy Americana artifacts and I ate 5 pieces of fried pork for about 9$.

15 - 18There was an art exhibit featuring Mark Rothko at the Seoul Arts Center (Hangaram), and his paintings are evocative via simplicity and powered by deep colors. Jordyn felt sad that his last painting before suicide was all red.

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IMG_1647Craving Mexican food in Korea is a struggle I understand too well here. Unless you can brave the 3 hour wait for Vatos, you’re forced into a generic world of poor Tex-Mex. Enter: On The Border, Korea’s chain restaurant for expensive burritos and imitation cheese. It fills but doesn’t satisfy the craving.

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15 - 22Anthony Bourdain recently popped by Korea to tape his Places Unknown special and raved about the next item. It’s called budaejiggae 부대찌개 and means “army soup.” During the Korean war, poverty was rampant except for the American army bases. Therefore, the food runoff of beans, ramen and cheap meat ran downhill into a big pot of kimchi. The Koreans cooked it and we have this delicious mess:

IMG_1262After walking the dogs in the rose garden, we stopped in for lunch on a hot Saturday at a little tofu shop in Guri, and had some rather bland noodles, frozen seafood soup and really fresh and tasty tofu.

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15 - 25Now, here is the dichotomy of a king’s meal vs. a student’s meal. The plethora of side dishes vs. rice cake and assorted fried things.

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15 - 30After a day swimming in the northern Han River, we ate some of the local river creatures–eel. It’s such a delicacy and a pleasingly different protein. Finished off by a rice bibimbap 비빔밥.

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15 - 34See you in July! Happy E.A.T.ing

Hiking Bukhansan Amid the MERS Scare

A few weeks ago, South Korea accidentally ran headfirst, like a drunken idiot into an unseen post, into MERS. Schools closed, hospitals prepped for the worst, residents freaked out; however, the three people who actually HAD the disease decided to take a flight to Hong Kong, go drinking at a pub or hit the golf course! The safety worries aside, I hopped on a subway and headed to Bukhansan: the world’s “most visited park per unit of area.” I hiked it once before about four years ago, but with 21 different trail heads, like the proverbial river, you can never step on the same rock twice. Due to the clouds, a slightly happy drizzle and the viral outbreak, the mountain was gloriously uncrowded, a treat in such a dense metropolis. I saw birds, chipmunks, a cat and a dog, monks, a giant gold Buddha, as well as the scenic cityscapes from 800m above the city. Sometimes, getting out alone with a heady mix of fresh air and tasty tunes is just the recipe for city ennui.

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15 - 5It’s a great hike, steep yet secure with a scattering of hermitages, sweet views and helpful signposts.

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15 - 18Finally, after about five hours on the mountain, with achy knees and a quaking stomach, I followed some other hikers to this noodle shop. The soup was boring, bland and bleached of color. But, at least it filled the hiker’s hollow hunger.

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