Thursday, May 28, 2015

KkotMareum (Shabushabu Buffet Restaurant)

Score Guide: 1 - Poor / 2 - Okay / 3 - Good / 4 - Great / 5  Exceptional

Restaurant Name: KkotMareum (꽃마름)
Type of restaurant/food: Buffet and Shabushabu
Region: Sosabeol Useung Medipia Building 3rd floor, Dongsak-dong 18, Pyeongtaek-City, near Bijeon Middle School and opposite to Daekwang Church (경기 평택시 동삭동 18번지 소사벌우성메디피아 3, 비전중 근처, 대광교회 맞은편)
Price range: 14,900 (11:00am - 3:00pm, From Monday to Friday)
                19,900 (5:00pm 10:00pm, From Monday to Friday)
                21,900 (11:00am -10:00pm, From Saturday to Sunday)
Value:   3 / 5
Service:  2 / 5
Cleanliness:  3 / 5
Atmosphere: — 2 / 5
Overall Score:  3 / 5 They're good!

About: If the beef were refilled unlimitedly, I would say KkotMareum is exceptional. But a bowl of frozen sliced beef is offered at the start and if you want more you need to pay for additional beef depending on your order. This let me down when I dipped my first piece of beef into the Shabushabu soup. However, Kkot Mareum has its own distinctive attractiveness in that you can wrap your boiled vegetables and beef in Vietnamese rice paper. Plus you can dip it in three different kinds of Thai chili sauces, which makes the taste exotic as well as fresh. KkotMareum's buffet, moreover, has a diverse range of quality dishes. One example is bibimbap (비빔밥). Their bibimbap buffet table offers 8 kinds of Namuls (나물). Namuls are seasoned vegetables, and they are much better at KkotMareum than at typical bibimbap restaurants. 

Getting there: You should get a 7-1 bus in front of McDonalds in downtown Pyeongtaek. You can get off the bus at Bijeon Middle School(비전중학교) and walk following the direction of your bus a bit. Then turn to the right at the corner and walk just one block until you see a big intersection. KkotMareum should be there.

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Monday, April 27, 2015

Ch-ch-ch Changes!

No! We haven't developed a stutter. We aren't huge David Bowie fans either. This is a notice to inform visitors that the developer of this blog and his taste testing robot have left South Korea. And though we are sad to admit it, for the foreseeable future, we aren't coming back. Oh no! That is why this blog is so sleepy. However, if all goes to plan, it will not remain dormant. Changes are in the works to make this site far more relevant than it ever was when I was in Pyeongtaek.

Eat Korea at one time hoped to be something bigger than it was, but in its heart it was always a hyper-local reviews site for the expat community of Pyeongtaek. The coming changes will not only fully align the site with its heart, but will make it an even better resource for the expat community and even local Koreans.

There are some new tabs on the navbar that you might notice: "Public Reviews" and "Food Map." The site will always be a place for informative articles, but that will no longer be its bread and butter (or should I say bap and dwenjang?). In the hopefully near future, you will be able to write for Eat Korea in the form of Yelp-ish reviews, helping your fellow expats find great food. Testing on the reviews system just began and I hope to have something up and running by summer.

Also due to launch is an interactive guide-map to eating in Pyeongtaek. New content for the map is being written daily. And I now have a nifty map engine with lots of cool digital toys to test out. This too should be out in time for summer. I'm really excited about this one.

So stay tuned! We're not dead. Just working a lot behind the scenes.

Oh, and if you are interested in getting involved, message me on Facebook or tweet @EatKorea.

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Thursday, April 2, 2015

Pyeongtaek's Pizzas Supreme

Pizza Mall's "Chicago Deep Dish" pizza. 

Korean pizza (피자) is a great experiment in glocalization. Where else in the world can you find sweet potato mousse stuffed crusts, obligatory sprinkles of canned corn on every variety of pizza including cheese, plus pizzas topped with hearty potato wedges? Love or hate it, the Korean twist on pizza is insanely popular in the country. However, quality varies widely. If you're looking for a decent slice of pizza in Pyeongtaek, here are three places to get pizzas that are at least a crust above the others. 

