Friday, November 28, 2014

The Best Thai Restaurants in Seoul

I love Thai food, real Thai food. Yes, I have been spoiled by my visits to Thailand because I know what real Thai food tastes like. Plus, I worked in an Asian restaurant run by a my Thai friend Winston Chinupakat. Winston!

When I eat Thai, I want the harmony of sour, spicy, herbs and pungency. I want Pad Thai noodles that taste light with a hints tamarind, lime, fish sauce and peanut. This is usually not the case in Korea. When my pad Thai tastes like sweet peanut butter noodles, I put down my fork and ask for the bill. I know that complaining in Korea won't solve anything because they will tell me that is how their "Korean clients" like it.

Koreans like fake Thai food? I don't agree. Thai food has become high-end cuisine in Korea and there are a number of fancy places perfect for the date-set crowds. There are also some hole-in-the wall places that are just as good. In the past Itaewon was the place to go and the famous place was Thai Orchid before it became Thai Garden.

These were the restaurants that started the trend but due to ownership disputes, drama, and trying to placate their Korean customers; quality has dropped tremendously. I don't even go there anymore.

Buddha's Belly has been around for a while but other than the interior I have never been impressed with the food. My Thai in Itaewon is terrible and I am not a fan of any restaurant that Hong Suk-chun does (great interiors but not much else).

So...as of June 2014 where should you go for Thai food? Here are my recommendations.

1. Tuk Tuk (best overall but could use a bit of refinement). Location: Yeonnamdong, Hongdae.
2. Wang Thai (classy and the only Thai I would recommend in Itaewon). Location Itaewon.
3. Yum Thai (long history but has lost some spice)
4. Kaolli Pochana ( for a down-home and dirty atmosphere but with a higher price)
5. Bann Thai (but only for the Pad Thai and the fried rice.)
6. Saint Augustine (classy and expensive for those on a date). Location: City Hall, Sinsa Station, and Seorae Village.

Tuk Tuk is the newest out of the group and I think that is why I think the flavor out of their place is most pure. I think it is because the Thai chefs (I counted 2 there) haven't been told over and over again about what Koreans like and dislike. They keep it real. Their flavors are bright, sour and pungent yet light like really good Thai should be. Of course it isn't as good as in their homeland but they try to hack it, so it is close. Their Pad Thai is my favorite out of the group here. They also have excellent wokked morning glory greens (plain or with crispy pork belly.) They have excellent Thai Fried Chicken as well. In the Hongdae area there are two fried chicken only restaurants. Overall I love the place but I thought their basil beef needs more basil. The quantities are generous here which is also a plus. And keeping it real, they use fragrant Jasmine rice here.
Tuk Tuk Noodle Thai
Phone: 070. 4407. 5130
Address: 227-37 Yeonnam-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea
http://blog.naver.com/tuktuknoodle

I think that Wang Thai is second best for their quality of ingredients, service, and interior. It is the fanciest out of the group, yet a tad dated. I like their curries and the fried rice there. I recall their red curry duck being quite good as well. They do have Thai favorites like Thai iced tea and mango and sticky rice.

Wang Thai (주)왕타이
Korea Address: Yongsan-gu Itaewon-dong 176-2 2nd Floor
Phone 02-749-2746‎
서울특별시 용산구 이태원동 176-2
Old review http://www.seouleats.com/mango-and-sticky-rice-at-wang-thai-in-itaewon/

I think Yum Thai and Kkaoplipochana are both similar. They have a gutter, street-cart sort of feel and both have good food that can hit and miss. I think both are overpriced for what they are but, generally, the food is flavorful. I think Kkaoplipochana's Pad Thai is pretty decent but I think their curries lack spice and coconut flavor. Yum Thai was my defacto place for years but it can be inconsistent. I will have a great meal followed by an ok one. Oh, and the tom yum gong noodle dish at Yum Thai should be avoided. It is an unpleasant mashup of Thai and Vietnamese. (This also goes for Bann Thai as well.)

Yum Thai Phone: 02. 594. 7988.
Address: 5-4, Nonhyeon-dong, Gangnam district, Seoul

Kkaoplipochana (เกาหลีโภชนา)
Phone: 010. 6314. 7930 Address: 706, Itaewon2-dong, Yongsan district, Seoul

Bann Thai and Saint Augustine are pretty, Korean-date-crowd and girls'-night friendly places that do things alright for the most part. Bann Thai has great pad Thai and fried rice but the curries are overpriced and don't seem to be made with the best ingredients. It seems too 'out of a package’ which I can easily do at home. Saint Augustine, overall does things well, but they have started to lack soul in their food. The stir-fries and seafood platters come out big and have spice but are a tad sweet and lacks bold Thai flavors.

