Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Food and Friends

Recently, I found myself trying to recall the lyrics of a silly song I heard from Spongebob Squarepants. It goes, "F is for Friends who do stuff together, U is for U and me, N is for aNytime and anywhere at all, down here in the deep blue sea." In the next verse, Plankton sings, "F is for Fire that burns down the whole down, U is for Uranium bombs! N is for No survivors --" But then, Spongebob interrupts him, and at a later point, both sing of happy things once more: "F is for Frolic through all the flowers, U is for Ukulele, N is for Nose-picking..."

And that's where I drew a blank. I couldn't bring up the very end of the song, and it bothered me so much that I Googled it to find out.

Anyway, I'd like to propose my own verse. Here goes: "F is for Food with Friends from Fulbright and Faraway homes, U is for the Urban culinary landscape, N is for No regrets whatsoever, after a fun weekend in Seoul!"

I'm really creative, can't you tell?

T is for Tacos. V is for Vatos.
Ashley and Kelly and our mouthwatering Nutella nachos with ice cream.
My first stop when I arrived in Seoul on Saturday (having departed Changwon at 7:00am sharp and sleeping the entire way through a four-hour bus ride) was a famous Mexican restaurant in Itaewon called Vatos Urban Tacos. The super-hip eatery was begun in 2011 by two Korean-Americans from California. They brought their love and knowledge of Mexican cuisine to Seoul, where it is still not as popular as you might hope. But Vatos is paving the way for Koreans to embrace the deliciousness of concoctions like galbi short rib tacos, kimchi carnitas fries, and carne asada quesadillas.

I'd heard nothing but good things about the restaurant, so I was psyched to visit it with Fulbright friends Ashley and Kelly, along with Justin, a friend from Fremont. When we walked in, I was taken aback. I think I was expecting a sort of hole-in-the-wall place, like Tacos Amigos, which is also in Itaewon. But this restaurant is huge, spacious, and bustling with activity. Tons of chefs work busily in the open kitchen, and waiters and bartenders try to keep up with a steady flow of customers both Korean and international. It felt very much like an American restaurant; even our waiter was American, and he was just as friendly and persuasive as a guy at your local Chili's.

Justin and me at Vatos. I had a bit of a glow going on, I'll admit.
The menu was tantalizing: nachos, tacos, burritos, quesadillas: everything you'd want in a Mexican restaurant, with the sad exception of guacamole since they had run out. The only disappointment -- though it was not a surprise -- was the portion sizes. For ₩11,000, those are three minuscule tacos. Yes, they were delicious. Filling, even. But still shockingly small. All of us gave in to ordering more appetizers even after we'd finished our main courses. We also got dessert, at our waiter's insistence: cinnamon nachos drizzled in Nutella, topped with ice cream. It was a good call.

So the five of us enjoyed our meal and our drinks (Giant frozen margaritas at noon? Sure, why not!), gritted our teeth when the bill came, and paid our compliments to one of the manager-owners, who was working the register. Vatos Urban Tacos was a success! I won't strain my wallet with frequent trips to the restaurant, but I would certainly go again. Here is their contact information/website.
Patbingsu with watermelon, ice cream, sliced almonds, and Corn Flakes
P is for Patbingsu. J is for Joenill.
It was great to see Jenny again!
Patbingsu (팥빙수) is a Korean dessert made of shaved ice topped with sweet red bean and a ton of other delicious things, including fruits, ice cream, nuts, rice cake, and sometimes chocolate. On Saturday evening, my friends and I replaced dinner with giant bowls of patbingsu from Cafe Joenill. There were six of us, and we wanted to order three, but the barista told us that two would actually be enough, and he was right. They were huge, and well worth ₩8,000.

Catching up with old friends and making new ones is a wonderful thing to do on a warm summery day, especially if you have a shaved ice dessert to dig into while doing so. Come July, I will probably want to eat one of these a day. And when I go to Taiwan this summer, you bet I'll have my fair share of 挫冰.