Pizza Mall - New Core's Pizza Mall is the oddball in Pyeongtaek. And by oddball I mean they are the one that experiments the most with the American way of doing things. They were one of the few places I've seen in the whole country to offer an 18 inch pizza. The crust was soft and chewy. The toppings were fresh, large, numerous, and normal by American standards. What's more, the pizza was only 11,900 won, which is insanely cheap for a pizza that large. Sadly, they don't sell that size of pizza in Pyeongtaek anymore. However, they are the only place around that sells a Chicago style deep dish. It's one of those super cheesy-saucy pies that can turn into a big mess if you're not careful. And while it doesn't beat anything in Chicago, it beats a lot of Pizza Mall's competition. Their normal pizzas are good too, but I go there exclusively for the deep dish. 

Pizza Alvolo's "Super Deluxe Combination Pizza."
To get to Pizza Mall, take the 15, 1-1, 2-2 or any bus that says "뉴고아" (New Core) on the bottom left of the bus windshield. New Core's stop is in front of a Samsung store and across from a Paris Baguette. Walk all the way down the alley across from Samsung. New Core will be on your right. Pizza Mall is in the food court.

Pizza Alvolo - Pizza Alvolo (피자알볼로) has surprisingly good pizza for a native Korean chain. You can find outlandishly Korean pizzas at Pizza Alvolo, the kind of bizarre, expensive topping monsters that are not out of place at Korean Pizza Hut or Dominos. But Alvolo's pizzas are actually really good. Their pizzas have lots of stretchy cheese, a crispy-chewie crust that isn't tough or tasteless, and a sauce that isn't sweet. Plus, they serve an excellent garlic sauce on the side to dip your crust in. The listed prices are the same as most Korean chains, but cheaper than the mega chains mentioned earlier. Plus, when the NetBot and I order they always knock a couple thousand won off the top. It's a relative newcomer to Pyeongtaek, but with good prices and great pizza, Pizza Alvolo quickly became our favorite place to get pizza in the city. 

In other cities Pizza Alvolo has a dining room. Pyeongtaek's Pizza Alvolo, however, only offers delivery and take-out. You can find their menu here, and order at this number: 031-655-8495. The NetBot, Eat Korea's robot taste tester, recommends the "Hot and Spicy Chicken Pizza." If you can't speak Korean, you can take the bus and wait in their lobby. From the New Core bus stop in front of Paris Baguette, take the 3-5, 7-1, or 7-2 bus and get off at the stop after Deokdung Elementary School. You will pass the school on your right.  Walk down the street after you get off the bus.  You'll end up at a large intersection with a Paris Baguette. Pizza Alvolo is in that intersection on your right beside the big seafood restaurant with the fish tanks in front. 

If you are coming from Pyeongtaek Station, take the same busses to Myeongbeop Temple (명법사). Hit the stop button after you pass the grassy park on your right and can see woods on both sides of the street. When you get off the bus, walk down the street to the intersection with Paris Baguette. Pizza Alvolo will be near the opposite corner.

Costco's 18 inch "Combo Pizza."
(Decent photo pending)
Costco - The first two restaurants on this list make great Korean Pizza. However, if you want a genuine taste of home you need to go to Costco. The closest one is not in Pyeongtaek. But, located in Cheonan, it is close enough to sneak onto this list. 

Korean Costco is so American friends of mine say it even smells like America. The pizza in their food court is no exception. Costco's pizza is 18 inches of cheesy, American glory. There is enough sauce so you don't notice the lack of it, but not so much you think, "man this is really saucy." The doughy but firm crust is familiarly American in its elasticity, something Korean style crusts lack. And anyone who grew up in the USA will recognize the uniquely American flavors of Costco's pepperoni, sausage bits, peppers, onions, and olives on their Combo Pizza. Their pizza can even be bought by the slice. 

If you don't have a car or a friend with a car, Cheonan Costco is really hard to get to. For those who like to make a day-long adventure out of riding public transportation, you have two options. Option 1: take the subway to Cheonan Station (천안역). Take exit 1, cross the street in front of the station and turn right. Keep walking up the street until you find the bus stop. It isn't a far walk, maybe a couple minutes. From there most busses will take you to your next destination: Cheonan Bus Terminal (종합터마널) (aka: Shinsegae Department Store). There is a big bus stop in front of the terminal. Take city bus 25 for 28 stops. Costco will be on your right. It's big and hard to miss. Option 2: take the subway to Cheonan-Asan Station. Take Exit 1, and from the large bus stop in front of the station get on city bus 19 for 18 stops. Costco will be on your right a little up the street. 

