Café Review: Café Onion, Seongsu

the word “onion” in white lowercase font above a wide, open glass door framed by exposed brick, at the corner of a street

Café Onions seem to embody the space in which they’re located, and there is no better example than the Seongsu location.

Here, the drab gray of unfinished walls reflects the light streaming in from large windows, and the floor features the yellow paint of another time. At once there is mini faded blue tile, and again the unfinished plaster. Where a window or a door once was, bricks have been shoved in to seal the space, unenterable entrances, impassable passages.

There is a long table with plastic separators, hand sanitizer, and outlets for people who come here to study. Come here to snuggle? Worry not–there’s a few tucked away couches for that. If the weather is nice, you can head up to the rooftop but be careful of the stairs, as they’re all a bit uneven and I almost ate it going to the rooftop to take photos.

Located on a plaque near the door:

Artist: Fabrikr
Medium: Mixed media
Dimension: 759m²
Date: 2016

“The space was first built in the 1970s. And it transformed into supermarkets, restaurants, homes, maintenance shops, and factories for nearly 60 years. Each time, the useless parts was broken as needed, and the part that needed to be added were added in a rule of thumb. Since it is a space that has changed based on usability rather than aesthetics, the original appearance of the space gradually disappeared with time.

While exploring space, we discovered the value that new things could not give in the structure of the past. The paint marks on the floor, each of the added bricks, were a great material to remember the time. We focused on recreating the space of the past, keeping all these traces alive. It was necessary to reinterpret it as a space of the past and a space of the same time.

ONION is made of materials that seems to be separated but respect organically connected structures and are carefully added in consideration of users’ functions. Furniture was also made by adding architectural elements to become part of the space. Plants that coexist together are also familiar as they have always been here.

This space will be a place where there are rest and services that purify the mind and a haven to calm the noise in the head of those who seek space. We hope that this place will be remembered as a place that gives someone new inspiration for life and complete rest for someone.”

Café Review: Café Onion, Anguk

the word “onion” in white lowercase font in front of a traditional hanok style entrance with a giant wooden door

Café Onion in Anguk is probably my favorite café in all of Korea. Located steps from Anguk Station and constructed inside a traditional wooden Korean house called a hanok, it serves up great coffee and pastries baked in-house with an amazing atmosphere. Come early or expect to wait for a seat, or grab your drink and pastry to-go.

I’ve gone to the café in several seasons, so these photos will feature snow and rain.

My order: iced Oatly latte with an extra shot, strawberry pastry, iced americano or espresso for round two.

Located on a plaque near the door, translated via Papago:

Artist: Fabrikr
Medium: Mixed media
Dimension: 661m²
Date: 2019

“I remember the day when this house was first built.

Even then, someone would have sat on the floor of the main house and looked at the yard. The gaze would have filled the space from the floor to the sky, and from left to right…

Over a hundred years, numerous footprints remained, numerous horses piled up, and countless eyes overlapped. We groped through all the stories from the past to the present, keeping the air in line with the current use.

Place this space on white paper and extend the past gaze to today. Even then, someone would have looked at the yard from the Daecheongmaru. Today, someone sits on the floor of the Daecheong and looks at the yard. I pray quietly that our present may rest for a while, and that the inspiration for a new life may be here.”

Follow them on Instagram: @cafe.onion

Address: 서울특별시 종로구 계동길 5

Café Review: Krum Coffee, Uijeongbu

Located a few minutes away from line 1 Uijeongbu station is the Uijeongbu location of Krum Coffee, which also has a branch in Yangju. Krum Coffee is on the second floor of the building.

The café is one big open room with fairy lights and a mini Christmas tree in the center of one table. A light jazz music is playing, and on this occasion we could see someone in the back of the café roasting coffee.

When selecting a pastry, go for one of the jam cookies rather than the pound cake, which we found a little hard. And be adventurous and ask what coffee is on the siphon bar if you’ve never had siphon coffee! (But remember to stick around and watch it being brewed, as that’s part of the fun.)

Follow them on Instagram: @krum_coffee

Address: 의정부시 평화로 554 2층 크룸커피 랩

Café Review: Finger Coffee

There’s something different about this café… I just can’t put my finger on it…

Not only is it open 24 hours, but it is an automatic, unmanned café. You insert your card (even transportation cards work!), get the cup corresponding to your order (either a hot cup or a cup filled with ice), move it to the assigned area, and that’s it.

If you happen to feel a bit peckish, you can also check out the ice cream and snack display, which is also unmanned (and they have macarons!). Just insert your card to pay and open the door.

If you’d like to take a virtual tour, click here.

Would this kind of café work in your country?

Café Review: Enough You

Take a ten-minute walk behind Yangu Station (Line 1) and you’ll stumble across a pretty little café called Enough You.

