23 February 2010

Kangnam 25 Years Ago!

My family has told me that not too long ago Kangnam was nothing but farmland. Having worked in Daechi-dong for a while, it was hard for me to imagine Kangnam pre-hagwons and Pascucci. Today Cousin N showed me some photos featured on Yahoo Korea -- photos of Kangnam in the early eighties. Wo! If you had me guess the date of the photos, I would have guessed that they were taken fifty years ago.

Now I realize why my mother was so overwhelmed when she came to Seoul last year. It's easy to overlook how drastically Seoul has changed in the past twenty-five years. Looking at these photos I realize that Seoul is like the Heidi Montag of world capitals.

1983 Songpa-gu, Oryun-dong, Location of Olympic Park & the Park Hotel now stand.

1981 Songpa-gu, Bangi-dong

1983 Daechi-dong, in front of Eunmaa Apartment

02 February 2010

Updated: The Quest for Pho in Seoul

I meant to post at least once a week, but I got caught up in all sorts of projects, particularly a podcast for preschoolers. (Aren't you curious?)

I'm so happy to finally have a chance to share my pho findings.

After a number of disappointing visits to various Pho chains around Seoul (Thanks for nothing, Pho Hoa!), I had pretty much given up all hope of finding anything close to the pho I had tasted back in the Homeland.

That brings me to our fervent quest for pho-that's-not-sal-guk-su-in-lukewarm-beef-broth. Last month, April of Buncha Banchan told me about this magical little food stall in Wangshimli. "It's run by a Vietnamese man," she said. "People bring him fresh produce - limes and cilantro - Vietnamese people." Pho made by a Vietnamese man, enjoyed by people from Vietnam? Cyndi and I were intrigued. For about two weeks, all we could think about was eating pho in Wangshimli.

A few of us trekked over there one frightfully chilling evening in January, and I have to say, we were quite pleased with what we found.

Pho Spot #1: Wangshimli [Little Vietnam]

Located in a little food court in the basement of some officetel, this little pho place is run by a mysterious Vietnamese man who seems to know a smattering of English and Korean, but not much. His stall is topped by a picture menu that boasts some exciting prospects. Unfortunately, most of those dishes aren't available. With the help of some kind bystander, Cyndi doggedly asked him when the other dishes would be available and he tentatively replied that they'd be available on the weekend. I suspect that he just said that so Cyndi would leave him alone.

The night we were there, he only had two offerings: pho or fried rice.

I can't say that his pho is the best I've ever tasted, but it certainly is the best I've tasted in Seoul. The flavors were quite nice, but (I'm not sure if this is the right food term) I found the broth a little shallow. Back in San Jose, the pho broth tasted as if the beef bones had been simmering in spices for days. Mr. Wangshimli's broth, though tasty, seemed as if it had just been made a few hours prior or had been diluted with water in order to extend his soup supply.

April suspects that Mr. Wangshimli's pho is limited due to his lack of supplies. When she first went, she saw a bunch of patrons bringing him various groceries. The quality of his pho seems to be dependent upon availability of ingredients. So, if you have access to essential pho ingredients, please do share.

Mr. Wangshimli should also be commended for his selection of greens, including cilantro and Cyndi's favorite Ngo Gai (Eryngo).

We also ordered the second and only other dish available that night, fried rice. It was also very tasty.

The Verdict:
Definitely worth checking out. I really hope you will, because I'm selfish and am afraid that he'll close without more customers. It's one of the, if not only decent, pho place in Seoul.

Edit: We went back to the Wangshimli pho place. This time we brought along Robear, who not only grew up on Vietnamese food, but also speaks Vietnamese. Though the proprietor is not initially the chattiest of fellows, Robear was able to get a lot of back story on Little Vietnam, the name of the restaurant. Apparently, there used to be about 200 Vietnamese folks living in the apartment building. Unfortunately, most of them were deported. Little Vietnam has only been in operation for about 3 - 6 months. Business I'm sure has slowed down quite a bit since the exodus of his primarily Vietnamese clientele.

Robear also learned that Little Vietnam's pho contains ingredients only available in Vietnam (or at least, not available in Korea). A number of his ingredients, including the ngo gai, were brought over from Vietnam. Sadly, half of the greens were spoiled or confiscated by Customs at Incheon. Needless to say, I'm not sure how long Little Vietnam will be able to stay in business.

If you'd like to help keep Little Vietnam in business, you'll want to go there soon and regularly. Otherwise, it's back to pho-ish noodles at some chain restaurant.

If you'd like to order something other than pho (like summer rolls, mmm...), he told us that we could call him in advance.

The second time around, we were able to order Vietnamese spring rolls - fried, rice-wrappered concoctions filled with ground meat, noodles, and other unidentified, yet very delicious ingredients. They were yummy.

