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.”

Makgeolli 101

a clear container with brown lid next to a bottle of sikhye, a sweet non-alcoholic rice beverage, and a pen that I would later accidentally steal I’m sorry

Back in April, I was one of twelve lucky people chosen to partake in a special event held by the Royal Asiatic Society Korea and Gastro Tour Seoul, and located in the Korean Food Grand Master Center in the Bukchon area of Seoul. It was entitled “Korean Traditional Alcohol Brewing Culture Experiences” which is just a long-winded way of saying that we were going to be tasting various types of Korean alcohol (called “sool” 술, originating from the words “water” and “fire”) and learning how to make makgeolli, a rice wine.

If you really want to nerd out about alcohol and the various brewing processes, check out this link.

Makgeolli (막걸리) is a rice wine made with three things: water, rice, and a fermentation starter, called nuruk. The resulting brew is milky-white and can be carbonated or uncarbonated, and will continue to ferment if unpasteurized. According to Wikipedia, it was given the name “drunken rice” which I actually adore, although that title would be more appropriate for soju, which is higher in alcohol content.

But first, we had to taste some alcohol. Starting on the low end of alcohol content at 7% is Baeglyeon Misty Makgeolli, a sweet white drink that barely tasted like anything at all (official notes: “rice, white lotus”). Next up was 13% Wangju, a clear orange beverage with more of a kick (“glutinous rice, wild chrysanthemum, matrimony wine, pine needles, plum”). 13% Solsongju, roughly the same kind of kick as the Wangju but with more distinguished fermentation (“rice, pine needles, wheat nuruk”). At 25% is Leegangju, which was like drinking cinnamon-flavored mouthwash (“pine needle, honey, turmeric, cinnamon”). Last was Andong soju at 45%, which was what I expect from a soju: a clean, crisp burn. Apparently Andong soju is so unique it has its own artisans who keep the tradition alive.

Let’s get started! First, we need rice. And not just any rice, but godubap (고두밥), also known as “hard-boiled rice” or steamed rice. We were allowed to taste this rice and it was not very pleasant–chewy and more akin to rice if it were cooked al dente.

Once the rice was cooked, we got to spread it out so it would cool evenly.

While we let the rice cool down, it was time for us to try, first-hand, what would hopefully be the fruits of our efforts. Gloving up, two lucky people got to squish and smash the makgeolli mash through a mesh bag and sample it out.

It was delicious! It didn’t taste alcoholic at all, which makes me think it hadn’t been fermenting for too long. The longer it ferments, the more sour and more alcoholic it will become. For the time being, we just kept slyly passing our cups back to the table to be refilled.

Now the time has come for us to make our own makgeolli! First, we measured out 600 grams of the godubap. Then our helper scooped out 60 grams of nuruk for the mash. We added 300 ml of a base makgeolli, and 500 ml of water.

With gloves on, we squished and squashed and mixed everything as thoroughly as possible, without breaking the rice grains. Then it was ladled into our special disinfected containers, ready for us to take home and continue fermenting.

I left my makgeolli a little too long (because I struggled finding an appropriate filter for the mash) and it was very sour, which means it had a very high alcohol content in the not-pleasant way. I think I fermented all of the sweetness out of it, and need to try making it again.

The venue was really cute and I adored their “photo zone” which was facing a wall of ceramics that was meant to “fill… and spread… the Value of Hansik [traditional Korean food].” They also had traditional cushions and tables along the stairs there so you could sit and chill.

I really enjoyed the experience and the best part was that it was not only free, but also intimate. There were two people who signed up for the event but didn’t come, and to their luck, two people showed up for the event that hadn’t RSVP’ed and were able to secure those spots.

I definitely want to try my hand at making makgeolli again. In the meantime, I wrote this post enjoying a bottle of sparkling red wine makgeolli that I picked up in Busan Station while on vacation there (post forthcoming). Check out this article if you want to see how traditional makgeolli is served. You still get the tin bowls to drink it from even when you buy a plastic bottle of makgeolli at a restaurant.

Have you tried makgeolli? Do you know of any other traditional drinks made from rice?

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

Restaurant Review: Potala Restaurant

Located in a basement in Jongno-gu is Potala Restaurant, a Tibetan/Nepali restaurant owned by a Tibetan.

view from outside

You can take a look at the menu in the doorway before you walk downstairs. The restaurant seems to pride itself on being tourist- and halal-friendly.

menu posted outside the staircase down to the restaurant

When I went at 5 pm, I was surprised that there was no one in the restaurant. I quickly ordered my food and ordered decidedly too much of it.

