Busan: The Incredible Edible Taejongdae Clam Tents (and the world’s most heinous Chinatown)

Our plan for the day was to head to the Taejongdae clam tents on Yeongdo Island, but first, we were in desperate need of some won and on the hunt for a currency exchange. I found out about the clam tents on the blog Busan Awesome (http://cityawesome.com/busan1/) where I learned that we needed to catch a bus outside the Jagalchi market, which is right by Busan station, so, we headed there first to find some cash.

This was our first view of Busan station from the front, because we left out the back, where the cabs line up, when we arrived. It was also storming on our first trip through. We were all quite surprised by that big sculpture, on top of that big fountain, inside that big square, with those big mountains lurking in the back. The modern glass architecture of the station itself was a revelation as well. It had all seemed so podunk and deserted when we pulled in during the storm. This time around the front was a hive of activity, one side was lined with tents (that we did not investigate, don’t know what the deal was with those) there were kids hanging out, people lunching, and one tent with some sort of religious a memorial, it seemed. We thought that it may have had something to do with the ferry disaster, which happened days before our arrival in South Korea.

Finding an exchange was quite the fiasco, really. We combed through the station and when we felt we’d thoroughly exhausted our options, we asked the information folks for some advice. Would you believe there IS no currency exchange at the train station? It is the most bizarre thing in the world. We were told that we must go to Chinatown for our monetary needs. What kind of Chinese mafia nonsense is that? Thankfully, Chinatown is across the street from Busan station. Unfortunately, “Chinatown” is some bizarre, contrived, tourist center that has absolutely nothing to do with China save for the colors red and yellow being in wide use. Yes, that is a sign in Cyrillic. The port of Busan does lots of business with Russia, and apparently, Chinatown and Russiatown are one in the same. It was just the weirdest place ever, really sterile, almost museum like, actually, with oddball food options and lots of stuffed animal shops. One restaurant even had a sign that said “tourist restaurant.” Um…no. thanks though.

We were looking for something to eat, and it was just not going well. There was an attempt to go in to the one place where there were lots of Asian people eating, but we were stink eyed and shooed away by the head ajumma. I think she actually yelled “NO!” at us. We continued on to the Chinatown cuts, where we found a place that we were pretty certain was going to ruin our lives.

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We were the only people there, and were being entirely ignored, but then, a parade of ajummas of came in and we started to feel better about our choice. The restaurant had been prepping a luncheon for those ladies, and once they were situated, we were able to get some attention.

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We ended up having the most delightful meal of water dumplings (and one other dumpling, can’t remember) and delicious fried chicken.

On to the matter at hand…getting ourselves to the Tajongdae clam tents. We had to catch a bus, bus 8, and take it to the end of the line. Doing so wasn’t entirely easy. We found a bus stop, and we asked some people for help, and we thought we were in the right place, waiting for the right bus, but then…every bus that pulled up was packed so full that we couldn’t get on it. Ends up we were about to go the wrong direction anyway. So. if you are in Busan, and you plan to head to Taejongdae, catch bus number 8 right by the subway exit 10, which is next to/in front of the Jagalchi market, and take it to the end of the line. The L.E.D sign will say “Taejongdae” on it. This giant crab marks the entrance to the indoor portion of Jagalchi, and I believe the bus stop to Taejongdae is the closest stop to this guy.

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It was tempting to give up on the clam tents all together. The traffic was insane on that weekend day, the busses were like cans packed tight with sardines, and the Jagalchi market looked super fabulous. But we decided to at least see what bus 8 looked like, going in the right direction.

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The bus system is in Korea is pretty awesome. The stops have animated, computerized signs that track your little cartoon bus and give you real-time updates as to how far away your ride is.

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When the bus pulled up, it was so full it didn’t seem possible that the four of us could fit. But we decided to commit, and we shoved ourselves in, for the hour-long bus ride from hell.

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We got stuck behind road construction, we sat at red lights that seemed to last for five minutes a piece, we drove up into some hills and around the perimeter of the city

and then, we sat in traffic so bad that about four cars in the lineup just u-turned and took off back in the direction from which they came. It was SO bad in fact, that our bus driver did this:

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I was feeling really terrible about getting us into this. Like, realllllly terrible. I also managed to snag a seat on the bus and I was the only dick in our group sitting down. If the clam tents sucked, I feared there may have been a mutiny.

