Friday, December 31, 1999

The W0lfh0und in Itaewon: restaurant review

[Published during the 2014-2015 academic year while I was a prof at Dongguk U.]

A coworker of mine at Dongguk University co-owns an Irish-themed pub in Itaewon called The W0lfh0und (spelled with zeroes instead of "o"s, here, to reduce Googleability, which ought to give you a hint as to what I'm going to say). My coworker, who is Irish, is a great, stand-up guy and obviously has a lot of energy to be able to teach a full load of English courses during the day, then run off to Itaewon to manage a lively establishment at night. My hat is off to him for his industriousness. And also for his courage: it takes guts to run a successful business in a foreign country.

Alas, I can't offer the same praise to his pub, which proved—after weeks of anticipation—to be a major disappointment. I had told my colleague, a few weeks before the semester ended, that I looked forward to visiting The W0lfh0und to give him some extra business. Truth be told, even after tonight's rather "meh" experience, I don't regret giving his place business. As I said, my colleague is a good man. On the other hand, I doubt I'll be back that way again.

The W0lfh0und squats on a back street that's parallel to Itaewon's main drag. The pub's entrance is on the second floor, up a gloomy flight of stairs presided over by a painting of a serving lady whose face is covered in graffiti, thus putting a gangsta spin on an otherwise genteel attempt at evoking a fantasy version of Europe. The pub itself is at least two floors high; I easily found a seat on the first floor, close to the enormous heater/AC unit and the speakers blaring American pop songs ranging from A-ha's lone hit ("Take On Me") to 70s/80s Billy Joel ("Piano Man," "Uptown Girl") to Carly Rae Jepsen ("Call Me Maybe").

My server didn't seem the most polite woman in the world. I spoke to her in Korean, but she insisted on English—her default mode for handling us foreigners. She explained that I could order and pay up-front (which was a bit disconcerting) or pay later. Caught off-balance, I paid up-front. The table next to me was empty for a few minutes, but I saw beers sitting on it and knew it was technically occupied. Sure enough, the two occupants returned: two 20-something German guys, one of whom proved ten times more talkative than the other. As the pop music blared, I looked over my menu and placed my order: nachos, the Big Beef Burger, and a bread-and-butter pudding. The server told me that I could hold off on placing the pudding order until later; I don't know why this was important, but I suppose she didn't want to key in all three food items for some reason. As an afterthought, I ordered a prepaid Coke as well. It came out in a can, with a glass of ice next to it, signaling that this establishment didn't do fountain soda, i.e., there would be no free refills.*

I had thought about telling the server not to bring out the appetizer and main course at the same time, but I neglected to do so. This is a common problem in Korea when you're eating Western food: there's little to no sense of pacing. And as I suspected would happen, my nachos came out swiftly, with the burger following it after only two or three minutes.

Let's talk about nachos for a second. Some of the best midrange nachos I've ever had (is there a such thing as high-end nachos?) were served at The Tombs of Georgetown University. The Tombs does nachos right: large, curled, triangular corn chips piled high and dripping with cheese and meat sauce, with guacamole and sour cream dolloped neatly on top and ready to be mushed up and spread over the whole mess. The triangular shape of the chips is crucial: because each triangle is curved, the pile is shot through with plenty of nooks and crannies that allow cheese and sauce to flow freely, like a game of Chutes and Ladders. Nachos at The Tombs are a fun tactile, visual, and gustatory experience. Done right, they're messy and gooey. What came out tonight at The W0lfh0und looked, by contrast, as if it had been made by a constipated Swiss: flat, circular chips layered over each other with machine precision in staggered concentric circles, giving off a distinct "medieval scale armor" vibe, not allowing any cheese to drip onto the lower layers. No guacamole was in evidence, but the entire dish was covered in something like ranch dressing. The taste wasn't bad, but it really seemed no different from something I could have ordered at a Bennigan's restaurant.