Bann Thai
Jongno-gu Jaedong 94-1 2nd Floor 110-250
02-747-6655

Saint Augustine
Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea, 61-1 Mugyo-dong At Seoul Finance Center by City hall. Other locations in Apgujeong, Garusugil and Seorae Maul Previous review: http://www.seouleats.com/review-saint-augustin-stylish-asian-cusine/ http://m.google.com/u/m/x6WIwj (at 서울파이낸스센터 (Seoul Finance Center))

Food Story: Korean Soondubu

My First Soondubu

When I lived in Gyeongju, one of my good friends Jikyung wanted to introduce me to the best restaurants in the city. She was fiercely proud of her hometown. She is a food connoisseur and thought that life was too short to eat bad food. One of the first places she took me to was at a famous soondubu place in Gyeongju’s Bomun lake resort area. This restaurant, Metdol Soondubu, was a landmark restaurant and it always had at least a 30 minute wait for a table. Jikyung assured me that it was worth it. The inside was quaint with wooden floor tables all around and the interior was a Korean hanok (traditional) style. The table was empty except for some container with some sauce and there was a little bowl of brown shelled eggs. Jikyung and I had a busy day hiking so I was a tad peckish. Jikyung had gone to the bathroom. So I thought, “ok, these hard-boiled eggs must be the appetizer.” I took one of the eggs cracked it on the table and I discovered the egg was raw. This egg started to ooze over my hands and then over the table, it was dripping through the wooden cracks and onto my feet below it. It was gross and I was trying to get tissues to clean up the egg and find a trashcan to put it in. As I had this huge mess before me, Jikyung and the waitress came. Both of them must have thought I was mentally handicapped. What I didn’t know then, but I know now, is that I was supposed to add the egg to the bubbling broth. The creaminess of the tofu and the egg yolk calmed the spiciness of the chili broth.

Metdol Sundubu Shikdang
Gyeongsangbukdo, Gyeongju Bukgungdong 229-1

What is Soondubu

For those unfamiliar with soondubu, it is uncurdled and unpressed tofu in a stew. It is similar to silken tofu. The classic dish is just plain tofu boiled in broth. This is called chodang sundubu. The popular version of this dish is a seafood soondubu (haemul soondubu). In this version, first a chili oil is made and then a seafood broth, seafood such as clams and shrimp, garlic and blocks of silken tofu are added. As the dish is bubbling, a whole egg is dropped and the dish is immediately served. It is a classic dish that is a staple meal that can be found at most Korean restaurants. However, the best places for these dishes are where they make the tofu fresh. These artisan tofu places place special emphasis on sourcing the best soy beans and to use seawater to curdle the tofu. 

The Origin City

The word soondubu translates to “pure tofu” and the famous city for tofu is on the east coast city of Gangneung in Gwangwondo. Here they have a village Here the tofu is curdled using fresh sea water instead of a salt brine. This was discovered by Chodang Heoyeop who was the magistrate of Gangeung City. He loved the taste of the local water from the spring in his yard so he decided to combine that with the local sea water to make the tofu. This combination of the local spring water and sea water created a pure tasting, fresh style of tofu that the area is famous for. The tofu here is not in whole silky blocks like you can get in the stores, instead it is crumbly like cottage cheese. In Gangneung City, the dish is served hot with a seasoned soy sauce. But it is also boiled with sour kimchi and seafood such as oysters and clams. In the tofu village of Gangneung there are restaurants that claim to have a 400 year history of making the tofu in the same traditional style.

Recommended Restaurants in Gangeung

400 Year House: Chodang Sundubu
Gangwondo Gangneung Eunjeongdong 256-3

Gohyangsanchon Chodang Sundubu
Gangwondo Gangeung Nanseolheonro 219bonji 34

Popularity Overseas

Soondubu is a food that is requested by my guests when they come on our private food tours. This is surprising since I thought non-Koreans are familiar with dishes like Korean barbecue and bibimbap. I have learned through my guests that Soondubu is a popular among young people after clubbing in Los Angeles and in New York City. This “international” version most guests are familiar overseas uses the packaged blocks of silky tofu and not the fresh made version in Korea. “J.K.” says on his Yelp review of BCD Tofu House in New York City, “Their spicy soup and tofu can’t taste any better after hours of clubbing and drinking.” “David Y.” wrote “A favorite spot to detox after a night out clubbing.” on his Yelp review of Tofu House in Los Angeles. “Jay K. wrote on her review of “Naru” in London, “The soondubu was unexpectedly rich…in flavor, which was great.” It looks like Soondubu is becoming as popular as barbecue and bibimbap overseas.

When I asked a food tour guest, Adrienne of Colorado, why she really liked Soondubu, she said, “It’s great because the tofu is so creamy like cheese and the restaurants have different varieties like bulgogi, sausage, or cheese soondubu. Plus there are some people in the group that are vegetarian so soondubu is a great option for everyone.”

Tofu House
928 S. Western Ave
Ste 139
Los Angeles, CA 90006
United States of America

BCD Tofu House
17 W 32nd St
New York, NY 10001
United States of America

Naru
230 Shaftsbury Avenue
London WC2H 8EG
United Kingdom
Covent Garden

Not to be outdone, you can find a number of great soondubu restaurants in Seoul. Here are some of my favorite places in Korea.

Cheongdam Soondubu
Seoul, Gangnam-gu Sinsadong 666-17

Jaedong Soondubu
Seoul, Jongno-gu Jaedong 84-11

Because Soondubu is versatile, flavorful, and unique; I feel that this is one dish that can become one of the representative foods of Korea.




Be Patient Please

I am doing a little redesign of the site and moving links over so please be a little patient. Cheers, Dan

Food Tours in Korea

For years I worked at O'ngo Food Communications, which is a cooking school and food tour company. I have recently left the company to pursue other projects. Although, I am not officially doing tours anymore (I am working on events and video productions...oh and I own 2 restaurants called Brew 3.14 and Brew 3.15), I and my friends would be happy to help you out with recommendations and such. Be sure to email me at seouleats at gmail.com. We specialize in custom and private tours that are focused on food.

 Dan

Chunshin Poja: Great Chinese Steamed Dumplings in Insadong

Also called Siopao, this is a famous shop in Insadong.