Seoul is a pretty confusing city to navigate; first, there is the issue of the alphabet. Hangul, the Korean alphabet, was Romanized in 2000, which means that P’s became B’s, D’s became T’s, and K’s became G’s…it made for some serious confusion during my trip planning phase. The same places or foods were referred to, on the internet and in guide books, using either or, and sometimes, both. For instance, Banchan and Panchan are the same thing, as are Kimbap and Gimpab, as are Ddeokbokki and Tteokbokki.
Next, add in the address changeover that is currently in progress, creating newly numbered houses and named streets, which in practical terms meant that having an address for a destination often did not mean jack. Many times during our stay in the South Korean capital we got into a cab, gave the driver an address written in Hangul (written by the front desk at the hotel), they would look at it quizzically, type something into their GPS, drop us off in the right neighborhood but the wrong place, then we would wander around trying to get internet and google maps to help us, which it pretty much never did. I tried to arrange my notes of places I wanted to eat/drink/shop/see by neighborhood, yet so many of the neighborhoods or districts are referred to by different names, using different alphabets, that with all of the research I did, I was still pretty lost.
Seoul is also enormous.
It seemed that every taxi ride we embarked upon, no matter the destination, was 45 minutes in duration. After going through the whole song and dance with the front desk trying to find an address for our destination and translating it into the proper alphabet (and choosing one or the other address system), then giving it to a cab driver who would pull off the side of the road to adjust his GPS entry (or sometimes, make a mysterious phone call), then a 45 minute cab ride, if we couldn’t find our intended destination we just committed ourselves to exploring the neighborhood we were in instead of trying to find something else on our list.
When we took the subway, it was extremely hard to orient ourselves on our map then walk to a specific location. It was one thing when our goal was simply to explore a neighborhood, but quite another to locate a specific restaurant, which was a bit like finding a needle in a haystack; not to mention, a lot of restaurants we were looking for were fronted with signs in Hangul; we didn’t recognize them when they were staring us right in the face.
Our third day in Seoul began with a quest for American hockey. The San Jose Sharks were in a playoff match that day; we discovered before we left the states that Sam Ryan’s in Itaewon was the place to go for American sports. We took a cab there and went searching for the bar using instructions we got from a blog, which told us to find the KFC by the Itaewon subway stop, make a right, go up the stairs, make a left in the alley, and walk to the end of that street. I think we were also told there was a bus on top of the building. That is literally how you find things in Seoul. With directions like that.
Unfortunately, we converted the US hockey schedule and time change incorrectly, putting us in Itaewon an hour or two before anything opened or before the game was to start.
I had read that Dunkin’ Donuts was an experience to be had in South Korea, and there is one on the main drag there in Itaewon. We decided to kill some time trying out the famed Chewisty donut (made with tapioca flour) and get some coffee.
The spread in Dunkin’ Donuts Korea is pretty freakin’ awesome. First of all, the interior is kinda classy, not at all similar to the DD layouts in the US. There was a refrigerator case with sandwiches and bottles of water in it, a barista for proper coffee drinks, a self-serve donut case, outlet hubs in the middle of the tables for computer plug-in, wifi, and adorable little baskets under the tables for storing belongings.
The chewisty donut was, as its name implies, chewy. It definitely tasted different from your average donut but wasn’t crazy delicious or anything. Actually, it was less sweet than its American counterpart. The real star, for me, was the onion ring donut. I so love the combination of sweet and savory, and this really did taste like an onion ring, but it also really did taste like a sweet, yummy donut. We bought these little monkey bread guys that looked like bananas (I think they were called bananas. Or monkey bread) they’re adorable and available by the cup, so a mixture of different flavors can be assembled. I enjoyed them but the dough was quite dense. Our order was rounded out by a jelly filled, dusted with a heavy layer of powered sugar; that was a real crowd pleaser.
We wandered the streets for a while after breakfast. It was a little drizzly, the streets were pretty empty, but it was fun poking our way around through the meandering alleys that are all over the neighborhood. It became clear, by all of the shops and restaurants with names written in English, and all of the stores advertising “western sizes” that we were in an expat neighborhood. Later, when people were out and about, it was confirmed by all of the white faces we saw in the bars and on the streets. Itaewon is kind a of Korean version of Cabo San Lucas and North Beach in San Francisco, with huge, two and three-story warehouse bars with balcony style open window plans up top, so that one can sit and watch the madness unfold down below, when everyone is out partying at night. That part of it was super Cabo, as were the names of the establishments, which all evoked thoughts of Senor Frogs.
There are a lot of “underground” shops in Itaewon. Some are just large doorways, or what looks like an entrance into a hall of some kind, with wide sets of stairs leading down into the shopping area. Others look like the entrance into a parking garage, with a wide ramp to walk down, with various tsotchke’s for purchase lining the sides.
Korea sells a lot of cute little socks. Like, a LOT of them. They are everywhere. We found our first sock vendor and made our very first sock purchase in Itaewon. They were $1/ea and when I say cute…well, here:
Yeah. Those are Obama socks. We also bought some Psy socks. Yes, he is doing the “Gangnam style” dance on them.
They sell a lot of American sports jerseys too, some are really legit looking, others, not so much, but either way, they cost somewhere between $15 and $30.
We wandered around some more and passed through what was clearly the LGBT friendly area, where there were lots of transgender bars (they literally say, “transgender bar” lest there be any confusion) when we spotted a mandu stand I had read about. So. thrilled. We ordered pork and vegetable and I think one other flavor, then happily stood on the street and watched as the mandu steamed. Man, those hot, juicy, bastards were delicious.
Sam Ryan’s finally opened and we settled in for beers and shots and hockey. The delay is a little annoying, it makes the game all choppy and weird, but, I could care less about hockey so it mattered not to me.
A new bar meant new food options, and a food opportunity never arises that we don’t take, so we ordered some tacos and wings. Tacos are totally in in Korea right now, and Vatos Urban Tacos, also in Itaewon, is one of the most notable places to eat in Seoul (at least on the interwebs, it is) but it was closed and we needed to watch hockey so we got tacos at Sam Ryans. They have some scorcher sauce for the wings there, if you want them, but it tasted way too much like chipotle, which I hate, so I just ate them as they came. The tacos were pretty crappy but satisfyingly so.
Randi and I grew tired of the hockey and went back outside to explore. Our first stop was Vatos (now open) where we had sickly sweet margaritas with some complimentary fried tortilla’s with salsa. Vatos reminds me of a place you would see in the big cities in the states. The design is definitely hipster.
I bought a cute little hoodie at Vatos, but really, Randi and I were such amateurs at the Korean shopping game back then. After those drinks we made our first foray into the famed Korean cosmetics shops, where one can sample absolutely anything, and everything is packaged in the most unbearably cute fashion. We did not take proper advantage at the time. We were such rookies. I think we did buy a couple of face masks (more on that later) and I bought something to try to rid my face of a hideous zit I had, but it really ended there. Fools. We had no idea.