The burger, as mentioned, came out just as I had begun making the acquaintance of these nachos. It looked impressive—I'll give it that—and the fries were actually quite good: crunchy despite being thick wedge cuts, with a decent amount of salt. The burger was certainly large, so I have no complaints there, either, but... the mouth feel left me thinking I was biting into soggy, partially cooked meatloaf. Very unappealing. A burger is ground meat, true, so you can't expect it to have the same resistance as steak. That said, a well-grilled burger should have some resistance to it, along with at least a slight char on the outside to provide a contrast in both taste and texture. My Big Beef Burger was like warmed-over tartare.

Lastly, there was the bread-and-butter pudding. This wasn't a horrible experience, but it, too, failed to rate higher than a "meh" in my book. The pudding resembled, in concept at least, bread puddings that you can buy in the States (Famous Dave's Barbecue has an excellent, bad-for-you bread pudding), but instead of having the soft, creamy texture I was used to, The W0lfh0und's bread-and-butter pudding featured an overly fork-resistant top layer of toast points that struck me as completely incongruous. The dollop of vanilla ice cream atop the pudding was necessary, as it turned out, to dilute (and thereby improve) the overly buttery taste of the main part of the dessert. I ate the whole thing, of course, because (1) it wasn't terrible, and (2) I was paying for the damn thing, so why waste? But would I order it again? Probably not. I'd rather go somewhere else for dessert, which means I can't count The W0lfh0und as a "complete-dining" experience.

The two German guys next to me jabbered on and on while I ate. I wish I knew more German so I could have some clue as to whatever insipid topic it was that they were discussing. At one point, the more talkative German guy mentioned an English title: "Masters of the Universe." Whether he was referring to the old He-Man cartoons or to some other aspect of pop culture was unclear to me (The Bonfire of the Vanities?), but that was the only thing I caught from the Teutonic repartee. And the quality of the Germans' conversation seemed a fitting match for the quality of my experience at The W0lfh0und so, having already prepaid my bill, I simply got up and left without tipping.**

I feel bad writing this review. My colleague really is a good guy, and I'd love for his business to become even more successful than it is. He's obviously getting decent business even now, so perhaps there's something about the place that I just didn't see or didn't understand. Maybe I arrived on a bad night for the server who served me. Maybe the burgers aren't normally so mushy, and the nachos aren't normally found draped over the shoulders of warriors from 1100s Europe. But I had three different food items, and each one was a strike against the pub. Three strikes and you're out, baby. Unless someone can provide me with a truly convincing reason to return to The W0lfh0und, I have no reason, and no plans, to come back.

*America and Korea occupy completely opposite ends of the free-refill spectrum. In America, when you go to a restaurant that offers free refills, the servers watch you like hawks and refill your glass almost immediately because, as my brother David (who worked a long time in the food-service industry) says, the servers are trained not to leave any glasses empty, ever. So in America, if you ever find yourself more than three minutes with an empty glass, you know you're getting substandard service. In Korea, by contrast, refills almost always come slowly and grudgingly, as if all the servers have morphed into surly Frenchmen unwilling to help the dirty Americans in their midst. You can expect to go ten or fifteen minutes between refills, ensuring you get no more than one or two refills per meal. For most Koreans, this is enough, but for ever-thirsty Americans, it feels like a gyp.

**Western pub-restaurants in Itaewon occupy a weird demimonde when it comes to the tipping culture. Like American restaurants, the bars at these places usually have tip jars. Whether this further implies that people sitting at table should also tip at the ends of their meals is unclear, so I honestly have no clue whether I stiffed my server. No clue... and no concern. She didn't deserve a tip.



  1. Your error was ordering US food at an Irish Pub. The Wolfhound is known more for its offerings of English cuisine...such as the meat pie, toad in the hole or fish and chips. Also, no need to tip.

  2. It's been awhile since I visited WH, and then it was for darts, not dining. Back in the day I would drop by for lunch on occasion, the food was okay then, but nothing all that special. My impression is WH is in the business of selling alcoholic beverages with the food being more of a sideline. For pub fare, it's not bad but I'd certainly never make WH a dining destination. There are certainly many better options in Itaewon these days.

