Vital Visits in Itaewon

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The Itaewon and Hongdae districts of Seoul are areas that most foreigners will come to see as a sort of ‘holy city’ during their time in South Korea. Most Korean cities or towns are not without Western conveniences such as a few fast food joints, one or two grossly overpriced designer clothes stores, and cinemas showing Western movies in English – but for a truly homesickness inducing day, a visit to the area really is necessary.

A walk through Itaewon’s crowded streets is one of the rare occasions in Korea where you don’t feel like a minority (the other being the Mud Festival). You’re likely to see a lot more Westerners in the crowds here, and for a moment it’s easy to forget that you’re at the heart of Korea’s largest city.

The streets are lined alternatively with Western restaurants, souvenir stores, and Korean businesses professing to sell ‘largee size’ that only really suits if you’re a gangbanger from the mean streets of Compton. I am deadly serious when I say that seems to be the target demographic of most of these stores. I’ve been in one that actually had a dedicated bling section. But if you’re into baggy jeans and replica jerseys of various hockey and basketball franchises, you’re in luck. You’re also in something resembling luck if you happen to not be a slightly built man-boy and you need human sized clothes. Korea does not, unfortunately, really cater to those of us with extra weight, broad shoulders, or who are taller than average. You have been forewarned.

There is also more custom suit tailors than you can shake a rat at, and they’re not shy about trying to lure you in for a fitting. Expect to be harassed by more than one well dressed ajoshi trying to get you the custom suit you’ve always desired. I’ve not had any experience purchasing one, so I can’t attest as to the quality of their work.

But the real reasons people go to Itaewon are three-fold:

– Foreign Food
– Night Life
– Shopping

Food, Glorious Food!

On the foreign food front there is an abundance of options. Burger King, KFC, and McDonalds make their token appearances. These three chains have done a brilliant job of proliferating themselves across the peninsula and you’re never going to have to walk far to find one in any modestly sized town. But you’ll also find Subway, Quiznos, Taco Bell, a variety of non chain Mexican restaurants, a few kebab vendors (real kebabs, not shish-kebabs), plenty of Italian joints, and even (at last check) a fantastic pita place reminiscent of the north-west US chain, Pita Pit.

There’s also a Hard Rock Cafe that I’ve yet to visit, the criminally good local burger chain called Kraze Burger, the token Outback Steakhouse, a slew of Indian restaurants, and even a Thai place. Although I’ve not had the pleasure of dining there just yet. My hankering for a good Pad Thai and Panang Curry might get me there before too long though.

My personal favorites when I visit the area are the aforementioned Pita Pit knock-off, Quiznos, Cold Stone, and a rather good hole in the wall Mexican place called Amigos. It’s down the same street on which you’ll find Taco Bell and Geckos and while it’s small, the food is amongst the better Mexican fare you’ll find in Korea. I’ve had American friends issue reviews ranging from ‘really good’ to ‘meh’ though, so I guess it really does come down to individual taste. I’ve never once been unhappy with my food there though.

Good times at Amigos in 2009 with Cody, Desiree, and Fallon
My delicious vegetarian burrito. So good that it's the only thing I've tried on their menu!

I love the night life. I love to boogie.

On the night life front, Itaewon (and nearby Hongdae) offer more foreigner friendly establishments than you’ll find almost anywhere else in the country. With the large US military presence in the area, there’s no shortage of tastes of home such as Dr. Pepper, real beer, and bar food of a more substantial variety than the popcorn, salted spaghetti sticks, and dried seaweed you’re likely to find in your average hof. I’ve had mixed experiences with the boys in uniform. Some of the servicemen I’ve met have been genuinely good blokes just having a good time, but in too many cases blowing off steam has equated to picking fights and pawing drunkenly at any and all Western females they encounter. It’s an unfortunate example to be setting, and the primary reason I avoid military favored hangouts like Geckos.

My old friend Dean enjoying bucket cocktails at a bar whose name escapes me. Something about monkeys? Photo by Lesley Wells

But there are plenty of other great alcohol options in Seoul, and I only wish I had been drinking there recently enough to have an updated list for you. As my visit last weekend was to see the folks and do some sight-seeing, I didn’t find time to imbibe at any of the Itaewon watering holes.

I’ve long been a fan of the Irish themed Wolfhound. Just around the corner from Geckos in a nondescript alley, Wolfhound is a real old fashioned pub complete with pub food, pool tables, and a healthy selection of beer and slightly over-priced cocktails. It’s my preferred stop off point for an evening meal – with everything from mushy peas to a full English on tap at all hours. The place is never quiet from my experience, and while there’s a modest dance floor, it’s primarily a drinks and hanging out kind of pub. My style.

