Photo of the day: Budae Jjigae @ Simpson Tang. Photo credit: Aaron.
Today we are going to explore Hongdae! This is the area around the Hongik University that is great for shopping and hanging out with younger locals. As soon as we got out of the subway station, we saw a long line-up for something. It was quite impressive and went on for quite a few blocks. Aware of the craze of k-pop culture, I assumed it was for some celebrity event. Aaron’s saw someone in a red shirt with “tourist information” on it and asked what the line up was for. My assumption was confirmed and it appears they are handing out little stuffies of this local boy band. That was not the only line up we saw that day.
For lunch, we went to Simpson Tang, a restaurant specializing in Budae Jjigae (army base stew), one of my favourite Korean dishes. Foursquare and Google reviews is not too useful for finding good restaurants here, so I found this place on a trazy.com. Apparently this place is owned by a Korean singer Hwangbo and the television set in the restaurant was her eating Budae Jjigae. The wall had several signatures posted up, which I assumed was of famous celebrities who visited this restaurant. We ordered 2 people’s servings of the original stew and it came with rice as well. I assumed there was instant noodles included but apparently there was none in the stew so I had to order extra! The stew is not complete without it! On each table was a gas burner and then a huge pot would be brought over with the stew. After around 15 minutes, you can dig in! There was raw garlic and butter found on the side of our table. They also provided a mincer, so curious Aaron minced some garlic into the stew. The ingredients of the stew were quite typical of Budae Jjigae, consisting of sausages, spam, cabbage and slices of processed cheese on top. This was supposedly a stew eaten after the war, when food sources was scarce, where they made a stew out of the simple left over American ingredients. With such ingredients, you can really not go wrong with taste. It’s just such a great comfort meal. Aaron later wanted to experiment with the butter too and just added a little bit to the stew which pushed it over the edge for me. The whole stew tasted like butter. Yes, it is possible to have a little too much butter. Overall, it was a good meal from a specialized restaurant, although it just did not give me the same mind-blowing effect as the first time I had it in Vancouver. This was Aaron’s first time eating it and he loved it.
After lunch, we just did some work at a coffee shop called Coffee Be and Aaron stayed there for a while, so I went out exploring on my own and did some shopping in the area. The prices here were supposed to be lower than the prices in Myeongdong to cater to the more money-conscious university students. Looking around, the fashion scene here is very uniform. The female here wore short skirts with beige or black tights, either with sneakers or black heels; or a looser fitting sweatshirt with jeans and sneakers. They all had super fair foundation on with a bright red lip. There were multiple branches of the same cosmetic stores and they all had some sale going on. A lot of the stores here, whether it be cosmetic or clothing stores, had a tax refund sign meaning you could get some of the VAT refunded if you spent 30,000 KRW or more. It was a great way to get people to buy more at their store to reach that threshold. Some of these stores were packed, mostly of young ladies trying to get the newest skin care product or the hottest newest shade of lip tint. I am definitely not a girly girl but it did take a lot of self-control to prevent myself from buying everything in this lively shopping environment. The funniest part was when I tried on a cc cream on the back of my hand and I kept rubbing and rubbing but it just wouldn’t blend! To be fair, I probably put too much but again, it was also probably 10 shades lighter than my sun-kissed skin. The sales person who was watching this was probably trying hard not to burst out laughing at this ridiculous scene.
It was Saturday, so the streets are pretty lively with street performances everywhere ranging from k-pop dance groups to solo/duet singers, some with huge crowds around them. I was quite impressed with the level of talent of these performers. There were some street food stalls here and there but nothing compared to Myeongdong.
Aaron was craving some Bulgogi and found a place specializing in it on another travel blog. It was getting really chilly, so we decided to take the subway for one stop. Let me digress and talk about the Korean subway system for a bit. I am not only very impressed by their extensive network but the facilities available. There is usually an underground shopping mall attached for you to do some shopping. You can expect to find washrooms (clean too!), nursing rooms and lockers as well. I especially love that there are clean washrooms because that is one of my fears when travelling – not knowing when I will have access to a bathroom in case of emergencies. Aaron also noticed there were repeaters throughout the station, so you will not have problems with reception.
It hasn’t been the most straightforward to find points of interest here since Google Maps does not really work here and our Korean character reading skills are as good as our Thai reading skills. We eventually found the restaurant (옛맛서울불고기) and ended up walking through the back entrance because we did not know any better. The place was crowded but we clued in that we needed to take a number and just wait. Again, the wait was not terrible as most people were finishing up their meals. Looking around, I think we were the only foreigners there. We were given a large plastic bag to stuff our jackets and belongings in and just placed it on the floor. There was no menu, so we just asked for Bulgogi for 2 people and a bottle of soju using hand gestures and single words. Then we just sat back and let the magic happen. First a man came over to put down the charcoal base. Then a lady came by and dropped off all our side dishes and raw goods (beef, glass noodles and veggies, such as enoki mushrooms, oyster mushrooms, green onion, and sweet onion). Before leaving, she helped us place a hefty serving of beef onto the grill and some onion in the ring around the grill filled with broth. There was so much on the table we did not know where to start. There were normal side dishes like marinated daikon and kimchi but were in huge pieces we had to cut with scissors. Then there were 2 soup-like mixtures. One was like kimchi water and another was green onion water. We also had some lettuce to wrap our meet, the fermented bean paste and the ubiquitous Korean chilli sauce. Our beef cooked in no time and we got our first taste. It was less saucy than the Bulgogi we’ve had in Canada but the taste is more complex, with the different marinade soaked into the beef, the onions overlying the beef and the charcoal flare. We experimented dipping it in various pastes, and soups and wrapping it up with lettuce. It was really fun. I also really enjoyed the enoki mushrooms, which I usually do not like. We think it was because it was soaked in the delicious broth placed on the ring around the grill. This was our first soju on this trip and I haven’t had much soju in the past. It’s been described to be like Korean vodka but less strong. It was actually very sweet and easy to drink – much better than straight up vodka. We subway’d home feeling pretty good with our food finds so far on this trip!