Tuesday, March 21, 2017

What makes a good mom and pop restaurant?

This meal was filled with 정 and deliciousness. 
Recently I was asked this questions, "What makes a good mom & pop restaurant in Korea?" When I first arrived here it was one of the most perplexing things for me and I never thought I would ever be good at it. Everything looked the same and I couldn't deduce what was good and what was bad. I felt helpless when it came time to pick a place to eat. My solution, just start walking into any place I saw and just eating there.  After years of this I've finally developed that sixth sense that tells me a shop is going to be magic. It feels good to have crossed that barrier of entry.

Of course, trying to put this into words is harder than it sounds. Today I'm going to do my best give a few pointers that might help you get more comfortable deciding where to eat.

1.  Are their hand written signs in the window for special dishes? I've found that busy windows full of specials are a good sign that the people in the kitchen care about making delicious things and not just a menu list. They are cooking for season and not just what's pre-decided. These specials are usually fantastic as well.

2. How busy is the restaurant at meal times? The number of cars in the parking lot or the number of people in seats is always a good sign. Especially if those seats are filled with grandmas and grandpas. If the seats are only filled with construction workers than maybe it's just cheap.

3. Is the word 고향 (hometown) in the name? Mom & Pop restaurants offering hometown cooking really do have a higher rate of deliciousness and better side dishes. Also, if they specifically mention a region of Korea.

4. It's not a brand or a chain. Although many brands and chains are individually owned and can have great things, their side dishes are often boring and lack a distinct flavor. To find chains or brands that do have a good mom and pop flavor, refer to rule number one.

5. Lot's of side dishes in the pictures. Side dishes are my jam. I LOVE a good 백반 (look for this and order this) option. This means that the meal is primarily side dishes.

6. Boxes of fresh veggies piled around. When I see piles of cabbage, radish, and greens stacked outside the shop or just inside the door, I know it's going to be a good meal.

7.  Warn out but also clean. Great places often look tired, but also really loved. Families often grow up in these restaurants. They are as much homes as they are businesses.

We aren't done yet though, once you have found what feels like the perfect place - how do you know the food is top notch? Let's look at that now:

1. Rice. This is a BIG deal.  It also should never be dry or taste stale. The rice that comes to your table should be so delicious you can enjoy it by itself. The best restaurants also don't serve just white rice. They serve bean rice or a mixed rice because it's more nutritionally balanced. No self-respecting mom and pop shop servings bad rice. This is often where restaurants near the military bases let you down. They buy the cheap rice and it truly ruins the meal.

2. Lettuce. It shouldn't be wilted and it should be bitter. If you are in a meat restaurant where the lettuce is sagging, that's just a no.  It's a real deal breaker for me.

3. Vegetable quality. The veggies should be fresh and rich in flavor. In the states we are now used to our fruits and veggies being flavorless, but that should happen here. Carrots should be sweet, cucumbers fresh and juicy, tomatoes sweet and tangy, etc. If there are bowls of things everywhere being washed, you've nailed it. It's going to be great.

4. Depth of flavor. The broths shouldn't be one dimensional. The majority should be dynamic and carry a wide variety for flavors. There are simpler dishes, but you usually add dynamic flavors to them on your own to bring out their full personality. They are like a blank canvas with the base paint added but you get to do the rest.

5. Diversity of side dishes. Pyeongtaek is bad about this, but ideally you want there to be diversity in your side dishes. A balance of nutrition and taste. If there are three dishes it's ideal if they aren't all similar. Sometimes I let this pass when the main dish is extraordinary but I'm always a little bitter about it.

6. You eat it and even though you don't understand it you still think, "OMG! Where have you been all my life?" 

7. Finally, beyond the food you want to feel 정 (Jeong). Which sounds super crazy, but after you are here for a bit you start to know what it means and how important it is. It's a particular feeling. A sense of warmth, a kindness extended across the divide. It might be a soda given as service. A special side dish brought out after they see you eat all the others. It's usually reserved,but emotionally palatable. It's also a part of the Korean experience and once you start to see it or recognize it you know you are on the road to understand not just the food but also the hearts of Korea.

Pyeongtaek Summer Beach Bus Details & Dates


We are really SUPER excited about offering 6 buses, leaving on select Saturdays, headed to beaches South West of Pyeongtaek. Bus travel is wonderful because you don't have to stress about traffic, worry about driving home tired, drinking beer, etc. They are also surprisingly affordable here so it's high time we gave this a try. The beaches where we are going are far more remote than most you will visit in Korea so they offer way more peace and relaxation than places like Busan.  

Going to these beaches is not for those who are looking for an experience just like the US or something like that. Korea is it's own world and it's a beautiful delightful world that we love living in because of these unique things. It's not for folks who are scared to be alone in a foreign country. Nobody will be holding your hand. It is for those that love peaceful adventures filled with sand and BBQ.
 
