Jihye Chang

“Cafe Life in Seoul”

Jeonkwangsoo Coffee in Myung-Dong area

Again, I introduce a gem in a very busy area without decent coffee culture – that is Myungdong. It’s always jam packed with young couples, tourists, and shoppers of all ages.

Of course there are a lot of coffee shops in Myungdong, but they are mainly chain cafes such as Starbucks, Beans Bins, etc. There is an old fashioned cafe called “Gamu,” but it’s a place to visit more for the nostalgia not for excellent coffee. (They serve “Vienna Coffee” which is strong coffee with lots of whipped cream, not made from milk fat)

For someone who’s looking for a decent single-serve coffee or a good cup of macchiato using the micro-roasted beans, Jeonkwangsoo coffee is a safe choice. Mr. Jeon is one of the so-called “2nd generation coffee people,” and has almost 20 years of experience in the coffee business. Well trained baristas work here, and the price of the “hand-drip” coffee is between 5000-6000 won ($5-6), which is pretty good for the location and the style. They roast their own beans, and there is a coffee academy next door. Their espresso machine is Dalla Corte.

It has become a bit too famous during the past 1-2 years, and they have a few branches all over Seoul and one in Wonjoo. Sometimes the cafe is just too busy (especially when there is a large group of middle-age women. Oh boy they are loud.) But still it’s a cafe where you can be assured of a decent cup of coffee.

They also serve “Thick-Faced Toast” (낯두꺼운 토스트) with butter and jam, but the toast is a bit too thick and dry. Nice jam, though!

Location: Namsan-Dong 2-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul, Korea (Take the subway line #4/ get off Myungdong station/ Go out via exit #3/ Take the left fork in front of the Pacific hotel and walk for 1-2 minutes. You will see a small coffee shop with a big window on your left.)

Hours: 10am to 10pm

Website: http://jeonscoffee.co.kr/next

Phone: (82) 2-778-0675

Chan’s Espresso Bar-One of the best espressos in Seoul!

If you want to see a lot of good lo0king young people hanging out, or taste the “it” food for those young people, or hear Korean indie rock bands performing, you need to visit the Hongik University area (aka Hongdae). I have a soft spot in my heart for this area, but it is so far away from where my parents live or anywhere that I visit regularly that I rarely have a chance to go there whenever I am in Seoul.  But this summer I had a mission – visiting the rising star cafe of this area, Chan’s Espresso.

Their machines are very fancy and justly famous among Korean bloggers – Synesso and La Marzzoco espresso machines, the Clover coffee machine, Mazzer grinders, Everpure water filtration system, and even the orange Smeg refrigerator. Instead of roasting their own beans, Chan’s imports beans from the famed Tim Wendleboe of Oslo and Intelligenstia of Chicago. Unfortunately, that means that the beans will never be completely fresh due to the shipping time from Norway and USA to Korea. However, I think it works better than roasting poor quality beans, which happens often in a lot of new roastery-cafes in Korea. Also they don’t do the latest Korean cafe fad of cakes, sandwiches, or waffles – only coffee. I like that.

Let’s get straight to the point: I was highly impressed with the Tim Wendleboe double shot cappuccino! It was a totally new experience for me to enjoy espresso so deep and layered with so much complexity. It also looked much thicker than the regular espresso shot, and had an almost terra cotta-like color. I usually prefer espresso on the sweet side and not too acidic, but this Tim Wendleboe cappuccino had a really pleasant acidity that I enjoyed very much. Also it had a deep sweetness as well as really great body-feel to it. I wish I had been able to compare the Tim Wendelboe espresso to a shot of Intelligentsia, but by then I had already consumed too much coffee and could not handle any more! Oh well – such was my luck.

My husband ordered Tim Wendelbo’s Kenya brewed by Clover. That was not as good as the cappuccino. It was too muddy, had too much sour flavor, and just not good.  It might also have been the Clover machine, which I find myself liking less and less…

Anyways. Chan’s cafe is cultivating a very serious fan base already, which doesn’t surprise me at all given the quality of their coffee. It’s a place that I will definitely go back next time I am in Seoul.

Location: Seogyo-Dong, Mapo-gu, 409-10 (“Parking lot street”, aka “Joochajang georit”)

To find your way: Take subway #6. Get off at the Sangsoo station. Exit #1. Turn back and go toward “Geukdong Electronics” and look for a restaurant called “Yogi” and 7-11 convenience store. Take the small road between those two and walk toward “Donkatsu cham jalhanun-jib” and you will see Chan’s on your right. (It’s a labyrinth kind of area with many little cafes and restaurants, and Chan’s has a big, black steel door and a big glass window at the front.)

