Thursday, August 06, 2015

two cherries popped today

I have a KMA gig in Ulsan next week, so I had to swing by the Yeouido office to pick up my train tickets (KMA is footing the bill) and hotel-reservation information. After visiting the office, I cabbed over to Itaewon to meet my buddy Tom, who was interested in hitting a few different shops, including some purveyors of Western herbs and spices that I'm going to need to start making homemade Italian and American breakfast sausage. Tom also wanted to hand off the armpit deodorant he had bought for me while he'd been vacationing in the Philippines with his wife and son. We did the handoff, like a drug deal, in a Starbucks.

One of our first stops was at a cell-phone shop because I had a question about what to do when my current two-year contract expires: does my contract renew itself automatically, or do I have to actually visit an office and do the renewal paperwork face-to-face? As it turned out, "face-to-face" was the correct answer, at least according to the woman I spoke with. Tom told me that he also needed to know what was going to happen, so I got an answer for both of us.

We were supposed to visit a particular shop called High Street Market, which carried all sorts of hard-to-find goodies that would be common in the West. For me and my future sausages, this meant finding things like sage, fennel seeds, and other herbs, spices, and seasonings. I was also curious as to whether the place would be stocking dill weed and cumin. Tom had never been to High Street before, and neither had I, so we both popped our High Street cherries the moment we walked into the store. I ran down my checklist, and happily, High Street had everything in stock. The only minus was that most of the magic flakes and powders that I wanted were being sold in tiny plastic bottles that cost W3,500 each.

Before Tom and I got to High Street, however, we stopped at another "international" market that was situated on Itaewon's infamous Hooker Hill. That place, run by South Asians, carried a wide variety of herbs and spices, but most of them skewed Indian. I noted with interest that, at this place, a large bag of jasmine rice cost W18,000, but a similarly sized bag of so-called "Thai rice" (I'm sure there has to be a more specific term than that) was only W7,500—a good value even by the standards of Korean sticky rice which, truth be told, isn't that cheap.

After meeting at Starbucks, hitting the South Asian place, visiting the cell-phone lady, and shopping at High Street, we trundled over to a sandwich shop called Rye Post. Tom had recommended this place based on good reports from some of his other friends and acquaintances. I was a bit on my guard; Tom and Charles are convinced that Itaewon, as a food destination, has markedly improved over the years, but I'm still getting over an instinctive mistrust of Itaewon in general. All the same, I trusted Tom, if not Itaewon, so we stepped into Rye Post to nab some sandwiches.

The clipboard menu was simply laid out, which was a plus. Our server (does anyone say "waitress" anymore?), who also doubled as our food runner, was bright and cute, and she cooed at my Korean skills. I decided not to remark that she needed to raise her expectations of foreigners: many Koreans are startled when a foreigner speaks to them in Korean precisely because the Koreans' expectations are so low. Unfortunately, many foreigners still confirm those low expectations, making it harder for the rest of us to convince Koreans that, yes, Korean-speaking expats do exist outside of TV.

And this is where I popped my bánh mì cherry. I saw the Franco-Vietnamese fusion sandwich on the menu, and I wavered between that and the Cubano, neither of which I had ever tried before. I elected to go with the bánh mì, thinking to myself that, if it was good, I'd come back and try the Cubano later.

Tom refuses to eat vegetables, so he ordered what was essentially a nude cheesesteak, and we got the cheesesteak waffle fries to share—again, without veggies, on Tom's insistence. Alas, when the fries came out, they had been liberally sprinkled with minced green onion. Tom shrugged and used a tiny plastic fork to scoop out the onions before digging into the fries.

Bad points about my sandwich and the restaurant's service first: the drinks were canned, which meant no free refills—a major minus. My bánh mì was rather small, and it wasn't made with a proper French baguette. Like other hot sandwiches I've had in Itaewon, it had obviously been run through a panini press. I don't know what the Korean obsession with panini presses is all about, but it's ruining some otherwise decent sandwiches (I wrote a bit about this last year: my boss had a Reuben that had also been run through a panini press).