The café has amazing croiffles with a variety of toppings and the interior is quiet and calm. There are tropical trees, round mirrors, soft lights, a billowing white sheet hanging down from the ceiling over wrap-around windows, and even semi-external seating where you can pretend you’re enjoying the nice spring weather even though you still need your winter coat…

There’s literally nothing else to do in the area, but if you find yourself on Line 1, be sure to make a pit-stop!

Follow them on Instagram: @enough_you

Address: 경기도 양주시 부흥로 1422번길 220

Café Review: Blue Bottle Gwanghwamun

This was the first Blue Bottle in Korea that I visited, and one that I’ve visited a few times since then.

A person sits behind a vase full of flowers, reading a book. The Blue Bottle signage is on the wall behind them.

According to the Blue Bottle website:

In the center of one of Seoul’s three business districts, our Gwanghwamun cafe sits at the bottom of a 20-story office building at 11 Cheonggyecheon-ro alongside the Cheonggye Stream. Restored in 2003, the banks of the stream now serve as a public gathering space and cultural arts venue. We designed the cafe for local workers seeking a reprieve and tourists looking for a coffee near Cheonggye Plaza and Stream. 

To continue the feeling of flow from the outdoor urban plaza, we designed the cafe with the idea of openness, with multiple windows reaching from the floor nearly to the ceiling facing the square. To keep the guests’ focus on the coffee and coffee professionals, we set the bar in the center of the space, wrapping it around the two structural columns. Inside the cafe, we offer plenty of seating and perching options at red oak tables and bars, but on nice days, we imagine many guests will take their coffee for a walk along the Cheonggye Stream.

I would highly recommend going to this Blue Bottle café, getting your drink to-go, and sitting outside along the banks of the Cheonggye stream.

view of part of the Cheonggye stream featuring a waterfall
a view of the stream as it cuts down through Seoul

Address: 11 Cheonggyecheon-ro Jongno-gu

Café Review: Blue Bottle Samcheong

Apparently I have made it my quest to visit all the Blue Bottles in Korea. I have been to the one in Gwanghwamun Square and on Jeju Island, so it was only appropriate that I introduce the new teachers to Blue Bottle in a new-to-me location: Samcheong.

the iconic Blue Bottle logo on a white brick background

The Blue Bottle website describes the Samcheong location as follows:

“In the heart of Seoul’s historic Samcheong neighborhood, our three-story cafe all but shapeshifts as you climb its floors. Conceived by Schemata Architects, each level is as much about the breathtaking views as it is about coffee. The stand alone building is set between past and future: the Gyeongbokgung Palace of the Joseon Dynasty on one side, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) on the other. The ground floor offers a view of the museum. After you place your order there, you can head to the second floor, where baristas prepare pour overs and espresso drinks, and where the picture window frames the sweeping lines of the terracotta-tiled roofs of the hanoks, traditional Korean homes. Take your coffee to-go and meander the labyrinthine surrounding streets, or head to the third floor. There, on the outdoor patio on low-slung couches or inside by the topmost picture window, you can enjoy a siphon coffee or take in the panorama of the palace and the soaring hills beyond.”

I get what they were going for, and it’s true: one can easily peer out the windows onto the rooftops of hanoks, but it’s a bit annoying having to order on the first floor and walk upstairs to get your beverages, and then walk up another flight of stairs to (maybe, if you’re lucky) find a seat. Seats here aren’t plentiful but if you wait around long enough, a spot or two might open up. Good luck watching a barista prepare your siphon coffee though–I’m not sure what the protocol is here if you order one and there already happens to be someone sitting in front of them. (At Mint Plaza, we would kindly ask if guests would move so the siphon-buyer could get the most out of the experience.)

I confused the barista because I ordered two drinks. No, really. I want two coffees. First, a pour-over, because pour-overs are what Blue Bottle does best. Second, since the location has oat milk, I’m going to get a latte, and this location had an orange blossom latte that I decided to try because Blue Bottle doesn’t serve your typical caramel-mocha-praline-hazelnut-frappa-gatos. (Rumor is they never planned on selling mochas, but after adding chocolate to the menu to make hot chocolate, they couldn’t ignore customers’ cries to sell a mocha. For what it’s worth, Blue Bottle mochas are my go-to, because they make their own chocolate ganache in-house with Tcho chocolate and it is delicious.)

The Guatemalan pour-over I had iced would have been better hot, but the orange blossom latte was surprisingly really well-made. The orange blossom flavor fit with the espresso in a very nice way that balanced out the acidity of the espresso and the brightness of the orange flavor. It was tasty.

