Dongdaemun was described to us as dark, dingy, sweaty, teeming with humanity…as a Korean maze of sizzling innards and clothing and jewelry and ice cream. Basically, if it exists, it could be found and consumed in the shopping halls of Dongdaemun. Our original plan was to go to Myengdong for such an experience, but we were told that caters more to Westerners, whereas Dongdaemun is pure Korea.
We hopped a cab there, and of course, when we got out we weren’t really sure where to head to find the action. We were dropped right next to the new Dongdaemun Design Plaza, an enormous building that is better described as an enormous, futuristic, space ship like, art installation.
From there we crossed over the Cheong-gye-cheon, a river flanked with quiet walkways down below, and shopping malls as far as the eye can see up above. The buildings on the far side of the river had dingier look to them, and as we got closer it became clear that the mazes we were looking for were there.
Suddenly, there was a travelers diarrhea emergency and we had to reverse course to find a bathroom. We crossed the big main street that separates Dongdaemun, like highway big, and found a bathroom in the subway station. Once the ass crisis was handled, we decided we needed to have a beer before we took on anything else. We stood discussing which direction we should set off in, when we noticed that one of the many food stalls available was selling the french fry wrapped hot dog that we had read about back home.
It was a bland disappointment:(
Finding a beer was not so easy. In the sea of malls, we couldn’t spot signs for restaurants or alcohol anywhere. Then we spotted the tourism cowboys of Seoul. In an effort to be as tourist friendly as possible (and it is an extremely tourist friendly place), the city posts volunteers in major shopping areas, armed with maps and English-speaking skills (I would guess they speak Japanese as well), adorned in red vests and red cowboy hats, ready to give information, advice, and directions to tourists. They are friendly young kids and I just think it’s above and beyond that Seoul does this. I imagine the tourist experience in San Francisco is quite different indeed.
We started with our usual attempts at saying beer and pantomiming drinking as this particular group of kids were less experienced with English, or perhaps just less experienced with bars. They consulted with each other in hangul, asked us questions in English, consulted each other again…we were pretty sure they weren’t understanding what we were asking for when one of them, who had been quiet up to this point, spoke to us in an American accent. That kid was from Ohio. Right.
They gave us great directions and we found our destination right off. We settled in for a drink and some people watching, when, to my delight, this guy showed up.
The boys decided to stay and drink while Randi and I went to shop. Having whet our pallets at the cosmetics shops in Itaewon, our first stop was at a chain called Skin Food, to price out the world-renowned snail cream. It’s cream made from the secretion of snails, and it is ALL the rage. Girls, I don’t give a shit about cosmetics, or shopping even, at home. But in Korea, you have to go native. The shopping is just that awesome. Snail cream was $50 at that first stop, so we moved on.
We didn’t really know what we were looking for, so we walked into a random door in a random mall, and, HOLY SHIT. Korean shopping is just fucking balls to the wall crazy. This enormous building, the size of a Westfield type mall in America, was chock absolutely full with vendors. Each place had about a 15 X 15 area, no walls separating them, no signs, no dressing rooms. It was like a flea market but with designer clothes and jewelry (and also not so designer clothes and jewelry, to be sure).
We found some things we wanted to try on and one place let me, in some sort of broom closet made out of cardboard (ok maybe plywood), but for the most part, my experience with clothes shopping in Seoul was that you find something on the rack, you let the sales person know you want to purchase it, then they go and grab a fresh one wrapped in plastic. You aren’t meant to buy the clothes on the rack or to try them on.
After a sufficient amount of shopping, we tried to make our way back out of the mall and had some Ikea PTSD moments, but eventually, we succeeded, and made our way back to the bar.
I consulted my notes and tried to find a nearby dinner spot. Samwon Garden is in Dongdaemun and had been lauded, by many sources, as the absolute best Galbi (Korean BBQ) to be had in Seoul, so it seemed like then was the time to try it. My first clue that something was amiss came when we were greeted by tour busses parked outside the restaurant. I should have listened to the old gut and bolted, but as I mentioned before, bolting is kind of difficult in that big ass city and Samwon Garden is not in a walkable area with other options.
I’ll start by saying, the outer courtyard of Samwon Garden is beautiful.
In addition to the charming lanterns and trees, there is a lovely waterfall and coi pond.
But then, we went inside, where we were greeted by hosts with walkie-talkie head sets on and poster sized restaurant ads propped up on easels. We told them we didn’t have reservations and they gave that look like we were really making a ballsy move, trying to get in to the famous Samwon Garden without a reservation. Then they sat us in the less fancy of the two dining rooms.
Our server opened up the menu for us and showed us the dish they are famous for, marinated ribs. We said yes to that, she said, enough for four people? We said yes, and that was that.
The banchan came and it was just average.
I mean, that little cold soup guy was pretty good I guess.
Then our ribs came, and the things is, they stand there and cook it for you.
So you take a piece, and you wrap it up in lettuce leaves and throw whatever else you want in there, and just, it was bland, and totally boring. So much so that Jake up and took off for the serenity of the garden outside.
To be fair to the food at Samwon Garden, he was just REALLY feeling that garden.
Anyway, it was all good and fine, a meal written off as boring and not worth it, until we went to pay and it was $134 per couple. What the what? Like, we were in Seoul, eating flaps of BBQ’d meat. Really? I was pissed. Everyone was pissed. Mikey actually turned on me and said from now on we only eat street food and we don’t hit any of the restaurants I suggested (he lost that battle, but still).
This was our Korean version of the Prague Ham; a big hunk of ham that we bought from a street stall in a touristy part of Prauge, that we were charged fifty euros for while the guys who served it to us giggled and mocked us in Czech. It happens at least once a trip, and here it was, the rape at Samwon Garden.
Back at the hotel, we unpacked our little Korean face masks that we bought in Itaewon and went for a cleansing of the face and spirit. When you open them, those masks are all slimy. When you put them on your face they are cool and refreshing, and let’s just say, I became obsessed with the Korean face mask, right then and there.