Musings: Worst Eating Spot in Itaewon, Worst Drink Spot in Noksapyeong and Salmon Heads

I'm going to try and do a weekly musing series on random thoughts about food, dining, or life in general and this is an eccentric enough post to kick things off.

Worst eating in Itaewon and worst drinking spot in Noksapyeong

For every wonderful dining experience in Korea, you're always bound to run into a few that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. This is especially true when living in the Noksapyeong/Itaewon area which can be both a blessing and curse in many aspects. Yes, it has some of the best, authentic, and/or unique eats in Korea. But on the other hand, because of its trendy status, it attracts a lot of folks idiots who think they can make a lot of money just by setting up shop in the area.

I had the honor of running into not one, but two really terrible spots within the last month which I'm sharing in the hopes you can save yourself not only the time and money but your name and honor really of having even stepped into such a horrid establishment.

The first is the new Richard Copycat's All-American Diner in Itaewon. Prior to this visit, I first dined at the former location near the entrance of Itaewon street (now a foot massage place) a few years ago and, while expensive, I didn't think it was such a bad place. But somewhere between its move it not only lost its "all-American diner" concept but any comprehension of quality food and basic service. I mean, I'm not talking an off day with the food or a single lousy server but I'm talking atrocities on a level that can help those unfamiliar with the concept of han to better understand that here in Korea.

I actually hesitated to write this because my most recent visit was for a celebratory gathering of a friend who, like any host, chose the place in the hopes it would help usher in good times for all. But at the end of the meal even my friend, as host, was an angry and discontent chap who even spoke with the management in the end. So I feel it's almost a sense of duty I should share this with you to prevent you from having a dining experience with all the pleasure and good times undergoing a root canal would give you.

Those who passed by the new Richard Copycat location may have immediately noticed the giant fake palm trees and giant tent covering on the rooftop location it now occupies, which makes it stand out in the neighborhood. The spot actually used to be a very nice lounge bar a few years back which my friends and I used to frequent often so I had high hopes they had made very good use of the large patio space. On entering, it is initially a nice atmosphere with the mood lighting, high ceilings, giant fire lamps and such which gives it a very southern California lounge-esque vibe. But that was the only good part as everything went downhill from there.

To start with, the staff was inattentive whatsoever despite it not being an absolute busy night. Any questions about the menu, substituting sides, etc, were clearly over their heads as they knew nothing. To be fair, they were servers who looked like they were lcoal students doing an "alba" to make a few won so let's overlook the ignorance about anything related to the menu but it didn't stop there; requesting or ordering anything at all required multiple people to call the servers to attention and the bumbling servers, who I'm certain received no basic instruction on how to wait tables, would forget any requests, serve food without ever serving utensils, or do absolutely illogical things such as bring out pitchers of waters for the table but one cup.

The dim lighting made menus very difficult to read and many of us didn't even know substitutions could be made for the side dishes of the main entrees. This was never explained by the servers but I doubt they even knew what most of the sides were. Incredibly though, it turned out best for those of us who didn't know and made substitutions as their dishes were sent back repeatedly because the servers didn't specify to the cooks to begin with. I sat directly across from the open kitchen and I had the fun of watching the chefs repeatedly receive back our entrees, dump out the sides onto another plate, and just arrange the now (hopefully) correct side onto the plate and send it back out. I kid you not, out of the 20+ people who ordered that night from our group about 4 people must have received their order correctly to begin with.

The abysmal events didn't end there. The clueless servers would often just set an entree down in the middle of the table without saying what it was and leave. The dim lighting would then make it difficult to see what dish was brought out in the first place and confusing to find the owner from our large group. Even if we flagged down the same server, he would remain clueless what the dish was too and would have to bring the dish back to the kitchen to find out what it was.

The glacial pace at which food was brought out was excruciating. Granted, our party had individuals who arrived at different times but when you placed your order had absolutely no correlation with how quickly or slowly your food arrived in front of you. It was as though the kitchen staff took all orders from the entire restaurant and placed them in a jar and they would go about picking out an order to make. Even if you ordered the same dish at the same time as someone, the difference could be some 15-20 minutes between one person and another. The worst part? Three of us in our party who arrived last, sat through nearly an hour of watching others eat, found out at the end their order never went in in the first place. By that time the rest of us had finished eating for quite some time then and so these poor folks had to get their meal at the next round. The glacial and inattentive pace made the entire meal for us a 2.5+ hour ordeal which was made all the more discomforting as the night progressed with the stuffy, hot air brought about by the multiple giant lamps eating up all the oxygen in the room.