If you do not enjoy long adventures on public transportation, do not go to Cheonan Costco. But if you really want to go, go to Seodaejeon Costco. A 4,800won train ticket will get you to Seodaejeon Station (서대전역) in about an hour. Costco is right next to the station on the left as you exit. It's so close you can see Costco's parking garage when you get off the train.

There are so many pizza restaurants in Pyeongtaek (and nearish by). If you have a favorite place to order pizza in Pyeongtaek, please let us know where by mentioning it in the comments.

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Monday, March 23, 2015

Mini Review: Seorae Reborn

Seorae Galmaegi (서래 갈매기) was one of the most popular Korean barbecue restaurants downtown. The meat was delicious and of good quality. The sides were tangy and spicy and fresh. The atmosphere was rustic and constantly buzzing with activity. 

Last year they were gutted and their facade torn down. For all intents and purposes, they appeared to have gone out of business. 

They did not. They were closed for renovations. 

The new, shiny, stainless steel and glass Seorae is just as delicious as the old, but I have to say, the atmosphere of the old wooden restaurant was much more comfortable. 

Seorae serves dinner from 5:30pm to 11:00pm weekdays and closes at 1am on the weekend. The servings are smaller than they used to be, but the service is still good. The prices are moderate (15,000 won and up for two people). And the place feels so clean these days you practically need to squint to see through the glare. 

Getting there from Pyeongtaek Station is easy if you imagine the streets as resembling the fingers in your hand. While standing in front of the station, hold your right hand palm up. Cross the street and walk down the index finger road. Turn left after three blocks. You should be able to see Seorae Galmaegi nearly in front of you down the street. It is on the right side of the street as the road bends to the left.

(Some reporting by Park Junsik.)

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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Looks Like Mud. Tastes Like Heaven.

"I was just trying to catch a few eels to make an eel stew. Though, I suppose I won't get any, and you wouldn't like it if I do," said the charmingly despondent Tom Baker as Puddleglum the Marshwiggle in the BBC production of C.S. Lewis' The Silver Chair. He continued, "it's against reason that you should like our vittles... Food for Wiggles is poison for Humans."

Seongka'ne, one of Pyeongtaek's most
 popular restaurants
As a young boy I used to be thrilled by the glorious taboo of Puddleglum's muddy, eel stew. Fast forward a couple decades and down the street from my first apartment in Korea stood Seongka'ne Keunjip Chu'eo'tang (성가네 큰집 추어탕), a stew restaurant. And not just any stew restaurant. On its yellow sign were what appeared to be two, big, happy eels. I had found Puddleglum's stew. The restaurant is one of Pyeongtaek's busiest. And despite Puddleglum's negativity, there is every reason
why you should like their vittles.

Seongka'ne actually doesn't serve eel stew. They serve chu'eo tang (추어탕). The translation is, "mud loach stew." Yes, that actually sounds worse than eel stew, but it is far from poisonous. In fact, is is one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted in Korea.

Mud loaches (also called mi'ggu'raji 미꾸라지 in Korean) are small, eel-like, freshwater bottom feeders. Because they can breath air as well as water, they are sometimes found in mud. However, while the stew may look like mud, it tastes like anything but.

Chu'eo tang's flavor is a little hard to pin down. If you tried a bowl of it without knowing what it was, you would never suspect that it was made out of pulverized fish. It is definitely savory and rich in the manner of dark poultry. And it lacks the greasiness of red meat. If someone had told me it was the stew of a small mammal or of some wild bird like a pheasant or quail, I wouldn't have questioned them.

Dolsotbap transforms into sung'nyung
The texture is where the dish suffers a bit. Overall it is just what you might expect from a thick stew made from ground fish. It's a little creamy. However, it's a bit grainy too. And sometimes there is a mildly sandy crunch to get through. It is very light, so I am not sure if this is actual sand from the creature's gut; grains of tiny, ground bones; or one of the seasonings in the stew. Luckily, the effect is so mild and the flavor is so good, it is easy to ignore.

Like many Korean stews, chu'eo tang is great with a bowl of rice. The restaurant gives you two options: stew with gongi bap, that is with a plain bowl of rice; or stew with dolsotbap (돌솥밥): a large, hot bowl of rice. The first is 6,000 won. The latter is 7,000 won. The advantage of dolsot bap is that after you scoop out your rice you can pour water in the bowl and make a toasty rice soup called, sung'nyung (숭늉).