The space is bright and inviting and it was certainly busy when we went. We had to wait about ten minutes until we found a spot where we could sit on the first floor. There was a steady stream of guests that day and the baristas seemed equipped to handle the volume, even my sudden realization that despite asking the cashier if they had oat milk, I forgot to actually order my latte with oat milk and had to go back to the cashier on the first floor and change my order and had her run to the second floor to ensure my drink was made with oat milk. Whew. If only there was a better way to communicate to the baristas on the second floor.

Follow them on Instagram: @bluebottlecoffee_korea

Address: 76 Bukchon-ro 5-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Republic of Korea 03053

Summer Vacation 2021: Jeju Island

Two four feet tall dol hareubang statues with masks over their faces flank a sign reading “Welcome to Jeju International Airport” in English and Korean

My co-teacher Mary and I went for a quick trip to Jeju Island for summer vacation (which was only three working-days off). Jeju, for those of you who don’t know, is a Korean island located to the southwest of the mainland and is a popular resort island. Because of travel restrictions due to Covid, Jeju Island has become even more popular this year for Korean tourists who normally might have considered Guam, Japan, or the Philippines as their vacation spot.

The flight was only an hour long, but by the time we reached our hotel in Jeju it was after 5pm and we were beat. We ordered pizza and I ran a bath–something that came with my upgraded “couples” room. It was totally worth the extra cost. I used the Temple of the Sky Lush bath bomb.

On Sunday, we went to the Manjanggul Cave, which has an impressive lava tube that is accessible for about a kilometer underground and ends with a stone pillar that is the largest in the world. I would probably have enjoyed it more if I wasn’t so busy watching my feet as the floor was both uneven (thanks, lava) and wet. There were some wooden bridges over the more uneven parts, but even still, I trekked slowly and was amazed at how many people blew past me wearing flip-flops or even, in one case, platform flip-flops. The lava tube takes about an hour in and back, and going back was certainly easier than going down, although I was wheezing after climbing back up the stairs at the beginning.

What was not lost on me was the fact that there were several handicap parking spots out in front of the entrance and a ramp for wheelchairs, although the cave is completely inaccessible for wheelchair users and many others who have walking problems.

There was a memorial outside the cave that read, “Bu Jonghue and young expedition party: In 1946, Mr. Bu was a teacher at Gimnyeong Elementary School. He and 30 of his students set out to go spelunking without proper equipment. They only had a few torches and wore straw shoes. However, they were well organized into three groups each in charge of the torch, supplies, and measuring the cave. Manjanggul Lava Tube had become known to the public thanks to their numerous expeditions. It was a remarkable achievement of Mr. Bu and his little explorers, which was led with tenacity and an adventurous spirit. Mr. Bu named the cave using the word “Man” meaning long and the word “Jang” come [sic] from the name of third entrance “Manjaengi Geomeol.”

Ah, the 1940s, when you could still take your 10-year-old students spelunking without the proper equipment.

After the cave, we went to visit the recently opened Blue Bottle, located in the middle of nowhere. Having just opened on the 30th of July, there was still a queue and we had a lot of confusion about where to stand, as the information was not explained very well in English. A couple in front of us turned around and showed us their phone, asking if we had made a reservation. When we nodded our heads, they showed us how to make a reservation on an iPad that was on the other side of the line we were waiting in. Our wait from that point on was half an hour, but it would have been much longer had that couple not taken pity on the foreigners who had no idea what they were doing, so thank you kind souls!

Despite the long wait, we were able to get seats after about ten minutes. Blue Bottle is an excellent example of why cafes shouldn’t have wifi–if there were people camping out all day, sales would suffer and people would get annoyed at the lack of available seating. Without wifi, people come in, have a drink, and then leave, creating a much-needed turnover. But I digress.

Blue Bottles everywhere are all the same and yet all different. As each cafe is designed for the space in which it exists, this Blue Bottle had a beautiful open window into the Jeju countryside and a barn-like structure with a high, triangular ceiling fit with strips of lighting. All of the chairs and tables were that recognizable light wood, and there was built-in cabinetry under all of the display shelves.

I ordered an iced mocha with oat milk, a blueberry fizz, and a piece of chocolate pound cake as they were sold out of the liege waffle. Mary ordered the lemon yuzu fizz and a scone. I assisted a woman behind us who basically asked what all the fuss was about and what she should order. I sincerely hope her drinks lived up to the Blue Bottle name and was worth her wait.

I also bought two bags of the Jeju Blend coffee, which has notes of mandarin orange, rose, and caramel. I am excited to try it!

For dinner on Sunday, we went to a spot along Black Pork Street. The black pig is a domestic breed native to Jeju Island, and apparently was kept as a means to dispose of human waste up until the mid-century. In the restaurant we chose, the worker refused to let us just buy one portion of pork belly as we were two people (but Mary doesn’t like pork so she wasn’t going to eat it) but that ended up being just fine as I ate enough for two and also had an entire bottle of beer myself.