So, ok, the servers are clueless, there's absolutely no communication going on among the staff, and a system in how the restaurant is run in the first place seems nonexistent. But if the food was magical surely one could let all of this pass, right? Well, in Richard Copycas case even the food was in mutiny with the establishment.

Burgers and sides like bacon were overcooked, pasta dishes were soggy, and almost any entree that came with a sauce was disappointing. My meatloaf was overcooked and dry but the watered down tomato tasting sauce could not save it either. I made the mistake of selecting the chicken fried steak for a Korean friend next to me, who was unfamiliar with many of the American dishes on the menu. Thinking chicken fried steak was a safe choice, I explained it was a popular dish for almost everyone in the States. I was quite embarrassed when the dish came out to see a chunky and pasty, and not at all gravy-like, white sauce sitting on a big breaded thing which itself looked almost like something scurrying by had fallen into the deep fryer. My friend removed most of the casing and gravy, which gave way to a thin piece of meat, and picked at his meal as he later whispered to me, "I don't think American food is my preference..."

Perhaps it was because we were a large party? Alas, I watched as multiple tables around me sent back their dishes or flagged down servers with issues after issue. Really, I'm not trying to be rude but I think if I had employed a group of monkeys to operate a restaurant, they would have had an equal level of success overall as the new Richard Copycat.

And I know it wasn't simply an off-night for the establishment as the 1.5 star rating (out of five stars) on Tripadvisor shows this is a joint that simply does not know how to operate an eatery, let alone a "lounge club" or whatever it's trying to be. I've heard whispers that with the move to its new location, ownership of this establishment changed hands and I can only assume a clueless and bumbling individual (even more so than the staff she or he has currently hired) is running the place and is the reason behind the mess of a place that is Richard Copycat in Itaewon.

Normally if I come across a so-so or slightly below average establishment, I just skip mentioning or reviewing it altogether as I have no interest to be mean towards folks just trying to run a business, but Richard Copycat's is a restaurant/lounge that is just appalling on all levels which really must get its act together or opt out of the food and drink business lest it gives locals the wrong impression about "American" cuisine.

The other spot I'm highlighting to avoid is a lot shorter and simple- it's simply the fact the owner of this drinking spot either: A) Lacks any basic social skills or B) Is just a grade A douchebag.

A group of my friends had gathered together in Noksapyeong one night recently and it had been a long time since we had all gotten together. After having some chicken and beer, we did the Korean thing and decided to carry things over to the next round but as those familiar with the Noksapyeong area know, a lot of the drink spots closes early in the morning hours. So we wandered from place to place only to find most areas closing down for the night.

Still in good spirits, we finally came across this izakaya which still had its lights on. Many people familiar with this area will recognize this joint just above the pair of barbecue places near El Grecos. We entered and found a sullen place with only one table occupied and the owner sitting by the window, back turned to us, as he played games on his cell phone.

Looking to not overstay the izakaya's closing time, we asked the owner what time they operated until and the owner, with his back still turned to us, mumbled something. We asked again, not hearing him and he gruffly said louder, "2 AM".

Ok... we thought. Not the most friendly person but we were just here to continue our conversation over some last drinks so we seated ourselves at a table. It was a floor seating area and I went to retrieve floor mats for us that were stacked against a wall and the owner suddenly angrily snapped at me, "Don't touch that. There's mats under the table." I apologized, not having seen the mats under the table and the owner threw, literally threw, the menu on our table and walked back to his seat to continue playing with his phone.

By then the mood in our group had turned sour which quickly turned to astonishment at seeing the menu prices which was selling soju by the bottle alone for a Cheongdamdong-esque price of 5,000 a pop. Peering over to the kitchen we saw a disorganized looking glass encased room and no one manning it which meant our oh-so-friendly owner was doing double duties as chef for his izakaya too.

Without any water, utensils, or dishes presented to us we had only been in there for about 3 minutes and feeling crummy about the atmosphere, the menu prices, and the owner himself, we decided to go about elsewhere and organized our floor mats back under the table and walked out. But that's when the real ish started.

Most of our group had already walked downstairs but I and two other friends were the last to head out and just about to head down the stairs when the same owner suddenly opened the door and called out to us.

"Hey!" he shouted and motioned for us to come over.