B is for Burrito. G is for Grill5.
Grill5 galbi burrito with guacamole! Note clever use of foreshortening...
It was a tiny burrito, so could I call it a burrito-ito? Burrititico? Just like at Vatos, the serving sizes at Grill5 Tacos were much smaller than I am used to. (I kind of grew up on Chipotle, just so you have a frame of reference.) Despite its smallness, however, this burrito was made with love, and it was incredible. I got a galbi burrito and splurged on guacamole and shoestring fries, neither of which I have even seen for months. It was a great way to start Sunday morning: more Mexican food, plus conversation and catching up with Jake, Di-hoa, and Stephanie. A burrito set costs ₩10,000. It was great, but I can't deny it also made me miss Chipotle and some of the more authentic Mexican food places around the Bay Area. Grill5 even matched the Chipotle aesthetic 
in its decor: corrugated steel, cement, wood, lots of light and space. Once again, a Korean-owned
Jake at Grill5.
establishment succeeded in making me forget that I was in Korea.

Grill5 Tacos is located in Hongdae (another branch is in Gangnam), but it's a part of the neighborhood that I've never been to. It's actually closer to Sangsu Station than either Hongdae or Hapjeong Station, and the area is overflowing with interesting bars, small restaurants, and art gallery cafes. I must go back to visit. On another note, apparently Grill5 is also apparently a food truck. I wonder which came first? Here are a ton of photos of Grill5 from someone else's Naver blog review.

I is for Ice Cream. F is for Fell+Cole.
The last wonderful new food experience I had last weekend was at a small "gastronomic ice cream" shop, also located in this cute area near Sangsu Station in Hongdae, named Fell+Cole after two streets in San Francisco. It's artisanal ice cream: all the flavors are handmade and homemade, organic when possible, with a different lineup every single day. They're quite creative, too, with flavors like blue cheese, Guinness chocolate milk, olive oil, blueberry makgeolli, and burnt caramel with sea salt. Wild. I tried a cup of agave sweetened chocolate, which just tasted like plain old chocolate, because my taste buds are naive. My friends got milkflower, blueberry cream cheese, and "Just Boring Vanilla". We all shared.
A scoop of agave chocolate ice cream from Fell + Cole.
One scoop was ₩5-6,000, which I think would have been more worth it if I'd tried something more adventurous. But I know I'll be back, because I got a stamp card already half-filled from just that afternoon. Also, the owner's a nice guy and fun to talk to. I wonder if/when he lived in San Francisco. I miss the Bay.

Yup, this weekend I certainly splurged on food. But N is for No regrets, right? It was just as much about spending time with my friends as it was about discovering new great places to eat in Seoul. I just wrote a lot about food in particular here, because to recount everything my friends and I talked about (fantasy novels, Arrested Development, LGBTQ rights, classroom horror stories, movies, future plans -- the end of the grant year is so terrifyingly close) would be nowhere near as satisfying as pictures of food. This is the Internet, after all.

Anyway, despite how awed I am at my capacity to blow through hundreds in two days whenever I visit the capital, I'd do it all again. It's just that I'm only going to be in Seoul two more times before summer vacation, so the seconds are ticking!
Di-hoa and Stephanie taking on summer heat with ice cream from Fell+Cole.
Oh, by the way: "N is for Nose-picking, chewing gum, and sand-licking, here with my best buddy!"

- - -
tl;dr contact information

Vatos Urban Tacos (Itaewon)
181-8 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu
(T) 02-797-8226

Hours: 10:30AM ~ 10/11PM

Cafe Joenill (Hongdae)
169-11 Donggyodong, Mapogu
(T) 02-326-3476
Hours: open 24 hours


Grill5 Taco (Hongdae)
409-8 Seogyodong, Mapogu
(T) 02-3144-2549
Hours: 11AM ~ midnight


Fell+Cole (Hongdae)
310-11 Sangsudong, Mapogu
(T) 070-4411-1434
Hours: 12PM ~ 10PM

Translate