The waiter was Nepali, but could understand my butchered-Tibetan name of dishes, some of which are transliterated very strangely in the menu.

a plate of chowmein noodles with chicken and vegetables

First was the chowmein, which eating was like a punch to the gut. It reminded me of every Tuesday at Sarah College, when we would have chowmein, and the only thing missing was the curry ketchup that we would add to it. My students knew that I loved the chowmein and I’d frequently let them leave class a little early as to be the first in line for lunch.

a plate of shabakleb with dipping sauce

Next up was the “Shabakleb,” fried bread stuffed with beef and vegetables. It was okay. I think I preferred it to the chicken momos that I ordered, which seemed very underwhelming.

a plate of momos and dipping sauce

It was only near the end of my meal that two fellows wandered into the place, ordering in Nepali. I’m guessing the lack of tourists during the pandemic has hit the restaurant pretty hard.

Overall, it was a good intro to Tibetan cuisine if you’ve never had it and I really enjoyed my chowmein. The place was decorated very nicely if a bit over-decorated, but I found the faded post-it notes going down the stairs to the restaurant to be very tacky and off-putting. Stop in to support a Tibetan-owned restaurant! Bhod gyalo!

Address: Supyogyo Building B1, 35-2, Gwancheol-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul

The Latest South Korean Craze: Pokémon Bread

a package of Pokemon bread featuring a blue tadpole creature named Poliwag

“Teacher, you must wait. And wait. And waaaaaiiitttt.”

Apparently you have to wait a very long time in order to get your hands on the elusive Pokémon bread that’s been a craze in South Korea for the past two months. I’ve gone into a convenience store where the clerk was still putting away deliveries and the Pokémon bread had already been purchased by someone watching the store like a hawk.

Somehow these kids are still managing to get their hands on the bread, though, as numerous kids have come up to me to show off their Pokémon sticker, the real reason why the bread has made such a big comeback.

a sign on the door of a 7-Eleven stating that there isn’t any Pokemon bread, complete with a Pikachu, Squirtle, and Ditto illustrations

Today I was stopped by a sign posted on the door of a Mini-Stop that had a Pikachu illustration, but when I read the sign, it had nothing to do with Pokémon and was advertising a combo set you could now buy. Clever.

Edit: Baskin Robbins now has a Pokémon ice cream.

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: Blue Bottle Seongsu

Today’s café review is the first Blue Bottle café in Korea, located in the Seongsu neighborhood.

the iconic blue bottle signage against a rough exposed concrete wall

According to Blue Bottle’s website:

“The neighborhood of Seongsu—for which our very first Korean café is named—is changing. In what was once an industrial pocket of the South Korean capital, cafes and galleries are springing up to serve the up-and-coming area referred to by some as the Brooklyn of Seoul.

While Blue Bottle brings much of its Bay Area roots, there’s plenty of old-school Seongsu-dong to hold onto. We’ve used the neighborhood’s trademark red brick, for example, to showcase classic Blue Bottle merchandise, as well as items that can only be found in Korea. Our menu, however, offers the same delicious coffee that can be found in our cafes in the U.S. and Japan.

From the street level, guests will first encounter our roastery against the backdrop of high-rises and trains. Down below is our café, and though located on the basement level, the glass walls and open layout create a calm, sunlit spaciousness—perfect for getting coffee with friends or shopping while you wait for your espresso, single origin, or blend coffee.”

It was interesting seeing the roasting equipment and the espresso machines they probably train the Korean baristas on, but I’d disagree that the area is “sunlit.” It was pretty dark, actually, in the way that a fancy restaurant might be dimmed in order to achieve a romantic effect. The overall feel was pretty industrial, but I loved the red brick touch on the merchandise and how the merch was a separate area from the ordering line. Behind a wall in the seating area was an area of several couches where a few families were sitting.

I imagine that on the weekends, seating can be hard to find. As evidence, I present the blue footprints that start from the entrance at street level and wrap around the front lobby area and then down the stairs to the café. People line up for Blue Bottle, and this café is certainly not going to be any different.

Much to my friends’ amazement, I did not order a coffee, instead opting for a strawberry fizz, which was quite lovely. The barista spoke to me in broken English until asking me to write my name on the screen in front of her, and when I wrote it in Hangul, she was visibly shocked and told me that she didn’t know I spoke Korean. (Spoilers: I don’t, but I could understand what she was saying and where she told me to wait until my name was called.) The fizz reminded me of when I worked at the Mint Plaza Blue Bottle location and I’d pour myself a Cascara Fizz in my Blue Bottle glass mug for the ride back to Oakland.

Unfortunately, my friend’s orange blossom latte tasted like the barista dumped their grandma’s perfume into it, which is not how I remember the drink tasting the last time I went to Blue Bottle. I suggested that she ask for them to just make her a regular latte, but since we had already had coffee that day, she wanted to let it be.

Out of all the Blue Bottle cafes I’ve visited in Korea thus far, this only gets a special mention for being the first to be opened in Korea. Go if you want a gander at the roasting and training area, but I still prefer grabbing a drink at the Gwanghwamun location and sitting alongside the Cheonggye stream.

Address: 7 Achasan-ro Seongdong-gu (Ttukseom station — exit #1)

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 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

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