    A lot of the bar/restaurants feature "special" nights. So, on Tuesday you can get a half priced burger, Wednesday is wing night, etc. Perhaps you would have enjoyed your meal more at half the price, at least that's how I roll.

    Speaking of which, further up the WH alley (towards Yongsan) is a place called Bull and Barrel. It's also two floors (the 2nd and 3rd of course). The 2nd is pretty much the restaurant side of the business (although there is a bar and pool table) and upstairs is a pub/dart room vibe. Food is available on both floors and the quality is better than most places of this genre. It's worth the trip on Thursday night when you can get the bbq rib platter for an incredible W7000! It's a full damn rack too, usually more than I can finish alone. I don't know how they do it, I couldn't buy ribs for twice that price in the US grocery stores. Now, I'd personally use a different flavor BBQ sauce, but for the money I'm not complaining.

    Well, I see this comment is almost as long as your post so I'll shut up now.

  3. Ah, there were two other points I meant to make.

    It seems to be a growing trend to ask for the "payment in advance" or it's ugly cousin "I need your credit card to open a tab" (which they hold until you pay). Now, I understand this is intended to reduce the walk out without paying incidences, but it just strikes me as downright unfriendly. The places where I'm a regular make an exception for me now. Otherwise I might not be a regular.

    As for tipping, yes I'm sure the staff at these Western-style places do expect to be tipped, at least by the foreigner clientele. Which doesn't require you to tip for poor service of course. My wife gets on me for being overgenerous with tips, but hey, I'm always greeted with a warm smile on return visits. Who says you can't buy friends?

  4. Chris,

    Good point, except that the burger was recommended to me by the pub's co-owner. I needled him about how Irish his menu was after he'd explained it to me. I think the W0lfh0und should change its menu to something more unrepentantly Irish—not American and not English. Raise the potato-and-cabbage factor, delve a bit into whatever counts as cutting-edge Irish cuisine these days, etc.

    See also the original ZenKimchi writeup of the place, which mentions how highly rated the burgers were in 2009. In that same piece, though, there's an update at the bottom from years later ("much time has passed") that no longer mentions the burgers (and gently implies that much at the W0lfh0und has changed for the worse) but does affirm the fish & chips are still good.


    Interesting points. I'll let you and commenter Chris fight it out as to whether I should have tipped at the WH. The fact that you both think differently on this topic confirms my feeling that Western establishments in Korea occupy a weird little demimonde. (Note that you generally don't tip in Europe—at least not in Continental Europe, where it's service y compris for the most part. Tipping at restaurants is more specifically American, and the WH strikes me as less of a truly Irish pub and more of a Bennigan's-style Irish-themed pub.)

    Meanwhile, John, I agree with your assessment of the WH as being primarily a drinks place and not a food place: the lack of free soda refills last night seemed to imply that this is a bar that likes to serve its drinks in their original containers.

    Going to the WH ended up being another strike against Itaewon which, as you know, is not my favorite place to visit in Seoul. That said, a full rack of ribs for W7,000 sounds quite tempting.

  5. Heh heh heh! Found the secret blog place Kev!

  6. I'm honestly appalled at the quality of this review: A-ha topped the UK single chart with "The Sun Always Shines on T.V." Granted, it was not as popular in the U.S., but it still qualifies as a hit.

    On a serious note, though, you know that I used to frequent the WH. To back up what John (the non-robot one) said, we went primarily for the drinks, although the food was pretty good, too--namely the fish and chips. But the food is always going to play second fiddle.

    These days, the proliferation of places offering microbrews and my membership in the SABB (whose members you know, of course) have meant that it has been quite some time since I've darkened the WH's door. But I was always happy there. The one thing I didn't like was how the music got louder and louder over the course of the evening, until it was virtually impossible to hold a conversation. The solution to that was to drop in early--which is not a problem as I slowly become an old man--but it was still annoying. I don't understand why the music has to be so loud that you can't hear yourself think.

    My god... I am an old man, aren't I.



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