Rice is so essential to the meal that a sign in the back of the restaurant even gives directions on how best to enjoy it with your stew. According to the sign, for the very best experience, you should put half your rice in your stew and mix the other half with the chopped green chillies and some preserved, spicy oyster called eoli'guljeot (어리굴젓). The rice definitely fortifies the stew, stretching it out and making it more filling. And mixed with the preserved oysters, the rice assumes a taste distinctly reminiscent of the ocean. Having grown up by the sea, I found the oceanic flavor enjoyable. However, the NetBot, EatKorea's robot taste tester from suburban California, was not so keen on it.

A variety of side dishes including
eoli'guljeot (center bottom)
The sign in the back of the shop talks about more than the rice. Chu'eo tang apparently is a nutritious health food. The fish, the sign claims, are like nutritional supplements. The whole fish is ground up bones, guts and all. And because of this it is said the stew contains lots of calcium and protein among other less believable nutrients. The claims don't stop there. Like most Korean health foods, it is believed that the fish improves a person's sexual stamina. Who can really say? But at very least, this satisfying meal does provide enough strength to tide one over until dinner.

Seongka'ne Keunjip Chu'eo'tang is extremely busy. Do not be surprised if you have to wait to be seated. They are open from 10am to 9pm. To get there take the 50 or 20 bus from Pyeongtaek Station to the City Hall stop in front of Lotte Mart. When you get off the bus, backtrack to the intersection that the bus passed through just before the stop. When you get to that intersection, turn left toward Lotte Mart. Walk straight and continue past the store until you see a CU convenience mart on your right. Seongka'ne will also be on your right across from CU.

(Thanks to Park Junsik for obtaining the open hours)

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Monday, March 2, 2015

The House of Mountain Vegetables

Koreans have a passionate love of the mountains. It is really hard to ignore. Just get on any public transportation and you're bound to see aged, backpack bearing Koreans armed with hiking poles and regaled head to toe in colorful synthetic blends. The call of the mountains goes well beyond open spaces and fresh air, though. Korea's mountains are closely associated with fresh, natural, and even curative veggies. It is this reputation for fresh, healthy vegetables that Sanchaewon (산채원), a "mountain-veggie" restaurant, takes full advantage of.

The interior is very clean and strangely airy and bright for being indoors. It is almost as if the restaurant was perched on a mountainside instead of its real location on an ugly, developing street near Lotte Mart. The sliding doors use a homemade pulley and weight system that uses gravity to close them. The heavy, ceramic bowls are crafted to appear to have been hewn out of stone. Herbal, solomon's seal tea (dung'gul'le cha 둥굴레차) is poured out of thin, aluminum pots like those found at old and traditional restaurants. A lot of effort went into making the restaurant look and feel like a fresh, wholesome, mountain abode, and their food certainly enforces the effect.

Their mostly vegetarian menu centers around three rustic foods: mountain veggies (산채), deo'deok (더덕), and hwangtae (황태).

The mountain veggies at Sanchaewon include a forest glade full of fresh and prepared veggies: bracken ferns (gosari 고사리), shitaki mushrooms (pyogobeoseot 표고버섯), radish tops (si'laegi 시래기), soybean sprouts (kongnamul 콩나물), spinach (sigeumchi 시금치), lettuce (sang'chu 생추), kimchi radish (mu saengchae'namul 무생채나물), and pimpinella (cham'namul 참나물). Normally these are banchan (반찬), side dishes. But in Sanchaewon's "sanchae jeongshik" (산채정식), it is the main course. Add a hot stone bowl of rice (dolsot bap 돌솥밥), and these veggies become a palette for designing your own bibimbap. Sanchae jeongshik can only be ordered for at least two people. And at 11,000 won per person, it is a lot more expensive than the alternative — ordering a bowl of bibimbap. Yet, whether you order their vegetable platter or a 7,000 won bowl of bibimbap, you can depend on the food being fresh and handmade. I've been eating there since they opened a few years ago, and their bibimbap has always been the best in Pyeongtaek. 

Deo'deok is the root of a plant that few in the West, except perhaps avid gardeners, herbalists and botanists would recognize. Have you heard of Codonopsis lanceolata, also known as bonnet bellflower? It sounds poisonous, but this plant is supposedly healthy for you, promoting immune and mental health

"It's like real nature," my friend Jerry Park said about grilled deo'deok in general. "You can smell the freshness of the forest."