"Yes...?" we asked.

"Isn't it a basic courtesy for a patron to greet the owner if he or she is leaving and also explain why they are leaving?" he asked angrily.

What in the world...

We explained calmly to him that basic courtesy was never extended to us in the first place, even after we politely asked how long the joint was open for, and we were taking ourselves elsewhere.

The owner was seething now and began lecturing spewing garbage about how we shouldn't do that and such. My friend and I could see this wasn't a rational guy and was ready to walk away but our other friend was also riled up by now as her voice rose at the nerve of this guy. We carried her away before things potentially got worse as he continued to rant angrily at us but we were furious too and it left a lingering foulness to the mood for us that night.

Bro, you were straight up gaming away on your cell phone and not facing us when we talked to you, you yelled at us from the get-go, you threw your menu down on our table as though we somehow could possibly bring down your downtrodden and sullen place and you're charging 5,000 a soju bottle in Noksapyeong and you have the nerve to say we were rude. Really?

They say misery loves company but if that's the case, one should definitely refrain from doing so by operating an izakaya of all places and befoul your customers and their evenings...

So yes, take your hard earned won anywhere really, but this dump of a place.

-Update: I was passing by this place the other week and it's either renovating or closed down for good. Thank goodness.-

Worst drink spot in Noksapyeong

Grilled Salmon Heads

I was enjoying some sushi at a place in the Gongdeok area when my friend whipped out his phone and began doing some sort of transaction on it.

"What are you doing?" I asked curiously.

"I saw this place on a social commerce site so I can get us some salmon rolls and other salmon stuff for cheap!" he shared, clearly beaming.

Naturally, all of us were all for some good cheap salmon so we urged him to hurry up.

"Done!" he said as he waved for a waitress. But as the waitress approached we saw his face go from smug to shock in expression as he stared at his phone.

"Yes?" the waitress inquired.

"I... I... was trying to buy some salmon rolls on this social commerce site. But I think I ended up buying something else instead." *Starts scrolling through his phone* "I think I bought.... salmon heads? Salmon head? What's that?"

"Oh that's our grilled fresh salmon head meat. It's very good!"

We sat in a collective stunned silence for a few seconds. Grilled...grilled salmon heads? None of us were particularly picky eaters but this was an unexpected adventure no one had anticipated on a night that was supposed to be about fresh sashimi and sushi rolls.

Perhaps sensing our hesitancy, the waitress chimed, "It's very delicious! I promise!"

"O..Ok... sure. We'll give it a shot," my friend stammered, nervously.

We continued with our meal but the thought of salmon heads being prepared for us was in the back of everyone's mind. Surely it wasn't just whole heads of salmon, we thought. Surely they must prepare it somehow like take the head meat and do something with it.

But a good 20 minutes later (these bad boys take a while to cook through we were told), sure enough out came a plate of lopped sizzling hot salmon heads. With their glazed eyes and mouths agape, these guys certainly didn't entice us to jump right in but the smell of roasted salmon, herbs and lemon wafted through the air and we were curious.

I spritzed the lemon slice, which seemed tiny in comparison to the giant heads, as equally as I could over the meat and one-by-one we silently picked up our chopsticks and began to dig in. Under the crackling hot skin, we were surprised to find cushions of pink salmon meat nestled in between bone, cartilage, and bits of I-don't-know-my-fish-anatomy-but-it-wasn't-meat-or-bones. Tender and moist, the meat was luxurious and rich in taste.It dawned on me then that many elderly Koreans and fishing folks often had told me the fish meat in or near the head was the best part and I got a sense of what they were talking about.

On the downside, the meat was a little too luxurious and rich in taste and I found myself reaching for the pot of green tea more frequently then when I was eating my sushi. Some of the parts were simply blubber which we mostly poked at. To neighboring tables, we probably looked more like a group of students huddled around a dissection experiment than hungry friends eating a meal.

Still, it was a memorable, and unexpected, conclusion to our meal and a food memory I still smile about when I'm reminded. Thanks to social commerce, we went in for some salmon rolls but ended up with salmon heads on the table! Venture a try if you see it on the menu next time. Not sure if I'll be ordering it again anytime soon though...

I'm on All Yummy Recipes!

Not sure how it happened but my old post for butterflied lobster tails made it on AllYummyRecipes' 15 best lobster recipes list!

Not sure how it happened but feeling humbled and blessed :)