Dates                      Seats      Beach Cost
June 10, 2017         45           Mallipo     18,000won/$17
June 17, 2017         45           Yeonpo    18,000won/$17
July 8, 2017            45          Mallipo     18,000won/$17
July 22, 2017          45           Kaloom     18,000won/$17
August 5, 2017      45          Mallipo    18,000won/$17
August 26, 2017    45            TBD          18,000won/$17

******To pay in US Dollars: ******
OPTION 1: www.skrill.com send the money to southofseoul@gmail.com (using paypal is far too expensive. Skrill keeps ticket costs affordable. Also Paypal has recently stopped working with many or all Korean banks so it's no longer an option as of last week.)
OPTION 2: Go in person and leave cash with SAM at Attractive Coffee near Camp Humphreys. His shop is in the SOS app.

******To pay in Korean Won:******

OPTION 1: transfer directly to KB account 468601-04-118306 Name: Rivers-Woods
OPTION 2: Drop off cash with Sam at Attractive Coffee in Anjeongri. He has kindly offered to help with this. His shop is in the SOS app.

######## AFTER YOU PAY: ###########
Send an email to southofseoul@gmail.com with the names of passengers paid for, contact phone number, and total amount paid. This will help us make sure our records are accurate and nothing gets missed.


WHY A BEACH BUS?
Pyeongtaek is close to a number of delightful beaches, yet they are surprisingly hard to get to because there are no direct express buses. I want to change that. Since many people in Pyeongtaek are interested in going to the beach, but few have cars, I’m going to help by scheduling 6 buses headed to different beaches in Taen starting in June and finishing in August. I’m not a travel company. I don’t want to be a travel company. I just want folks to have options.
 
IS THIS A TOUR?
Nope, it’s not a tour. It’s a bus to the beach. There won’t be interpreters, no hand holding, no special stops, or pre-made meals. The bus driver picks us up, drops us off, and we explore the area. You are going to love it. Bring all the things you need to just sit back and relax. They will not drive us to lots of different places along the way. We go from Pyeongtaek to the beach and back.
 
WHO CAN GO?
Anyone can go on the bus if they pay for a ticket. It’s for families, single travelers, teachers, military, friends, etc. You can be from Songtan, Anjung, Paengseong, Suwon, Dongtan, Yongin, etc. It’s also not just for foreigners. Bring all your friends no matter where they are from. It’s about having a beautiful time together in the summer. If you have a group that wants to go together (language meetup, church group, kids whatever, etc) just be sure to buy your tickets early so everyone can go.
 
WHERE WILL THE BUS PICK ME UP?
There will be three stops: Songtan Station, Pyeongtaek Station, and in front of Camp Humphreys walking gate. You will need to be there on-time. I am trying to make it as easy as possible for everyone involved.
 
ARE THERE DISCOUNTED TICKETS FOR (fill in the blank)?
No, there are not. The bus costs a base amount. I’ve based the tickets on that price. I’m not a tour company. I’m not affiliated with the military. I’m not affiliated with anyone who gives me money to help make this all happen. So prices, are prices, are prices.
 
WHAT ARE THE BEACHES LIKE?
The beaches on the west coast of Korea tend to be shallow with very small surf and often no surf. This makes them really fun for kids because they can play like crazy in the water. When it rains or there is a storm at sea it will affect the clarity of the water. No way around that. It’s how the ocean works. Over the last few years we have seen clear blue waters as well as silty / muddy waters. Just depends on the weather around the time you visit. The beaches are sometimes a mix of rocky and sandy. There tends to be lovely tide pools and lots of little crabs to chase around. This is not Hawaii. It’s not South Florida. It’s not Mexico. It’s not a comparison game. I am sure that at some point in your life you went to someplace totally different than this and it was so much better. We aren’t going to the beach because it’s the best beach to ever exist in the world. We are going because beaches are awesome and these are the ones we have.
 
WHAT SERVICES ARE THERE AS THE BEACH?
There are always restrooms, places to rent floaties, a snack shop, maybe a restaurant, and often showers. 95% of the food is Korean since this area is not heavily visited by tourists due to the lack of public transportation. If you don’t like Korean food, be sure to pack a picnic for the day. However, there will always be a convenience store for drinks, chips, water, etc. If we get there and you did not bring food and also don't like Korean food, this was your own personal choice to go hungry. Korea has done nothing wrong by having it's own food at beaches visited by Koreans.
 