That was it as far the negatives went. As I mentioned before, we had good, friendly, cute service from our server. My bánh mì, though disappointingly small, was nevertheless rib-sticking; once I supplemented the sandwich with several steak-y waffle chips, I was mostly satisfied with my meal. I did immediately begin thinking of ways to improve upon the bánh mì I'd received, but the sandwich was very tasty on its own terms, despite not having been made with a proper baguette. Tom's sandwich looked a bit meager, but he's much smaller than I am, so I'm going to assume his meal filled him up more than mine filled me. The true surprise, though, was the side: those cheesesteak waffle fries were amazing—easily better, in terms of taste and price—than the kimchi fries sold at Vatos Urban Tacos up the street.

Here are three pics of our meal: the two sandwiches and those miraculous, sainted fries. Verdict: I'll definitely be going back to Rye Post again, and next time I'll be ordering the Cuban. Or maybe two, if that sandwich is similar in size to today's bánh mì. Click on the second image to enlarge it. Enlarge it further, after clicking, by right-clicking and doing an "open in new tab" command. Enjoy the visuals.

First up, those fries:

Click the following image of my bánh mì to enlarge:

Tom's scrawny sandwich:

All in all, today was an excellent reconnaissance day for me. I'll be hitting High Street again sometime soon, and will also very likely invade Rye Post one more time to try out their Cubano. Maybe I'll order a Cubano and bánh mì at the same time. Mmmmm.



John from Daejeon said...

Kevin, have you ever been to Haddon House Super Market?

Here's some real good information on this most excellent reason to visit for your food, soda, and turkey cravings. I've made that sweat-inducing trek to and from the subway station up that steep hill past all those foreign consulates several times carrying back countless cans of root beer and Big Red, as well as jars and jars of genuine, non-sugary, dill pickles, only now to find out that they deliver if you're spend a lot of money there like I always do.

You won't find a more friendly market anywhere else in the world. I know they've offered to take me down the hill to my stop every time I've been there. And on the few occasions I relented due to the extreme cold of winter in Seoul, the drivers have always refused money for the lift.

If I lived in Seoul, I'd go broke spending money there as their selections of quality foods, drinks, vegetables, and antiperspirants is unequaled in South Korea.

Charles said...

What percentage of restaurants that you go to actually offer free refills? I don't generally drink soft drinks, so I can't speak with any authority, but it doesn't seem to be a very common practice in Korea.

Kevin Kim said...


Thanks. I'll check it out.


Not a high percentage in Itaewon, that's for sure. And that's ironic, since Itaewon is the place with the highest density of Western-style eateries—almost all of which, in the West, would offer free refills.

Aside from that, I'd say about half, but that's probably skewed because of my tendency to lean toward Bennigan's-style family-dining restaurants when I eat Western. But as an example of a modest, stripped-down place that offers free refills, there's the tiny, basement-level VIPS burger joint inside the CJ Building located in Chungmuro, down the hill from Dongguk and right next to my old neighborhood. There, free refills are a given.

At Rye Post, they served only those meager, 250-ml cans of Coke. I ended up ordering five—three for me, two for Tom. We drank them all.

Charles said...

Half is a lot more than I was expecting. I guess because I rarely, if ever, order soft drinks, it just never occurred to me that places might have free refills. I guess I also don't go to family restaurants that often, either.

Free refills aside, there is something about a place that provides soft drinks in cans/bottles that strikes me as, at the very least, uneconomical. Soda foundation drinks are ridiculously cheap for the business owner (this is where fast food joints make all their profits). I don't care how much of a discount you get buying bulk, it's not going to be as cheap as a soda fountain.

Kevin Kim said...

Agreed. A friend of mine in college once noted that at McDonald's, the single-serving cost of a wax-paper cup, flimsy plastic lid, straw, fizzy water, and Coke syrup was negligible—maybe a cent or a couple cents at most. The rest of the cost of the drink—99 cents to $1.50 or so—is profit. That is indeed an incredible profit margin.