Driving through Mangwon-dong six years ago, my mother noted all the changes in the neighborhood. “There was no subway here. I used to have to carry you on my back while riding the small village bus.” My great-aunt, who who took care of me during my infancy, lived there for over 40 years and since 2009, I’ve seen and been surprised by all the changes in the neighborhood. Surprisingly enough, everyone I’ve spoken to, from English teachers to exchange students and locals, seems to have a memory of Mangwon-dong. Is it the close approximately to the Han River? The relatively short distance to Hongdae? (Only 10 minutes by cab, but a world apart in noise.) Dominated by the market on one end and the Han River on the other, the entirety of Mangwon-dong is difficult to summarize in a couple sentences. Longtime residents will tell you about how this used to be “the poor part of town,” while cinephiles will reference the streets from movies and many younger employees head to this neighborhood for their first jobs (a slew of start-ups and small music production companies have opened up here). It’s interesting to find new foreign foods here, from goulash to macaroons, in a neighborhood I’ve long associated with my great-aunt’s mouthwatering kimchi. I see a little girl, just a toddler, holding hands with a woman who appears to be her grandmother walking through the market and I wonder what meaning Mangwon-dong will take on for her.
Eat & Drink
Café Dong-Kyung’s reputation amongst locals is pretty strong. It is in fact, known as “the place to go for coffee before you die.” There is a wait to get in—even on a Wednesday afternoon at 2pm. With so many coffee chain places nearby, I truly wondered if any place could be worth the wait. Could the coffee really be that good? Any doubts I had were immediately erased once I had the Einspänner coffee topped with fluffy whipped cream. A creamy and rich sensation, I understood why it’s received so much attention. The Einspänner coffee is one of the most popular items at the café, in addition to the almond mocha java However, ask the manager there and he’ll recommend the drip coffee. All coffee is hand drip and attention is paid to every last drop.
If there’s ever a time and a place to start with dessert first, it’s this place. To compare, I would have to refer to the strawberry sorbet at the famed Berthillon on Île Saint-Louis, Paris (sometimes referred to as “the most delicious ice cream in the world”). Soft and sweet, with the taste of fresh strawberries, it’s hard to believe that this strawberry sorbet has been hiding in Busan for the past three years where they were previously located. Ice creams are available as sorbets, as sorbets in a cocktail-like concoction called a ballon de glacier and as soft, milky variations (equally as good, in their own unique way). Inspired by British rock and quaintly decorated with touches of pink, their menu changes seasonally and includes simple French cuisine (but is limited to 30 dishes a day). Make sure to call in advance (they speak English) about availability, as this place is a must-visit.
“I wanted to start a place where I could work five days a week; hence the name,” said Lee Kang-wook, who owns Joo5il with his wife, Ko Il-hyun. The restaurant, which opened this past November, literally means “five days a week” and it’s one of the few non-Korean eateries in the neighborhood. While there are Korean-inspired and fusion dishes, such as the spicy beef and eggplant rice, most of the dishes have been inspired by months of travel to countries ranging from the Czech Republic to Turkey. One of the most popular items on the menu here is their take on the Hungarian dish, goulash. Served more on the soup end (as opposed to a thicker stew), this hard-to-find-in-Korea dish made with pork, vegetables and a lot of herbs and spices is memorably savory.
While walking through the streets of Mangwon-dong, it might be easy to confuse this venue with flower pots outside for a café. Although the exterior resembles a cozy café, the menu and the atmosphere inside will reveal a hip izakaya-like bar. Zoooop (with four o’s) is named as such so as to resemble the sound of slurping a bowl of soup. The bar, located only a short walk from the market, is operated by its fashionable, young manager Choi Ji-hye. Two of the most loved dishes on the menu include either the Nagasaki jjamppong and the black-bean tteokboki (slightly greasy, but just as addictive as bar food should be). All of the seafood used in their dishes is bought daily from the nearby market and the restaurant itself remains a favorite amongst the young community in the neighborhood.
If you find yourself wondering about the unique layout of Incomplete Table, the answer might have something to do with the fact that owner Choi Chang-hee comes from an architecture background. The record player in the center, the picture of Elvis giving you a sultry, one-eyed look and the L-shaped bar all make the place look like it would serve cocktails or whisky, instead of macaroons. “I wanted an open-space where people that don’t know each other well could enjoy desserts together,” explained Choi. While the macaroon menu changes from day to day, you’ll be guaranteed to find a variety of unique ingredients within them. (Some of their past ingredients have included bacon, peperoncino, wasabi, maple syrup and yuja.) The low lighting, trendy music and fresh smell of macaroons being baked in the oven almost make it seem out of place here in Mangwon-dong, but Choi insists that it was just the right fit as “the part of [him] who feels tired of Seoul sometimes feels at home here.”
