The US military has maintained a presence upon the South Korean peninsula since the “end” of the Korean War in 1953. The old base in central Seoul, surrounding the foreigner friendly area of Itaewon, has been in a process of moving 70km south to Pyeongtaek. The small village of Anjeong-ri is adjacent to the massive and growing Camp Humphrey’s. There are a few restaurants and bars there to serve the almost 30,000 troops who might need a night off base.
We went to eat a late brunch at the South African Braai Republic. It’s a larger version than the one in Itaewon, and they have amazing ribs and smokey roasted chicken on this menu. The ribs are simply spectacular and worth the hour drive from Seoul. Tangy sauce with tender meat; the smoked chicken is a bit dry but full of flavor. The lamb meat pie is perfect comfort food. It’s got a crunchy, well cooked crust with flavorful meat and gravy that goes well with the spinach. I wasn’t a huge fan of the pickled green beans. There are five or six beers on tap ranging from fruity watermelon to a tasty dark porter.
Always craving a good batch of salty tortilla chips, we stopped into La Mesa. It’s a large restaurant with plenty of Mexican offerings. Each meat has a nice distinctive flavor, the sauce on the chicken enchilada was excellent, and the al pastor chimichanga was fried just right. I was extremely disappointed that the queso was simply warmed up cheese whiz. That’s the kind of thing that will get you exiled in Texas.
I was a happy dude after this full day of eating. Pyeongtaek will only get better as the transition continues. We got corralled into this small bar which seems to be for old vets who’ve lived on the bases of Japan and Korea. The old dudes there were real keen on telling me how I should open up a good Southern cooking restaurant, as it was sorely lacking there. Old Walt said, “You got your ribs, your black eyed peas, your okra, and that’s all you need. Add some good cornbread and that’s your place.” I gotta admit Walt, it does sound good.
I love film festivals. It’s a bunch of movie geeks come to experience or exhibit new and exciting films. South by Southwest in Austin used to have a pretty good selection and I’d go and try to predict which short films would be in the Oscars race that year. It was always the short films that interested me because of the animated experimentation factor and intense details needed to tell a story in less than ten minutes.
My stepson, James, and I headed down on the 50 minute flight from Seoul…
early on Saturday morning, checked into the little hotel and headed right to the beach for a seaside lunch.
We were on a burger mission and stopped at Sharky’s. The food was overpriced and pretty poor. Taquitos, frozen and overfried; burgers, dry bun, frozen and tasteless; beer, cold and delicious. The view was nice though.
We hustled over to the theater at Centum City where the Shinsegae Mall is located. Of course, all the movies of the day had been sold out for hours. We had no choice but to head to the fancy, amazing sauna inside the mall called SpaLand.
You pay about 16$ for four hour access to the dozens of hot rooms, hot pools, massage chairs and napping friendly recliners. Check here for a view into the Korea sauna. I was too busy enjoying myself to go back to the locker room and get my phone to take pictures. It’s the best one I’ve ever seen, not too crowded, clean and very relaxing.
We headed to Gwangalli Beach for our dinner burger at HQ Bar. Watching Liverpool and Man United fight to a 0-0 draw, we enjoyed these burgers much more, played some Connect Four and heard some kind of K-Pop girl group sing out the window.
Next day, Sunday, the movie I wanted to see, Hochelaga, a film about the history of Montreal and the natives who lived there when Jacques Cartier arrived with his band of religious zealots ready to Christianize the world. We arrived early for the 10 a.m. showtime and got tickets. A confusing movie for a fourteen year old unfamiliar with Canadian history, but good nevertheless. Burgered out, we grabbed a huge fish lunch by the ocean in the Jagalchi market. Perfect rainy day lunch with a cold Coke.
We walked off the fish playing in the rocking bowling alley, then wasted some time taking funny pictures in Busan’s Trick Eye Museum. It’s 10$ to take inappropriate or goofy photos, little pricey, but fun.
Off to the video arcade for some VR and games.
We grabbed a pizza and popped back to the subway headed for the airport.
We were buying some dog food from an outlet store in Seoul’s distant suburbs and stopped into a cute dog cafe. This one had it all:
A ball play area.
A bathing station with blow drying box (on the bottom left).
A pool with diving board.