WEATHER
If there is a massive storm coming in and we know it 7 days before, we will cancel the trip and issue refunds. However, it the weather arrives at the last minute and we can’t cancel, the bus will be rerouted either to cool, unique location that’s fun in a storm. The alternate locations will be given in advance. Since we can’t control the weather and the bus is booked, we might as well go do something fun somewhere dry.
 
CANCELLATIONS
Due to the fact I’m not a travel agent and I’m just renting some buses to make life in Pyeongtaek more fun for the community (I have a car and can go on my own so this really is for the general community), the rules have to be pretty strict. If the bus isn’t reasonably full 7 days before the trip it will be cancelled. That means you must cancel 10 days before the trip if want a refund. Seriously folks, don’t joke around and leave folks hanging.
 
REFUNDS
Since I’m going to personally be responsible for paying for this bus, if you can’t go the day before I can’t give you a refund. What I recommend doing is finding somebody to take your spot. No, I can’t find somebody to take your spot for you. I literally have zero extra time in my day after coordinating everything so it’s going to have to be a group effort of personal responsibility to make this Beach Bus thing happen.
 
CAN YOU HELP ME WITH (fill in the blank question on the trip)?
No, not really. I will go on as many of these trips as I can. However, I’m not going as a tour guide, translator, or as information. I’m just another person going to the beach to relax. So, although I will be helping getting passengers loaded and making sure we don’t leave folks behind, that’s the extent of it. Due to the fact all the South of Seoul stuff has to happen around my full-time job, I have to be very strict about how things operate. I can manage the workload as long as everyone involved has a strong sense of community and personal responsibility. I don't have endless time to dedicate to this so please read everything before you ask questions. 
 

IF YOU AREN'T THERE WHAT WILL WE DO?
When I can’t make these trips there will be a designated person to contact who will be able to work with the drivers and be sure you get from Point A to Point B to Point A. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Anatomy of Lotte Mart



Everyone knows that box stores like Emart, Homeplus, and Lotte Mart are where you go for all your foreigner specific grocery shopping needs - but do you REALLY know everything they have to offer? Do you realize how super easy they can make your life?

These facilities are true one-stop-lifestyle-shops that will make a person's life (especially a parent's life) in Korea extremely simple and efficient. Yes, the first time you use some of these services it might feel uncomfortable because of the language barrier, but the pay off is immense when you can do nearly all the important stuff in one building that includes free parking.

Let's look at Lotte Mart in Pyeongtaek to give you an idea of how efficient these facilities are. This is an overview. I've not detailed prices or visited each place and tried their services individually, mostly because I tend to visit the stores closer to my home. However, Lotte Mart is comprehensive and easy to access so it deserves the attention so here we go.


Family Health Clinic
If you aren't feeling well they have a family clinic tucked away behind the escalators in the basement of the Pyeongtaek Lotte Mart. It offers pediatrics, ear nose throat, and internal medicine. It's family themed, but anyone can feel free to stop in for a quick checkup. Truly amazing.


Pharmacy
After you are finished with the clinic, you can run upstairs and fill your prescription at the pharmacy. Also, as a generally fyi, you can also pickup affordable, over the counter birth control with no prescription necessary (6,000-10,000 won). In Korea, standard birth control is not Dr prescribed and it's extremely affordable.


Daiso
In the basement, next door to the clinic you will find a small, efficient little Daiso where you can save that money. Daiso is life.


HiMart
Are you looking for some electronics, a new refrigerator,or a heated blanket? This popular electronics shop has a small store with rice cookers, pressure cookers, printer ink, cell phone chargers, and HDMI cables and many other things you need to stay connected.


Optical Store
Maybe your glasses just broke, your prescription is outdated, or you need new contacts? Just stop in and pickup some replacements. In Korea your eye exam is free when you get new frames or lenses and your glasses can be finished in about 15 minutes. You can also usually find a lovely pair for glasses for around 60,000 - 80,000 won so get two pairs if you feel like it. Sometimes prescription lenses can take up to 7 days, sometimes you can go home with them same-day.


Culture Center
One of the coolest parts of box stores are these centers that run affordable programs for adults and kids. I personally have often taken dance classes in these centers because they have parking, classes in the evenings, and prices that fit my budget. For parents and kids they offer a plethora of programs that often including pre-school or daycare type programs. The program catalog is in Korean, but join a language exchange and you can usually find a lovely friend to help translate it. Seriously, these centers are awesome. I used these programs long before I spoke Korean (friends helped me signup for things, or the lady at the front desk walked me through signup via google translate). Everyone was always welcoming and helpful and (in may case) there was always somebody who spoke some English in class who helped me keep up.


Detailing and Car Wash
If your car is a hot mess like mine often is, you can leave it to get cleaned up while you shop. It's a perfect use of your time and keeps the ride looking like new. It's just sitting around collecting dust while you shop anyway.