Good times at the Wolfhound in 2008. Photo by Jami Esbenshade

Other similarly pub like bars include the Canadian themed Rocky Mountain Tavern, the aforementioned Gecko’s Terrace (which does have good food to its credit), and the dingy but enjoyable Loft. The latter has frequent ladies nights, so it’s a good place to go if you’re looking to meet a drunk Western girl. I know that was the reason for my sole visit to that particular establishment. No comment as to whether it worked or not.

There’s plentiful options as far as clubs go, but since they’re not really my speed, my visits to them have primarily been in a bag carrying male friend capacity and they’ve never lasted long. The sole one that sticks out in my head was Spy Bar. If you like crowded, sweaty, smoky clubs in which thumping bass is all you can hear – it’s pretty much what you’re looking for.

My knowledge of the Seoul drinking scene isn’t particularly strong, but there’s plenty of information available at websites such as KoreaBridge and Galbijim if you want to do a little more research.

Buying the Essentials

No visit to Seoul is complete without a visit to two of its most famous foreigner haunts – the Foreigner Market and What the Book?

What the Book? lies along the main drag of Itaewon (the same street where the subway station exits are) and has a large collection of new and used books at very reasonable prices. It’s no Borders or Dymocks (shout out to Australian readers) but it’s got a surprisingly varied selection of books ranging from the token fantasy section and fiction to Self Help, History, Education, and Politics. There’s also a healthy graphic novel section, a large children’s section, and the required travel section for those of us with horizons that stretch beyond the bars of our respective towns.

Kimberly and I visited primarily to get the next book for the Daejeon/Cheonan book club we’d joined, but she deviously snatched up the sole copy of The Poisonwood Bible and left me clutching at thin air. Not to be deterred, I did pick up a pair of non-fiction books to exercise my mind in the absence of my beloved Kindle. May it rest in peace. I grabbed Penguin’s Complete History of the World and a book on writing to hopefully bust me out of my writer’s block funk. Kimberly came away with an armful of novels and I think even my folks grabbed some books on Korean cooking and culture for their already exhaustive library.

From What the Book? it’s not a particularly long walk towards the Foreigner Market – although ours was interrupted by my parents doing some souvenir shopping. The Foreigner Market is a claustrophobia inducing little storefront with a very substantial selection of non Korean food. While the bulk of it tends towards servicing a South-East Asian and Indian population – there’s still plenty of tastes of home there to tide you over. From real cheese (including feta and haloumi) to tortillas, pita, and bread; from Tim Tams and Flaming Hot Cheetos to refried beans, Mi Goreng instant noodles (ramen), and lentils. There’s pesto and A&W Root Beer, a decent selection of deodorants and gums, taco shells, taco seasoning, and even the very good Ritter chocolate all the way from Germany.

My haul from my visit to Seoul. Note that some items (such as Caramello Koalas and Starburst Babies) were gifts from my folks

It’s not going to have all of the comforts of home, but nowhere in Korean will. But if all you need to push you through the latest bout of ‘I hate Korea’ – you’ll find it here in the form of some home-made hummus, an ice cold can of Dr. Pepper, or some Axe (Lynx for the Australians) deodorant to tide you over for the summer months.

Directions: If you’re standing out the front of the Hamilton Hotel, you want to cross the road to the Quiznos side of the road and then turn left. After two blocks you turn down a side street on your right and you’ll see a foreigner restaurant and the Foreign Food Market. There’s also a good bar here by the name of Roofers (I think?) that my good friend Byron recommended. They don’t accept credit cards though, so be sure to visit your bank or a convenience store to have a wad of cash in hand. Learn from my mistakes!

And now for something completely different…

In non Seoul news, I’ve recently been asked to feature my blog on the very useful Korea Bridge website. KoreaBridge is the reason I am back in Korea at this point, since I used their exhaustive jobs list to find my current gig. It’s presented in a far easier to read way than Dave’s ESL Cafe too. In addition to jobs and their blog highlights, there’s also forums, photos, classifieds of all kinds, and plenty of information about Korean life from a foreigner perspective. It’s one of the top two websites I visit for my Korean information – the other being the well known Waygook.org.

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  • Joe

    Recognize the dude in the third picture?  http://www.hookerhill.org/ I think he was in Itaewon at the same time you were there.

    • For one terrifying moment, I feared you’d found evidence of my drunken visit to Hooker Hill in 2008 :-p

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