Kiss My Kimchi takes on the restaurants on Gyeonidan Street

This is the article written by Brian Dye
You can follow his regular adventures at www.kissmykimchi.com

Gyeonidan Street runs across from Haebunchon and not far from Noksopyeong station. It’s a long winding road that blends the residential with the commercial into one thoroughly busy thoroughfare. It’s the perfect place to grab a bite to eat while watching the locals go about their daily business.

Leo’s Deli anchors the beginning of Gyeonidan. This quaint eatery seems unassuming from the outside except for the sign proclaiming Leo’s as being the place to find an authentic Reuben. Such a declaration has to be put to the test. Let me just say that Leo passed with flying colors, but I shouldn’t get too far ahead of myself.

Inside Leo’s Deli presents an inviting atmosphere. Frank Sinatra croons in the background. A friendly waitress with an easy smile arrives promptly to find you a seat. During peak times you may experience a bit of a wait as the space is cozy and comfortable but small. Still, like the saying goes, size truly doesn’t matter because what Leo’s Deli lacks in elbow room they make up for in their irresistible menu.

As you can imagine Leo’s has all the standards of a typical deli. Soups, salads, and sandwiches can all be had at prices ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 Won. However, Leo’s takes it a step further by offering the option of designing your own sandwich. Once you sit down the waitress presents you with a sheet so you can check off the ingredients. You choose the bread, meat, cheese, vegetables, and condiments. Making a decision will be hard with choices like pastrami, corned beef, smoked ham and turkey to tempt you. Each sandwich also comes with a fresh garden salad as well as homemade potato chips.

The Reuben is a perfect handful of deliciousness. The corned beef, Swiss cheese, and Sauerkraut all blended together harmoniously. I can same the same about the smoked turkey with cheddar on a ciabatta roll. Thick slices of succulent turkey with the sharp tang of cheddar put a smile on my face. I do have to say that the Dijon mustard might be a tad overwhelming to some, but I enjoyed every bite. I went with the typical choices, but being able to design your own sandwich means one could create an unexpected pairing sure to surprise even the most adventurous.

A little further up Gyeonidan Geo’s Phillys Cheese Steak is another hot spot to grab a quick bite. The restaurant has a modern feel. Geo’s own austere black and white photos adorn gray matted walls. In the background understated music plays. You can take a seat in the main restaurant and watch as the man himself cooks up your meal in the open kitchen or, instead, find a place on the front patio or the secluded outside nook if you want a more intimate setting.

Geo, the man behind the name, is an affable easy going guy. He spent sixteen years in the American city of Philadelphia. During his time there he studied, lived, and grew to love the food and culture. When he returned to Seoul last year he noticed distinctly American East Coast foods, like Cheese Steaks, missing in the local restaurant scene. Looking to fill that void, in March 2009, the doors of Geo’s Phillys Cheese Steak opened.

As you might expect from the name Cheese Steaks are the featured item on the menu. Geo makes a hefty cheese steak with a great balance of cheese, sauce, and beef that only dazzles the taste buds but keeps the bun firm to prevent those messy sloppy Joe moments. You also have the option of adding extra toppings like mushrooms, peppers or pizza sauce. If beef just isn’t your thing you can switch things up with a chicken cheese steak or even go for a tuna salad or egg and cheese hoagie, cheeseburger or B.L.T. Sides include fries, mozzarella sticks, and chicken wings.

Geo keeps the prices affordable and the service brisk. Sandwiches start at 3,000 Won and combination plates go for 15,000 and under. On any given day you can find Geo himself behind the sizzling stove top, putting his personal touch on sandwiches. Service is prompt and courteous with a dash of panache.

Just a bit further from Geo’s, around the corner and to the left, you’ll come to Hwang To. Judging by the tables full of couples and groups of friends it’s a popular place. So popular that getting a table wasn’t doable. Instead, just across the street, The Library beckoned with a 6 to 8 pm happy hour that couldn’t be passed up. Inside The Library it’s all red and black table tops, exposed pipes, and a deconstructed disco ball on the back wall, giving the place an industrial feel.

The service was spot on, though being the only customers most likely helped. They make sure you’re taken care of and don’t hover. The Library offers wireless internet and will even take your ipod and hook it up to their sound system. There’s also a big screen TV for premier sports league games.

The menu offers standard bar snacks with a few appetizers. You can order up a Caesar salad, nachos or yellow peaches. Prices vary from 5,000Won to 10,000won. A free coffee comes with every order, but if you need something stronger. The bar has beer, wine, liqueurs, and whisky stocked.

The Library’s motto is “stay as long as you could.” So, if you do have to go then cross the street and check out Hattori Kitchen. First, right off, the space is small to the point of being cramped but from that first step inside you know it’s not your momma’s izakaya. Eighties Korean music plays in the background. Traditional Japanese masks adorn the walls along with random Polaroid pictures, calligraphy, and an array of international currencies. Hattori Kitchen definitely has an artsy vibe going on which culminates in the kinetic ball of charm and whimsy of the owner, Jiyung Sohn.

She bounces behind the long wooden sushi style bar, wide eyed and smiling, chatting away with customers while chopping vegetables and preparing dishes. After studying in Japan, she returned to Korea inspired to open her own unique izakaya. She ran into a maze of obstacles until finally securing a bank loan. Hattori Kitchen opened its doors in July of 2008 and has been welcoming customers ever since. The crowd during the week tends to be chic couples in their fifties and sixties. On the weekends twenty and thirty somethings take over.

Miss Sohn has a trendy spot perfect for an evening with friends or a date. The lively mood matches the innovative menu. Every night, except for two signature dishes, she changes the menu. On Monday you may find yourself dining on salmon herb yaki only to be sitting down to deep fried tortillas or whole steamed octopus on Tuesday. She keeps her customers surprised and, if her ever changing kaleidoscopes of dishes are as tasty as her mainstays, eager to return. The udong salad combines perfectly cooked udong noodles, shrimp, and a medley of fresh vegetables all in a sesame dressing. It’s a light, cool dish suitable for a hot summer night. The sea bream belly teriyaki makes a great accompaniment. The caramelized glaze adds just the right amount of sweetness to the moist cuts of fish. Even if you aren’t the adventurous type Hattori Kitchen’s signature dishes will leave you craving for whet your appetite to explore the more exotic dishes.

On Gyeondian Street fabulous restaurants await not only your first arrival but also your return visit, because one taste just isn’t enough. From simple tasty lunches to sumptuous savory dishes it’s all there for the choosing.

Leo’s Deli

Itaewon Dong (Kyung-Lidan)

658 Bonji

Tel 02-749-1210

Geo’s Phillys Cheese Steak

02-749-7173

Hwang To

749-0105

The Library

Hattori Kitchen, 225-94 Itaewong, Youngsan Gu; 011-82-02-792-1975

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One Comment

  1. Hummingbird Appetite
    Posted October 5, 2009 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    Philly cheesesteaks have made it to Korea? That's so cool! I went to college in Philly.

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