Price: Espresso for 5500 won (about $4.8)/ Macchiato, Cortado, Americano for 6000 won/ Latte, Cappuccino, Mocha for 6500 won

Choi-Ga Coffee, Seoul

choicafe1_jhjascha

Recently Konkuk University area in Seoul saw a lot of commercial development, including the glitzy Lotte department store and Tower Palace.  With a large university, a few apartment complexes, a big department store, a mega movie theatre, and hundreds of other retail stores, this is one of those busy-traffic areas in Seoul. (Other examples: Dongdaemun market area, Myungdong, and Gangnam station area) Because of the enormous amount of traffic, many of the restaurants in these areas are not that great, and the same effect holds for coffee. However there are always a few gems in these areas, and Choi-Ga Coffee is one of these gems.

Choi-Ga means “Family name Choi”. And yes, the owner of this cafe is Mr. Choi. But “Ga” could also mean “Beauty” in Chinese characters with the same pronunciation as “Family name.” So Choi-Ga has another meaning, the most beautiful, or the best of the best.

This coffee shop has been open since July 28, 2008. Mr. Choi used to work in the hotel business – he worked for the best hotel in Seoul for 20 years as a restaurant manager, development manager, and education consultant. Because he was in the restaurant business at a premium hotel, he got into the world of freshly brewed coffee and espresso early on (before the coffee boom in Korea began), and making and drinking good coffee has been his hobby for a long time.

I found out about this cafe from a Korean blog (http://blog.naver.com/joowoo5?Redirect=Log&logNo=40062426860) last year and befriended the owner while I was visiting Seoul in December 2010. This cafe has been very popular among the locals and students of Konkuk University as well as some who visit from farther away.  Mr. Choi roasts coffee beans at the cafe, using the “Proaster” machine made by the Korean company “Tae-Hwan.” His espresso machine is Gaggia. I personally like the drip coffee much more than any espresso drinks here. Mr. Choi personally makes hand-drip coffee for every single order, and he prepares the strength according to the customer’s preference. (Mild, Medium, and Strong)

Choi-Ga cafe also serves very nice waffles and ice cream. I find waffles to be a very puzzling fad in Korea, especially among the young girls. I never understood the fascination with this – Korean girls do not eat waffles as a breakfast, but they have become popular as a fancy dessert or pass-time snack. Waffles are often decorated with fruits, caramel or chocolate syrup, scoops of ice cream and whipped cream and can have a price tag as high as 12,000 won. (about $11-12) Considering a good meal costs about $5-8, this does not make any sense to me. But somehow young girls go crazy about eating waffles.

Just to make sure I wasn’t missing something amazing about waffles (!), I ordered waffles at three different coffee shops – once at a very big chain (Caffee Bene. This one served below-average coffee and undercooked, soggy waffles), once at a coffeeshop near Sejong University, and once at Choi-Ga cafe. The nut-waffles with blueberry ice cream at Choi-Ga cafe were very tasty and well-prepared. (Small nut-waffle with ice cream is 6500 Won and large size is 11000 won)

choicafe2_jhjascha

I asked Mr. Choi what his coffee “philosophy” is, and his answer was this:

“Coffee is honest. What you put into the cup is what you taste. If you make a cup of coffee with the best beans you have and best skills you can produce, that cup will taste good. I try to make every cup to be the best I can.” And I have the feeling that his philosophy will continue to please many more coffee-craving customers in that busy subway area.

How to get there: Take subway line 6 or 2, and get off at the “Konkuk University” station. Take exit #2. Walk toward the Sejong University direction for about 150m. When you see “Rainbow Glasses” store, turn left. Walk about 60-70m, and it’s on your left side. Look for “최가커피” sign on a wooden panel. 🙂

Phone: 02-465-7998

Pricing: Drip coffees: around 4500Won-6000Won, depending on the beans you choose/ Espresso drinks: around 3500 Won – 5000 Won

Dropp Organic Cafe in Seoul

droppschreierSeoul is bursting with many artsy coffee boutiques. Hand-drip coffee is still the most favored method for drip coffee, and more and more small batch coffee roastery and cafes armed with Clover machine and top line espresso machines (La Marzocco and Dalla Corte are favored) are popping up everywhere. There are some really fantastic cafes and roasters, but many of them are just following the “trend” to make money. I feel as though about half of them will not exist the next time I visit Korea.

Anyways. Buam-dong is the “Seo-rae-maul” of the Gangbook (northern part of the Han River). There are so many little coffee shops and restaurants in this quiet area near Bookak mountain. Club espresso began the trend a few years back, but that coffee shop has lost its touch. Instead I found a newer gem called “Dropp” – a cafe near the Buam-dong office with minimal decoration and sophisticated atmosphere that serves small batch roasted organic coffee.

Young baristas working here seem to be very well trained, and I really loved their espresso macchiato. Silky smooth, sweet, and well balanced. Their drip coffee is also superb.

