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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Itaewon EATs~ Canuck’s, Itaewon The Burger, Rye Post & What a Salad

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 Vatos with 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.

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IMG_5217Then, 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.

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IMG_5214I 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.

IMG_5480As 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 Post does this one right!

IMG_5484When 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.

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IMG_5481Just as an added bonus, here’s a big pepperoni pizza from Pizza Iconic in Jamsil Area.

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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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Tofu at the River and Beef in the Country

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sokcho ~ Seaside Beauty

Descending the winding roads, ears popping, the blue sea comes into view after a long tunnel through Korea’s highest mountain, Seoraksan. The precipitous Dragon Ridge is visible to your right among the scattered foliage, and beyond the road’s horizon, a small town spreads out before you, Sokcho. It’s 180 km directly east of Seoul, but can take up to eight hours to get there if you’re one of the unfortunate souls to leave during rush hour on a Korean holiday. We had a normal four hour trek behind us now, and the ocean was almost within reach.

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Dragon Ridge

We brought the dogs, and they require stops. It’s nice to check out the scenery and stretch, so they provide the excuse. One of my favorite roadside snacks is fried baby potatoes with a strong coffee.

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Rest stop vista.

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First stop was a dip in the frigid May waters. I was the only one without a shirt, and the only one in the water beyond the brave girls soaking their sandals. Next, we went to eat a big dinner to celebrate.

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We drank some flavored soju, ate squidcakes, (squid circles, crabcake style) a cold, raw fish and turnip appetizer plus a spicy soup of various shells.

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There is a famous (like way overly famous for the quality) fried chicken establishment in Sokcho, called Man Seok. You get a box of breasts, thighs and the strange bits fried and dipped in a savory sauce. It’s okay, but confusing how they bamboozled everyone to think it’s worth carting all the back to Seoul. I’ve never eaten it without getting heartburn. Yet, somehow, I’m always happy to get it. We ate picnic style in the park with the cool breezes of the bay.

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Later, we popped in for a early dinner before leaving. Jordan wanted me to try sea urchin, but didn’t tell me what I was eating, just to “Trust me.” It tasted like the ocean went bad. Perhaps there are good urchins, but I found the Ursula of urchins. It was powerfully funky and overwhelmed the mouth with sea flavor. (The urchin is that brown lump in the middle of the bibimbap bowl.) Luckily, we ordered some cold noodles to balance it out.

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We walked off the sour stomach in the cooling air of evening to let the dogs relieve themselves before jumping back in the car for the quiet dusky drive to Seoul.

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The next weekend, we went back with James and his friend. The weather didn’t cooperate, but that didn’t stop the two teenagers from swimming under the cool clouds until their lips turned purple. We ate ramen noodles and peanuts for lunch, to save up our appetites for the clam bake at night. It was worth it. Fire-roasted abalone, scallops, clams and kimchi made for a great meal.

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James and Sam

We left the next day after a hefty meat BBQ, and stopped a few hours later at a large Korean rest stop. I thought it might be interesting to show some of the food they sell to travel-weary traffic warriors.

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Do Hwa ~ Chinese Comfort Food

There are over 41,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S. There are 36,525 McDonald’s in the whole world! Despite that imbalance of General Tso to Ronald McDonald, I didn’t eat Chinese food until I was 17 and dining out with a friends’ family. The shock registering on their faces when I informed them that I’d never indulged in Szechuan cooking was akin to telling a Deadhead you thought Jerry Garcia was “that ice cream guy.” They went through the 5 stages of grief upon hearing the news: “No, never? How could you never have eaten it? Are you sure? That’s so sad. We’ll order you something nice.”

I liked it, and have always thought the same thing afterwards: saucy, too much rice, and the chicken pieces seem cobbled and held together with the thick fried skin. I grew to enjoy American Chinese food more and more, and found the cool guy joints like P.F. Changs to be very satisfying despite the cultural morass it created by offering Korean, Chinese, Singaporean and Cantonese style chicken.

So, in Korea, I was expecting to have a nice meal of authentic Chinese food due to the close historical ties of the two countries. I had eaten at one Chinese place that was awesome. This was a high backed chair, cloth napkin place, with lots of cool Chinese art on the walls with a golden dragon protecting the entrance. We ordered the the middle priced set menu which had a nice mix of everything.

First we started with the Chinese fire water and a saucy vegetable seafood dish.

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This is a thin sliced pork salad with peppers.

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These are giant fried shrimp in a sweet n sour sauce.

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My least favorite dish was the mixed mushroom and scallops

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Here is the classic sweet and sour pork (with a cherry on top).

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Last, we had a big beautiful noodle soup with a squishy bread to dip.

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Everything was well cooked and tasted fresh, and we had no rice!

 

 

Conveyor Belt Dining at Sushi Hiroba ~ Seoul

In the posh backyards of Gangnam, there are probably hundreds of Japanese restaurants. We like this one with colored plates designating the price of the fish rotating on a conveyor belt. For the more expensive cuts, we order a fresh piece from the chefs. It’s a cool experience for people who don’t know exactly what they want when confronted by the Japanese menu symbols or even just what kind of raw fish they might want beyond the classic tuna and salmon. It’s not a place to show off sashimi knowledge as the plates offered are limited, but it satisfies the fresh fish craving yet doesn’t scare away a beginner. The plates range from 2$-25$. Most of the good stuff is around 4-10$ per plate. It’s a nice place, but your table can get overwhelmed quickly when you’re hungry.

“Oh, that looks good.”

“Grab it before it passes!”

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Tuna belly, just an outstanding mouth moment of tenderness.

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Salmon, soft and light.

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Two white fish, maybe mackerel, maybe sea bass, not sure.

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Eel roll, roe on top, crunchy inside, nice.

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This was some kind of salmon mash inside a crunchy fried egg rice outside.

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Potato croquettes, palate cleanser, comfort food.

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I didn’t eat this, but couldn’t imagine why someone would need only the fish head.

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Da Farci ~ Classical Italian Trattoria in Sincheon

On the quiet streets near my apartment, I pass numerous buildings during my thrice daily dog walks. One day, I glanced up from my perambulatory stupor and spotted the words “Trattoria.” Two days later, I was ordering up a few dishes and feeling very satisfied. The proprietors are an Italian chef from Sardinia and his loquacious wife from Korea. The food feels full of energy and prepared with an attention to detail. I loved having real basil (if sparingly) on my Caprese salad, and Roman Holiday  playing on repeat on the wall was a nice touch.

We started with the Caprese, and the tomatoes were crispy and fresh. The Milanese risotto and pesto linguine came out together, both pairing well with the crunchy bread to soak up the plate residue. Finally, ending with a real, homemade egg pasta lasagna is always a good idea. We were enjoying conversation with the owner and she forgot to give us our complimentary espresso, but our stomachs were full anyway.

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Here’s the only place I found with a map if you want to try it.

https://foursquare.com/v/%EB%8B%A4-%ED%8C%8C%EB%A5%B4%EC%B9%98-da-farci/54abcf1c498e8d5ab3ca6155