Auto Mechanic
Maybe your car needs a new battery, the oil changed, brakes checked, or fluids topped off. You can leave it with the mechanic while you grab your groceries for the week or pickup a new pair of glasses.


Keys
If you are like me and often lose keys, this is a handy place to know about.


Dry Cleaner
I think we can all agree that dry cleaning is annoying, but it takes out the sting when it's this easy to drop-off and pick-up. You will be coming and going from here anyway, why not just keep it simply and use the dry cleaners at your favorite mart?


Passport Photos
When you live abroad you need passport photos for everything. Maybe you have an appointment at immigration coming up or you are applying for a Chinese visa. You can solve that problem on your next grocery trip.


Veterinarian
Some of us have fur babies and we need convenience as well. One of our dogs was fixed by a vet in a box store. It was affordable and worked out well. We also find it an easy place to pickup heart worm, tick meds, or special things we need for the puppies.



Manicures
So, you've dropped off the car to get washed, the kids are in playcare, your glasses are ordered, you visited the ENT picked up your meds, picked up new heartworm for the dog, and dropped off the clothes at the cleaners.  Time to treat yourself. Why not get a manicure? It's here and you've got the time.


Haircuts and Styles
Maybe you don't need your nails done, but it's been a while since you have treated yourself to a haircut. Take the time to stop off and get a touch up. Usually these places are reasonably priced, modern, and often have happy-hour specials on cuts and colors.


Skincare Clinic
Maybe your hair and nails are on point, but your skin isn't looking so bright. Maybe you need a facial. They have that here. A little google translate and you will be on your way to a fresher face.


Essential Oils
You have been a rockstar and accomplished more today than you thought humanly possible, but you are also exausted because there of the language barrier. Stop off at the essential oils shop and pickup something to sooth your mind and body. Essential oils are all the rage right now and you can get your fix at Lotte Mart. There may not be the selection you are used to back home, that can never be promised, but they have the greatest hits and that's what's important.


Book a Trip
Want a cheap trip to Thailand or a weekend escape to Jeju? You can find amazing deals with Korean travel agents. Why not see if they have a little something that fits your schedule and budget? Sure, there is a language barrier, but if you are adventurous sometimes you can save a lot of money this way.

So, next time you want to go and just get it all over with and don't want to drive all over town - just go to Lotte Mart. Only not on the second and fourth Sundays of the month when all stores of this type are closed. (Closed days are noted in the South of Seoul app)





Sunday, March 12, 2017

Beautiful Thai Massage


The Thai Massage

ADDRESS: 평택시 서정동 795-12

SOUTH OF SEOUL APP: SEARCH businesses - Beauty - THE THAI Massage

This new Thai Massage business opened a few months ago near the McDonalds in Seojeongri. It's two floors of lovely relaxation. I'd been hesitant to try it because it looked out of my price range, but last week I decided it was time to at least duck in and check out the menu. Turns out I was worried for nothing. Their prices are totally average by Korean standards and extremely affordable by US standards. They also have a happy hour from 9am - 4pm and a 10% discount for paying cash. 




For those of you who are new to Korea and aren't sure how to pick a place for massage, here are some useful tips. 

The Facilities:
  • Clean, beautiful changing areas that supply razors, tooth brushes, lotions, etc.
  • Foot massage chairs for when you just need a quick pick-me up.
  • Discounts for cash.
  • A nice lobby with a pleasant cup of tea.
  • Quiet atmosphere (No noribangs next door.)
  • Room privacy 
  • Warm room in winter, not too much AC in summer.
  • Not a brothel. Always an important point. (Look for places that say they are for men, women, and couples. No red lights in the lobby or halls. If you can read Korean, check reviews on Naver.)
The Service:
  • Massage therapists that listen and check in with where you're are at.
  • Allowed to stay in the room and take a rest after the massage is done.
  • Don't expect to share a language (However, here the staff did speak English at the front desk and the massage staff knew key words in English so it was comfortable.)
  • Walk-ins welcome.
Things that vary between locations: foot bath before massage, use of oils or lotions, etc

Personally, I felt this place had it all. Certainly the nicest setup in Songtan and for a very affordable price. It was also the best Thai massage I've had outside Thailand. Meaning: they focused on stretching me out through the entire massage and not just at the end. It was effective and excellent. Lot's of knees and elbows.

This will be my new place for now. 

PRO-TIP: If you are going only for the relaxing aspects of the massage, don't go anywhere after 9pm on Friday or Saturday nights. This is the magical soju hour when other guests might be a bit noisier than one would like.


Entry and foot massage stations
Butterfly pea tea. Surprisingly blue.
Rooms where comfortable, warm and dark.
Beautiful changing room and showers.
Toiletries to put myself back together.



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