To go here: Take the subway line #3 (orange line). Get off at the “Gyungbok-gung” station. Go out exit # 3. Walk about 10 meter, and then wait for a bus. Take bus 7022, 7018, 0212,1020 and take off in front of the Buam dong office. The Dropp is on the right side of the three way fork, and it’s near the “Bom” photography shop.

Photo courtesy of Jinho Kim (blog.naver.com/schreier)

Club Espresso, Seoul

LatteClub Espresso in Buam-dong, Seoul (image from www.clubespresso.co.kr)

Korea’s cafe scene has changed drastically over the past 10-15 years, and now the big cities in Korea are bustling with amazing independent roastery and artisanal cafes.

The term “roasted beans” was a very strange one in the early 90s as “coffee” in Korea meant  instant powdered coffee for such a long time. The most popular and available kind back was a single packet of coffee granules with lots of sugar and palm-oil based coffee cream powder. (aka “coffee mix”, which is still readily available in supermarkets and convenient stores) In the early 90s, stores like Jardin coffee and Bremer coffee opened with the name “Wondu coffee” meaning coffee made from roasted bean (basically dripped coffee) and became very popular among young people. I was a high school student and loved giong to one of those Jardin shops with my friend in our school uniforms – it was like a very big guilty pleasure as we were not so sure if it was ok for high school students to drink coffee but it tasted good nonetheless!

The big sales point of such “wondu coffee” shops were flavored coffees. It was fun for a while but soon I learned that those French vanilla flavored and Raspberry chocolate flavored coffee beans were old coffee beans with new make-up. Then in 1999 the first Starbucks shop opened in Korea – I was back for a summer break from my graduate studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, where one of the first Starbucks shops suffered a window damage from a local vandalism. After the huge success of the first Starbucks store located in the biggest women’s college in Korea, almost every universities in Seoul had to have one nearby. Every summer break I would go back home and there would be more Starbucks stores.
Then smaller chains started catching up, providing cheaper espresso drinks. Big shopping areas like Myungdong and a lot of college areas were covered with big and small coffee shops.

I cannot recall when the artisanal cafe movement began in Korea, but I remember visiting a small coffee shop near Korea University where the owner was roasting his own beans and served really fresh and super-tasting coffee as early as 1996 or 1997. I would also hear about and visit some independent coffee shops with ridiculously high price tag ($8-9 for a cup of dripped coffee or cappuccino!) since the late 90s. Also many cake shops opened with small coffee bar as well as big bakery-cafe chains such as “Twosome place” and “Paris Croissant.” (Korean bakeries are very much like Japanese bakeries, which was largely influenced by French baking style. The cakes are much smaller and lighter than the American varieties, and the selection is much larger.)

Quite a few really awesome cafes with great coffess with $4-5 price tag became popular during the past 3-4 years. These shops are usually run by young people who recently finished their barista training, who roast their own coffee in the store, and who run a coffee academy along with the cafe. This kind of artisanal cafes seem to be replacing the cheap, small chains and become more and more popular. In 2007, a soap opera called “Coffee Prince No. 1″featured a high-end cafe that hired only men as their baristas and became a mega-hit in the TV box office. I think that raised the awareness on the good coffee, barista, and so on. One interesting thing is that a lot of these artisanal coffee shops focus on the hand-dripped coffee. To me, it’s like a very delicate version of Costa Rican Chorreador – the barista takes great care of the water temperature, texture of the coffee, and height and direction of the water poured into the ground beans. Watching this kind of coffee-making is almost like watching a painter working on an art-work. This kind of dripped coffee is 10 times better than machine dripped coffee, but still my passion lies on espresso drinks…

One of the best coffee shops I visted in Korea is called “Club Espresso,” and this shop serves really amazing espresso drinks. They have a big roasting machine in the store, and they sell freshly roasted beans by the bag. Pretty spacious and comfortable as well. This shop also serves really fantastic cookies, cakes, and cheese cakes, all baked in the store. The only problem is that it is a little difficult to get to unless you have a car. The owner here worked in various coffee shops in the early 90s and self-taught a lot of things before he went to Japan to learn some more.

Here is the direction:

Take the subway line 3 (orange line) and get off at the “Gyungbokgung” station.
Take a bus (1020, 7022, and 7018) and get off at the “Buam dong office” – it’s on the way to the “Bookak san” road.

Website: www.clubespresso.co.kr (only in Korean)

* There is a very famous dumpling restaurant called “Sonmandoo” if you follow the “Bookak san” road. They serve homemade Korena style dumplings at its best with nice view of the Bookak Mountain. Have a bol of dumpling soup or steamed dumpling there and walk down to get some coffee at the Club Espresso – a perfect day.