Normally I don’t like the fatty bits on meat and will sometimes leave it on my plate at lunch. However, black pig fat makes me understand how some people say that fat “melts in the mouth.” The skin was chewy, and the meat was juicy. The attending kimchi was perfectly sour instead of mind-numbingly spicy, which I prefer, and the ssamjang was excellent on the perilla leaves, which normally I do not like as it tastes too much like herb (it’s related to the mint family). I dipped the perilla leaf into the ssamjang, dipped the pork into a little mixture of salt and pepper and oil, added a string of kimchi, a little rice, wrapped it all up and ate it for one amazing flavor bomb unlike any other. It was easily one of the best meals I’ve had.

That night I ran another bath, this time using the Rose Jam Bubbleroon. In retrospect, I probably should have broken it in half as the entire bar made a bit too many bubbles.

On Monday, we went to the Gwaneumsa Buddhist temple, the oldest on Jeju Island. This wasn’t the temple we were going to originally see, but one that was closer to us so we decided to visit it instead. After the first gate, you’re greeted with a large statue of the Lord Buddha off to the left, and if you continue further ahead, there’s a beautiful path lined with hundreds of various Buddha statues, most holding prayer beads that worshippers have given to the statues.

Further on, there is a small cave. By this time, it had started to drizzle a bit, and upon entering the small cave, one was taken aback by just how incredibly warm the cave was, owing to the hundreds of candles that had been lit inside. (Don’t worry: there was a fire extinguisher inside as well.)

There was a giant gold Maitreya Buddha statue, behind which were thousands of smaller Buddhas. There was the pot-bellied, laughing Buddha of wealth with some coins sitting atop his belly. There was a Buddha statue in the middle of a pond with a small bridge atop a goose’s body. It was a very lovely temple site, with a rich history that tells of Korea’s tumultuous past, as well as the tumultuous path of Buddhism in Korea.

And just like that, the two days in Jeju were over. We left early Tuesday morning as we had to be back at work Wednesday. It was way too soon, in my opinion, but still a relaxing and interesting break. It was the first “proper” vacation that I’ve had since moving to Korea and I plan to make my way to Jeju another time and checking in a cart of fruit for the flight home like all the other Korean tourists.

One thing I really enjoyed was how Jeju does its contact tracing program. We have to pull up our QR code in the KakaoTalk app and scan it in, which sometimes takes several tries. In Jeju, after we downloaded the app, we essentially took a picture of the QR code the business had, and our phones would beep right away. It was much easier to use.

Café Review: Greem Café, aka Cartoon Café

My friend Nora took Mary and I on a super exciting trip for my birthday back in January. Up first was a stop at Greem Café, also known as that instagrammable cartoon café in Korea.

a four-layered tulip heart in a latte on a black and white table

We ordered breakfast and drinks and everything was lovely. We got two free mugs because we ordered a certain amount, but I was a little disappointed that they weren’t the mugs that were being used in the cafe. (I would have paid extra for one of those 2D mugs.)

My advice would be to go when they open, as once they get busy, your instagram shots are going to be harder to take since you can’t roam around the cafe.

Follow them on instagram: @greem_cafe

Address: Seoul, Mapo-gu, Yeonnam-dong, Seongmisan-ro, 161-10 카페 1.5층


Café Review: Coffee Class

Where does a barista go for good coffee? Well, technically I go to Starbucks by my work most mornings and get a grande iced blonde roast latte with an extra shot (whew!) unless there’s an interesting seasonal drink. It’s not my fault, really: café culture here tends to start at 11am and end pretty late, much different than the 7am starts and 7pm closes I’m accustomed to!

On the weekends, you can find me at Coffee Class, a bright and inviting coffee shop not too far from where I live. They have your usual fare: lattes, cappuccinos, mochas, green tea lattes, and they also have manual hand drip (pour-over) coffee.

I have enjoyed their Costa Rican Asoporaaa Valverde Abarca Natural (notes of dark chocolate and lime), a Nicaragua whose information I didn’t catch but tasted of milk chocolate and raspberry, and an Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Lalissa Natural GI that was like a green grape explosion in my mouth. My only issue is that they do their pour-overs a little differently than how I was trained, and stir the coffee after it blooms. The average coffee drinker is not going to notice the difference, and to be honest, I probably wouldn’t either.

Today I had their tiramisu and it was lovely. They offer waffles and some other light fare and pastries which they bake in-house. The aesthetic is bright and airy with fun cat silhouette pillows and in the center of the café are several small round tables on small pebbles, almost giving it a café-on-the-beach vibe.

They get bonus points for always having beautiful latte art.

They are open 12pm to 9pm.

Follow them on Instagram: coffee_class2

Address: 경기 의정부시 평화로562번길 8 (의정부동)