How to Get There:
Phone number: 2299-3362

-Take the subway to Wangshimli.
-Take exit 2
- Walk straight (about 5 minutes), and turn left when you see the Family Mart (alley way before the Hyundai Oil Station) .
- Up ahead, you'll see a Mini Stop and Holly's Coffee. Walk towards them.
- Make a right at the Mini Stop. Across from the Mini Stop, you'll see a large apartment buidling: 삼성쉐르빌아파트상가.
- Look for a set of stairs leading to the Home Mart. Go down the steps and enter the doors on the left (These door lead to the food court, not the Home Mart).

- If you can't find the Home Mart steps, you can just enter the building and head to B1. Walk around until you find the Home Mart. The Food Court should be near. Look for this banner.

Pho Spot #2: Cơm Binh Dân (Shinseol-Dong)
Open: 8 AM to 9:00 PM
Phone: (02)2232-1341

Coincidentally, a few days after Wangshimli pho (I really need to find out the name of that place), I read a piece about Com Binh Dan in the January 2010 issue of 10 Magazine. Because Cyndi and I can get a bit obsessive about food (must run in the family), we immediately had to check it out.

Com Binh Dan is run by a lovely couple, a Korean man and his Vietnamese wife. Located in the food court of another officetel (what's with these food courts and their hidden Vietnamese gems), next to a chicken hof, Com Binh Dan is apparently not a place that agashi-dul frequent. The couple was very welcoming, but also a bit surprised. The man was like, "How did you find us?" (It was also another cold, wet, and dreary evening, not really wandering-around weather). When we explained that we read about them in a magazine, he was pleasantly surprised. (Someone please bring him a copy of the article. I'm sure they'd really appreciate it).

The pho is not like any pho I've tasted back in the Homeland, but it was certainly tasty. I've never tried homemade pho, but I imagined Com Binh Dan's pho to be what homemade pho might taste like. It's not quite the pho I'm used to, but I certainly would go back for more.

I particularly like the fact that they're very generous with their portions.

I ordered the seafood pho because, you know, beef is not good for me. (Yes, I know. Seafood pho cannot compare to beef pho.) It was good. I was happy to see actual seafood in my seafood pho. None of those imitation crab sticks and mini shrimps. (Thanks for nothing, Pho Hoa Seoul!)

Though we only tried the pho, Com Binh Dan seems to have quite a large menu. They also sell various Vietnamese/Thai food items at reasonable prices.

They only offer cilantro and sprouts, but I ain't complaining.

Cyndi was happy that they had Vietnamese coffee, but she says that it was "nothing special."

The Verdict:
Tasty rice noodles in beef/seafood pho, but not quite like the pho in San Jose.

How to Get There:

- Take the subway to Shinseol (신설).
- Get off at exit 10.
- You should see a Tous Le Jours. Walk towards the crosswalk.
- Cross the street towards Hana Bank.
- Walk around Hana Bank (follow the sidewalk, veering left).
- If you see a big hagwon (고려학원), you know you're in the right direction.
- Keep walking straight. When you see a Shinhan bank, you're very close.
- Look for a officetel called Paraville (See picture below.) Turn right into the entrance way, sort of behind/parallel to the Family Mart.
- You should see a sign for a Hof. Follow the arrow.

Pho Spot #3: Saigon 쌀국수 (Jongak)

When my cousin N heard about our obsessive quest for pho made and eaten by Vietnamese people, she recommended a place in Jongak-dong. I know it's really silly to assume that Vietnamese food made by Vietnamese people will automatically ensure its tastiness, but I'm willing to take the risk.

Saigon is run by a Vietnamese family (again, another assumption). Like the aforementioned pho places, Saigon is located in an officetel. Unlike the other two, Saigon was quite busy, bustling with Korean patrons. I don't think we have to worry about this place closing down any time soon. You can also tell that a lot of Koreans frequent here by the amount of kimchi they gave you.

I was quite happy to see that they had spring rolls. Unfortunately, the spring rolls were very Korean - imitation crab & pickled vegetables - blech.

Like Com Binh Dahn, the pho is tasty, just not like the pho I'm used to (or at least the pho I've come to idealize in my head). Cyndi and April ordered beef pho. They both agreed that the pho was tasty, just not as good as the pho in Wangshimli. If I had to describe the pho, I would say that its pho is designed for a Korean palette -- meaning, it's full of flavor, but heavenly seasoned with chili pepper.

I had the seafood pho. I thought there was a little too much broth, but at least there was actual seafood in there.

The Verdict:
Tasty rice noodles in beef/seafood pho, but not quite like the pho in San Jose.

How to Get There:

- Take the subway to Jongak.
- Take exit 2. Walk straight.
- Make a left at the Dunkin Donuts.
- Walk for a few minutes, and keep an eye out for a building called "We've Pavillion". It should be on the right side of the street.
- Saigon is on the first floor.

Sadly, I'm not very articulate when it comes to describing the flavors of pho, or for that matter, flavors in general. I just have this unintelligible idea of what pho should taste like based on what I've had in California/Hawaii. So, if you're wondering, which pho placed I liked the best, I would say Wangshimli has the most potential. I'd definitely go back there. I hope others will go there too. We don't want him to go out of business!