Itaewon, a neighbourhood in the South Korean capital Seoul, is on the up and food is at the forefront of its renaissance. Here Amy Guttman explores a district undergoing an exciting edible regeneration.
For decades, Itaewon has largely been known for two things: the US Army stationed there since the Korean War, and seedy bars where sex workers ply their trade.
“No self-respecting Korean woman would have ever stepped foot in this area,” Linus Kim says, strolling the streets now lined with trendy shoe shops and boutiques showcasing up and coming designers.
Kim, a Korean-American, is a member of the ‘gyopo,’ the cultural name for foreign born and bred Koreans. He and a handful of others have returned to Seoul to open restaurants blending the adopted food of their childhoods with Korean flavours.
In just the last five years, Kim and other gyopo have created a restaurant renaissance that’s turning Itaewon into one of the city’s top attractions for expats and locals.
The most popular places are all within walking distance of Itaewon station and offer small dishes as well as large. The best way to sample as much as possible is to dine out in true Korean-style by eating a small meal at one restaurant followed immediately by a second meal at another nearby. Here are a few of the best.
Vatos Urban Tacos
Kenny Park, a California born and bred Korean was the first gyopo to break ground in Itaewon. He and his partners opened the famous Mexican fusion restaurant, Vatos Urban Tacos. There are now six branches, including an express version in the food hall of Shinsegae, Seoul’s upscale department store.
The original one in Itaewon remains a favourite. Stop by on a Saturday to see the place in full swing from lunchtime until late, as diners feast on inventive dishes like bacon and blue cheese guacamole as well as traditional Mexican food.
Linus’ Bama-style BBQ
Koreans love barbecue, but it doesn’t bear much resemblance to American-style ‘cue. Linus Kim brought his slow-roasting techniques to Seoul five years ago and now, locals queue for tables at Linus’ Bama BBQ, known for his tender pulled pork and comfort food like Mac and Cheese balls. Kim’s bbq joint is so popular he’s had to turn his patio space into all-weather seating.
The Rye Post
The Rye Post, opened by a Korean-Canadian, serves New York deli food and sandwiches made with homemade bread. It has the distinction of being the only place in Seoul to serve ‘proper’ rye bread. Those who appreciate pastrami and Reuben sandwiches say these are world class.
Texan-Koreans serve Southern food and super-sized classic, American cocktails at Southside Parlour. Drink Moscow Mules and G&T’s on the roof – one of the biggest in Seoul.
Left Coast Artisan Burgers
Craft beers and burgers are on the menu at Left Coast Artisan Burgers. The John Wayne, with bacon, cheddar cheese, onion rings and barbecue sauce is popular, but it’s the Kalbi fries fans find most addictive. The Korean-style fries come smothered in braised short ribs, sour cream and pickled onions and chilli.
Two brothers from Virginia have teamed up with a Londoner to bring the best of America’s east coast to Seoul with Lobster Bar. Like Linus Kim with his BBQ place, and Kenny Park with Vatos Urban Tacos, the trio started small, and have now moved into a larger space serving seafood from Maine and Canada to their mostly Korean clientele.
The humble British sausage has also found a home among Seoul’s hot-dog loving diners. Bulldog Sausages loads ‘em up with toppings and offers themed sausages like English breakfast, served with bread and potatoes. Here, too, the junk food is the draw. The Kimchi fries even have a cult following.