Food and drinks for the owners of the pups. It was a mixed meat grill, but definitely no dog on this menu!
At nighttime, the lights came on and the dogs mostly just sniffed around after their initial excitement upon arriving.
It’s an exceptional place to hang if you have a four legged friend who needs to stretch their legs or take a swim. The food is pretty good and the environment is relaxed.
After the dog party, we had a noraebang (karaoke) party at Junco, a place that is more expensive than other singing rooms because they have food available–we ate some fried nibblers, ramen and seaweed soup. Jordyn sang in Japanese and I did my best version of Proud Mary.
It used to be a drunken nighttime playground for the thousands of Americans stationed on the nearby Yongsan Army base. As that base and its inhabitants have been slowly migrating 50 miles south to Pyeongtaek, the debauchery and rowdiness of Itaewon has followed the tanks and humvees. What’s left is a plethora of outstanding restaurants, bars, people watching and shopping. The American influence is still strong, but this part of town is distinctly more diverse than almost anywhere in Korea. My two favorites places to dine here–Taj Palace, which is the best Indian buffet in town and Vatoswith their succulent fish tacos have some new competition.
First is Canuck’s, a charmingly Canadian place classically decorated by hockey jerseys, big screens for sports, signed photos of famous Canadian celebs and Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Then, the food is excellently comfortable. We got the maple bacon burger, original and duck meat poutine, chicken wings and the stuffed chicken breast. Everything priced to feast. The regular style poutine was my favorite and the chicken wings were perfectly crisp and spicy.
I made a quick stop with a friend at Itaewon the Burger, with their straightforward menu of massive burgers, beers and baskets of fries. Hits the spot and was tasty all around, but the bacon wasn’t crispy enough for perfection.
As a Philadelphia kid, and former cheesesteak chef, I have a soft spot in my heart for a long bun filled with chopped ribeye, grilled onions and melted cheese–the Philadelphia Cheesesteak. It’s the staple of any presidential visit to the city, Eagles/Sixers/Flyers/Phillies post victory (or loss) party or basically any gathering of one or more people. Outside of Philadelphia, you’re apt to eat a steak sandwich which could be anything. As I learned in Australia when I was served a strip steak between two pieces of toasted wheat bread. Luckily, Rye Postdoes this one right!
When Jordyn and I were in D.C. we ate at Chopt, the make your own salad extravaganza. What a Salad is a similar concept, with a few signatures of their own. We ordered the Cobb and Salmon. They both look the same, and taste great with the creamy avocado balanced by either diced chicken and egg or salmon and olives. The price 12,000 – 14,000 won is not forgiving for the dainty little appetizer size of the salad.
Just as an added bonus, here’s a big pepperoni pizza from Pizza Iconic in Jamsil Area.
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.
The next morning was bright and sunny, a perfect day for a naked scrub;)
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.
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.
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.
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.
It was getting dark and colder, and that means soju time with BBQ’d shell meat.
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.
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.
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.
It was a wonderful jaunt into the country to get ready for 2017.
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.
We were headed to Chinatown.
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.
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$.
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.
Finally, we ended the day by escaping the freezing cold and relaxing in a beautiful and clean sauna.
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.
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.
We came across a standing Buddha in the hills.
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.
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.
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.
After the hike comes Korean rice wine and pancakes made of green mountain vegetables. We ate under the road in a red lit underpass.
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.
Where the north and south rivers meet to create Seoul’s massive Han River there is a small island called Joan-myeon where the ferry captains used to live. There is a relaxing river walk and some outdoor activities, plus croaking frogs in the cool fall evenings.
We only took a short stroll before I spotted a tiny burger place called Ssom. It was a nice surprise with handmade patties and bread.
We walked until dusk before stopping into popular tofu house. We ordered a wet tofu soup, and aged kimchi with fried tofu. There was a nice sweet Korean liqueur to match the blandness of the tofu and the sour aged kimchi.
Driving out to a place deep in Seoul’s countryside, there was a small restaurant nestled among the browning rice fields of fall, that served wonderful Korean beef and traditional soy bean soup. It’s always a pleasant surprise when the kimchi is handmade and possessing its own special “touch.” The sun was setting and the last mosquitoes of summer buzzed about in the fragrant mountain air.