Hwangtae is walleye pollack that is hung on wooden frames and left to the mercy of the winter elements. In time, the extreme weather naturally freeze-dries the fish. It looks similar to how some Native American tribes traditionally preserved their fish. 

Every time I have visited Sanchaewon I have been craving bibimbap, so I haven't tried their deo'deok or hwangtae. I have tried them at other restaurants, though, and in my experience they are more suited to broader palates. Deo'deok has a strong rooty flavor reminiscent of something a groundhog in a field of wildflowers might enjoy. And hwangtae, though not especially fishy, can be chewy in a way Westerners don't normally associate with fish. I like them, but then again, I like almost everything. 

Sides: (clockwise) jeon (전), jeotgal (젓갈), 
mul kimchi (물김치), eolgali kimchi (얼갈이김치),  
doenjang guk (된장국) , 
ganjang chojeol'im  (간장초절임)
Whether you order vegetables, weird roots or preserved fish, as at most Korean restaurants, you can expect to find a broad range of homemade side dishes. The sides dishes at Sanchaewon change a little from time to time. For example, back in December my bibimbap included white kimchi (baek kimchi 백김치) and seasoned, boiled daikon radish (Jolim'mu 조림무). However, when I visited last week the side dishes had changed. Instead of boiled radish and white kimchi, my meal had spicy pickled radish (간장초절임) and water kimchi (물감치). While the sides can change, you can always expect an unusually vegetal bowl of doenjang guk (된장국) and some kind of kimchi.   

Sanchaewon is open 10am to 10pm. They are pretty easy to find. Take the 50 or 20 bus from Pyeongtaek Station to the City Hall stop (shi'cheong 시청) in front of Lotte Mart. When you get off at the stop, backtrack to the intersection and turn left toward Lotte Mart. Walk past the store and keep on going straight until you see a CU mini-mart on your right. Go down the street beside CU. Sanchaewon will be on your right, across from the dirt lot behind the mart.  

(Some reporting by Park Junsik)

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Bulgobimbap Envy

Yuk'ssam Naengmyeon (육쌈냉면) is a chain restaurant with at least 35 locations throughout Korea, including one in downtown Pyeongtaek. Naengmyeon, a kind of cold noodle soup, is part of their name, but that is not what I go there to eat. I go there for their bibimbap — a bibimbap served with a side of the most delicious, smoky, tender bulgogi. 

Even the NetBot, Eat Korea's robot taste tester, is enamored with their "Bibimbap Sut-bulgogi" (비빔밥 숯불고기). A former pescetarian, bibimbap pushes all the right buttons for her. Plus, being pickier about meat than most robots, she admitted she would rather eat a plate of Yuk'ssam Naengmyeon's sut-bulgogi than a full steak. As the only natural meat eater at Eat Korea, I am only a little inclined to disagree. Yuk'ssam has some really fantastic bulgogi. It isn't a substitute for a bloody steak, but I'm not a robot taste tester. 

Frankly, the bulgogi is what makes Yuk'ssam Naengmyeon stand out. Their main menu features naengmyeong, bibim-naengmyeon (cold noodles with veggies and no broth) and bibimbap. And each comes with a wooden dish of their signature meat. It has been some years since I ate their naengmyeon, but their bibimbap, a very affordable 6,000 won, tastes especially fresh. 

It is hard to ruin bibimbap, but it isn't easy to take a normal dish like bibimbap and make it extraordinary. The bulgogi does this. It takes this simple and delicious dish and makes every beef-bimbap'd bite a treat. The bibimbap is so improved by the meat that NetBot and I become quite protective of our meat portions. The meat is served on a single slab of wood, so portioning is subjective. There is enough to accommodate two people, but it is so good we are eventually seduced by the promise of a slice of bulgogi on every spoonful of bibimbap. The dangers of bulgo-greed are real. You never know when you'll have to correct the balance and steal some meat from the other side of the table. 

Yuk'ssam Naengmyeon serves lunch and dinner, opening at 10 am and closing at 10 pm. The service is decent. The place is clean, and it has lots of large windows offering a nice view of the street to diners. 

To get to the restaurant from Pyeongtaek Station, first hold out your right hand palm up and imagine the five streets in front of the station as the five fingers on your hand. Cross the street and walk down the index finger. You should be on the right side of the road. After one block turn right. You should see Yuk'ssam Naengmyeon not too far ahead of you on the second floor of a corner building.  

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