Our bus driver pulled into a gas station and told us to get the hell off the bus, basically. I had some rough directions from the Busan Awesome blog, but I really didn’t understand that Taejongdae is a huge resort/park, where people go to hike and recreate on the weekends. We followed the flow of people, teenagers, families, people on dates, folks in hiking gear, etc, to an enormous parking lot full of busses.

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We were pretty disoriented, with a lot of different directions in which we could go and no clear idea which we should pick. We consulted a giant map (no help at all),

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we looked around, and eventually, we made a decision to walk down a road that looked like it was for maintenance vehicles and not pedestrians, which proved to be the correct choice.

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This is how you get to the clam tents. When you get off the bus, walk with the crowd, or, head in the same direction the bus was driving. At the end of the street is a CU convenience store, and the parking lot/park entrance. You make a right there, where the CU mart is, and walk down that road/driveway. You won’t even enter the parking lot; that road is directly in front of it, RIGHT behind the giant map.

This is what the road looks like from the other point of view, as we walked up it at night, and, the CU mart where you take the right.

At the bottom of the hill, the road comes to a T, and suddenly you see the ocean, and tents as far as the eye can see, female barkers lined up in front, ready to bark you on in.

There are other attractions as well, across from the clam tents, I think they were selling desserts and coffee and whatnot. There are bathrooms too, so you don’t need to panic about drinking with your meal.

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We cruised a little, avoiding near attacks from the women, and finally settled on a tent. The barker/head honcho led us in, past the prep area with tubs of fresh shellfish in the front, and we sat, with a lovely view of the ocean and the sounds of the waves on the shore.

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There was a board menu hanging with options in Hangul. The alpha dog lady pointed at some options, but we were completely lost as to what they were, so we just chose a price, the $60 guy I think, ordered some drinks, and sat and waited.

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Soon, another woman arrived with a steaming hot bowl of mussels, some cut up pieces of corn (more like hominy, with enormous kernels) and some fresh carrots and cucumber.

When we finished that, she returned with hot coals that she set in to our table, then she briefly disappeared, to come back with the most incredible spread. I think Randi started to cry then, tears of joy of course, which made me cry, and then there was some clapping and some shouts of “gun bae!” None of us could believe our good fortune, to be sitting there with that beautiful view, listening to the ocean, eating its bounty. It was just beautiful, and magical, and by far, one of the best travel moments of my life.

Never have I had scallops that tasted like that. The best word I can use to describe it is “pure.” They were just so untainted, so FRESH, so buttery. All of us were thrown into a state of rapture. Oh, and getting to cook everything ourselves, on our charming little grill? Common!! What is more fabulous than that? What, I ask?

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In addition to the scallops dressed with onion, garlic, jalapeno and carrot, we had clams

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plus a few scallops that were just like the others, with the addition of gochujang, the most ubiquitous of Korean sauces/seasonings. Those were OUT. OF. THIS. WORLD. We all had our own method and preference for doneness, some of us going with a little heat and a soupier result, and others, for a more cooked down, carmelized version.

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Jake is an absolute sucker for interactive food experiences, well, I guess we all are, but it REALLY floats his boat. He was in hog heaven, having his own cooktop with his own set of raw food to prepare.

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The spread came with some prawns and two tinfoil trays full of a seafood mixture of sorts. I think it was razor clam and squid, possibly with some onion and garlic, doused with a healthy dose of gochujang. I don’t really know, except to say it was phenomenal. It was saucy and rich, with a mix of textures from chewy to buttery soft, I just could not get enough of that stuff.

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We took our time, relishing in the moment and savouring the food. We took so long in fact, that we required a second set of hot coals so we ould finish cooking our meal. Sometime in the late afternoon, the tent started to fill up with Koreans. Occasionally a man would cruise by on the ocean side of the tent, selling desserts. If I was a young Korean guy living in Busan, this would 100% be my first date place. The scenery is romantic and the food is just other worldly.

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On the way out, we took one last look at the hard-working ladies in the front, and the night-time ocean scene

The street above, the one leading into the resort, was just as busy, if not more, than it had been earlier.

The line to catch the bus back was insane, and the bus itself was absolutely packed, but it emptied out fairly quickly and it only took a fraction of the time, about twenty minutes, of the morning trip.

Those clam tents…they are my happy place. When I’m sad, I take myself back there. You should take yourself there too, if you know what’s good for you.

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