Bonus meal: One late night in summer, I finally found a Korean beef rib soup that wasn’t chewy. The meat fell off the bone with a fantastic broth. It’s called 수갈비탕 in Guri.
A family trip to America for my sister, Elianne’s, wedding. We started off positive with this big pre-flight meal at the Chinese restaurant at Incheon Airport: spicy chicken, spicy seafood soup, soybean noodles, dim sum, glass noodles, fried shrimp and dumplings.
We were delayed 12 hours from Incheon, waited an inexplicable and befuddling two hours for our rental car at the never to be recommended JFK Budget rent-a-car, drove the dark, empty NJ Turnpike and grabbed a delicious WaWa hoagie at 2 a.m. before we could finally get a quick shower, conk out and enjoy the week together.
The stress of travel behind us, we started with the rehearsal dinner Friday night, the ceremony and party Saturday and hangover brunch on Sunday. Everything moved quickly, with lots of introductions, dancing and laughing. My littlest sister married to a great guy and newest member of the family, Brian.
My oldest friends from high school came over so we could lovingly insult each other and give plenty of bro hugs while tossing the pigskin.
The next morning after an impromptu four wheeler ride from our generous neighbors, we packed up for the shore (but not before stopping at King of Prussia mall for a quick shop and burger at Five Guys).
It was July 4th and the requisite beer, burgers and dogs were a welcome treat. The fireworks went off later under a foggy sky while Jordan and I sat alone on the misty beach.
The crab traps pulled in, the sky an ominous wave of dark, but the view will eventually get you the amazing sunset you crave. Avalon, NJ is a magical place.
In the morning, we stopped into Uncle Bill’s Pancake House, a local favorite for decades. Jordan got the Hollandaise special, and I opted for a little scrapple, hash browns and eggs.
It’s foolish to go to New Jersey without sampling some pizza. One of my favorites is Mackrone’s pizza, a family business and staple of South Jersey. We ordered the “Rio Grande” which had everything. It was outstanding, comparable to any of the great pies in the country. The sauce is the stand-out, but add in quality ingredients and soft dough, brilliant. We finished it off with little Italian Water Ice from the arcade.
In Wildwood, we ate at the delightful Harbor View Restaurant during the brilliantly backdropped sunset. The food wasn’t showstopping, but it matched the scenery well.
After dinner, the boardwalk was calling our names, or maybe it was just telling us to, “WATCH the Tramcar please!” James and I rode the greatest ride I’ve ever done. The 160 foot high Skyscraper. It is a feeling of pure terror, needing to be ridden to understand. We also ate some frozen custard and saw the future of our presidency presented in a standardly embarrassing and over-the-top manner. Enjoy the distinctly combative ‘Murica t-shirt selection.
Avalon beaches are amazing. The sand is soft and the water is cold.
We went back to Wildwood, to the The Crab House. We are always unable to settle on one thing, so I ordered the sampler, and Jordan got the high end version. This place was excellent. The fried shrimp was coated with a mixture of hot sauce and Thai chili, which was a perfect mix. Drinking Corona outside, on a picnic bench, with my lady beside me and talking with the family about this and that, it was a wonderful finish to our beach days.
Jordan, James and I left early, driving up the Garden State Parkway New York bound. We had one night in The Plaza Hotel before driving to JFK and flying home to Seoul. It’s a chandelier type environment, the way I imagine early 20th century opulence. They’ve redone it and added enough hip young employees to attract various clientele. The lobby was full of monied people moving slowly the way only rich people can. The room was beautiful, huge bed, bathroom sparkling and the robe was thick and heavy. I felt important in my gold lace robe, laying legs splayed watching SportCenter on my king bed. I bought a new laptop at the Fifth Avenue Apple Store, which was literally buzzing with excitement. We walked through Central Park, then napped a bit in our lovely suite. Dinner was at Rue 57, affordable and didn’t disappoint (except the lighting was too sexy for good pictures). Dining on delicious Kobe meatloaf, chicken scaloppine, crunchy truffle fries with a delightful bottle of California white before we headed up the midnight elevator to the 86th floor of the Empire State Building.
At the airport in the morning, we only had time for a greasy McDonald’s burger, a fitting, but depressing final meal in America. We did agree McD’s is better in America though. Ciao for now!