If kids who grow up in the West have chicken nuggets as a staple, then there’s donkatsu for kids who grow up in East Asia. Sure, it’s an udon place but the kid in me can’t help but be enticed by the large fried portions of pork cutlet. Mangwon Udon seems to be filled with pairs of customers of all ages sharing one order of donkatsu and one order of udon (either spicy or mild). While the straightforward menu consists of those three items as well as eomok (fish cake) and there’s nothing fancy about the interior, the restaurant is never empty. Dinnertime sees many families with a lot of the kids with their hagwon backpacks smiling and greeting the grandmas who work there and late nights are filled with those going for a third or fourth round of drinks.
Places to visit
With gardening, terrariums and flower arranging on the rise for the last couple years, flower shops do their best to sell their goods because they stop being fresh. However, at the Never Wilting Garden, this is not a problem. The shop specializes in plants that don’t wilt. Plant prints can be found on fabric, paper and all kinds of interior décor objects. The shop is owned and designed by those who brought you the popular handicraft brand Lie Close. While you may find items from Lie Close, there are also products from other brands that have plant motifs on them. The shop collaborates with small studios in the neighborhood and often offers various events, such as illustration classes.
The first disclaimer about this place is that it’s not necessarily the place to go to for English-language books. While they do have a small collection of classics and a handful of Paris Reviews, the real charm of Manil Books for bibliophiles is the piles of well-organized books and the round reading table in the center, inviting you to sit down and read. With an eclectic collection of books from independent publishers, readers can find wellknown graphic novels translated into Korean along with literature on “how to quit your job” or “how to drink beer.” To the right of the entrance, there’s even a small bulletin showing upcoming indie concerts and a schedule of which foreign films are showing. There’s a box of books that customers are allowed to read within the store and it’s not uncommon to see someone at the center table with a book, unpressured to hurry up.
While there are plenty of free comics available online, there’s still a culture of reading comic books all night and having a cup ramen to satisfy midnight hunger pangs here in Korea. That culture is easily accessible at Mangwon Man-bang (Comic Room) where readers of all ages come to spend time. It was created by two well-respected individuals in the comic book community, Lim Eun-jeong (who also operates Sangsu Manbang) and Kkamakgui (lead vocalist of Nunco Band and writer of several webzines). While those who can’t read Korean may not necessarily be able to read the comic books, people can also come here to listen to music on CD players, relax and enjoy a variety of the market’s snacks (Mangwon Market’s famed pumpkin sikhye and croquettes are available for purchase here). It’s a quiet place to be immersed in the comic book community if you’re looking for a warm way to kill time indoors this winter.
While Mangwon-dong has a past strongly associated with the World Cup, it is also a neighborhood filled with artists and musicians alike who are constantly experimenting with new ways to bring vibrancy to the neighborhood. Located next to the market, the Gallery Alter Ego is one great example of Mangwon-dong’s colorful personality. Alter Ego attempts to redefine the narrow definition of “gallery” by exhibiting various new types of art. Decorated by owner and art collector Ok Bo-kyung, the space is a renovated house where her husband grew up. She believes that a gallery shouldn’t be perceived as a hobby undertaken by a wealthy housewife, but as a new project launched by an art collector with a keen eye. Rather than focusing purely on the commercial aspects of artists, Bo-kyung does her best to introduce new exhibits and more independent artists. While exhibitions are scheduled biannually (once in the spring and once in the fall), there are several small projects that take place in between. Stop by the gallery and become a part of the growing artistic world in Mangwon-dong.
An insider's talk
“Huh! Swan! That’s what they called me when I lived in Rhode Island for a few years. But mostly, I’ve been living here in Mangwon-dong. It’s now been around 60 years—right after I came down from North Korea during the war. I had just gotten married and I had to settle down here because I had nothing. This wasn’t such a fancy neighborhood in those days. Don’t even remind me how bad it was! It was crazy! But after the World Cup Stadium was built, the neighborhood slowly became nicer to live in. Why, here I am, on my way to fix my Rolex at the jeweler’s.”
“I started working at a record label called Electric Muse in 2014 and now come to Mangwon-dong everyday for work. This neighborhood is home to a couple other labels apart from ours, as well as several musicians’ studios and band practice rooms. It’s not uncommon to see musicians walking around. Recently, I saw Yoon Duk-won of the band Broccoli You Too in Mangwon Market. After work I often have dinner at the market. These days, I eat janchi noodles quite often.”
“Because I spent my elementary, middle and high school years in Mangwon-dong, it feels to me like a mother’s hug. When I came back after a short time abroad in my 20s, the unchanged neighborhood and friendly faces showed me what ‘home’ really was. I love that Mangwon Market is always the same and so close and I am a long-time regular at Sune’s Gorilla Tteokbokki.”