One of the things that has made living in Korea such an interesting journey is that it bears all the traits of a treasure hunt. When I first arrived in 2006, items like sour cream, cheddar cheese and chick peas were a rare find, not to mention expensive. As the food landscape broadened, many of us expats have focused on finding restaurants that do good western food. Who does the best taco? The most authentic Italian? Best brunch?
When talking about their favorites, I often heard the statement ‘it’s not like home, but it’s the closest thing.’ In the past year or so, however, I’ve started to hear more and more, ‘It’s awesome, even compared to home.’ With the western restaurants hitting a new plateau, restaurant owners have turned toward a new trend: fusion. Increasingly interesting dishes are popping up that offer an international twist on traditional Korean fare, or vice versa. Here are three stand out menu items that have got me looking forward to riding this new wave of creative cuisine.
Cheesy Kimchi Jun – Chun Tak, (KSU)
This is one of those places that, when I decided to write about it, a little voice in my head told me not to…simply because it’s already such a popular spot with both students and expats and, selfishly, I don’t want it to get too crowded. In a stroke of genius, Lee Sung-jae, fondly known by Chun Tak’s regulars as ‘Tony,’ took kimchi pancakes to the next level by smothering them in melted Mozzarella cheese. The result is akin to kimchi pizza, and a perfect companion to the cheap, whopping bowls of steamed mussels and magkeolli on offer. Expect a short wait at peak times and don’t go alone. Last time I ate a cheesy kimchi jun on my own I left feeling like a dwae-jee.
Getting there: Kyungsung/Pukyoung University Subway (Green Line 212), exit 5, walk straight until you pass Burger King. First left after Burger King, Chun Tak is on the next corner on the left.
Bibim Mandu – Kimbap Cheonguk,Jungdong (Haeundae)
Never did I imagine that I’d feature Kimbap Heaven in one of my articles. Don’t get me wrongâthe K.C. has been a staple for me, and the fact that each one is independently-owned does vary the shop-to-shop experience. That said, it’s rare that a new never-before-seen menu item appears. I don’t know how widespread this new dish is, but I’ve heard reports of it popping up on a few K.C. menus around town. There’s nothing particularly new or exciting in terms of flavor about the Bibim Manduâit’s more about the experience. Modeled after the Vietnamese D.I.Y. rolls, bibim mandu is simply a plate of fried dumpling wrappers served with a mountain of shredded vegetables in spicy gochujang (red pepper paste). Perhaps the best thing about it is that there is finally a vegetarian option for dumpling lovers.
Getting there: Just outside Jungdong (Green Line 202) exit 5 on the ground floor of the Young Poong Regency Building.
Kimchi Bulgogi Cheese Fries – Fair Mouth (Seomyeon)
Finally! Just what I’ve been waiting for! A restaurant with a dental theme! All joking aside, this kitschy Seomyeon haunt came highly recommended by my good friend, fellow foodie and Haps fashion writer, Christy Swain. Though most of the dishes (such as the delicious Miso Gorgonzola Quesadilla) on the limited menu are actually Japanese-Mexican fusion, the standout has origins in neither country. The ‘Fair Mouth Fries’, topped with thin slices of beef, diced kimchi and shredded cheddar cheese, are a party in your mouth. All of the foods I’ve tasted at Fair Mouth have offered truly unique flavor combinations. However, I’d steer clear of the ‘fusion’ beers, which were simply crappy beer with cherry or coffee syrup.
Getting there: A little tricky to find. Seomyeon exit 2 (Judie’s Taewha). Pass Judie’s and continue down the street until you see H&M. First left past H&M, all the way down on left side. Look for the mouth logo and dentist’s chair.
Photos by Jen Sotham