When Koreans go to a restaurant, they usually drink beer or soju with their meal. (The first cup is bottoms-up!) Sometimes, they also drink Makgeolli, a milky rice wine that I wrote about in a previous post. More rarely, friends or business partners may go out to special ‘whiskey bars’ where beautiful women pour your drinks and laugh at your stupid jokes.
I’ve mostly been drinking Cass, a light beer that’s mostly tasteless but surprisingly strong. Another Korean beer is called Hite. Both types of beer are used to make bombs, which are mixtures of beer and soju. I’ve always been told not to mix alcohol. But in Korea, bombs are not only welcome, they’re encouraged.
There are different combinations of beer and soju, each with a unique name such as atomic bomb, stink bomb, super bomb, or dirty bomb. Koreans really care about seniority, so the youngest person at the table normally mixes bombs for everybody else. The oldest person, if he pours you a drink, you have to accept it and drink it. There are no exceptions.
Mixing bombs is somewhat of an art. At the most basic level, it means pouring a soju with precise measurement into each glass and then filling the rest with beer. Sometimes, mixing is done creatively. For example, some people will stack shot glasses filled with soju on top of the beer glasses and then hit the table with their forehead to cascade all of the shot glasses into their respective beer glasses.
Korean beer costs 4,000 KRW per bottle in restaurants and bars, which is roughly $3.75 USD. That’s a pretty reasonable price, I think. However, a bottle of soju (which is basically a light vodka) only costs 2,000 KRW. So if you’re looking to drink on the cheap, you’re better off drinking soju than beer.
I guess this explains the high number of drunk people I see on the street. Sometimes, when I’m walking around the city at night, I see businessmen unable to walk straight, laughing at god-knows-what. Korean people find it uncouth to drink in public (i.e. on the street) but they think it’s acceptable to fall down drunk so long as you don’t have a drink in hand. It’s very interesting.
If a man stays out drinking too late, he doesn’t go home to his wife and children (because he doesn’t want to get scolded). However, hotels are expensive and crashing at a friend’s house is frowned upon. So most guys will just go to a spa, sober up in the hot tub, and sleep on the floor. I was told that “the rocks on the floor will contour to your body, creating a wonderful surface.” Okay, then.
In terms of exploring the Seoul nightlife, my friends and I recently decided to visit the college town next to Hongdae. (Don’t worry, we didn’t do anything cray.) We figured college students would know how to have fun!
First of all, the Hongdae area is filthy. The ground is littered with trash. The air smells like smoke. It reminds me a little bit of Telegraph Street in Berkeley. However, our walk through the area was bizarrely awesome from an ethnographic standpoint. We saw no less than 10 different “Ho Bars” and several instances of male chauvinistic chest-thumping by locals. We also saw an enormous dog that would best be described as a ‘dire wolf!’
We ended up going to a tiny hole-in-the-wall bar called Vinyl. The place had two tiny tables with a maximum occupancy of 10 people! However, the walls were filled with old college posters. I took a picture:
The unique thing about Vinyl is they don’t serve you drinks in glasses or even paper cups. You get a plastic baggie with a straw, Southeast Asia style! Normally, I would be turned off by such a claustrophobic place. But the decor was just so whimsical that I can’t help but like it!
In one of the earlier excursions to the Hongdae area, we visited a unique dive bar called Bar Da. From the outside, it looks like a run-down, abandoned building where serial killers stash their victims. But when you climb the dilapidated stairs and open the grimy door, you realize there’s an actual business here! The charm of Bar Da is that it’s utterly terrible. But it’s so bad, it’s good. For example, all of the menus are hand-written, half the lights don’t work, and the chairs are falling apart. It’s a horrible place, but you can’t help but love it.
Inside Bar Da, we met a Korean girl from the Philippines who told us she was in Korea to learn her native language. Being from the Philippines, she naturally had perfect English. However, the first big question she asked us was whether we could help her score some weed. “I just want to fucking get high,” she confessed to us.
Being tourists with no intention to get thrown in jail (which is how Korea deals with pop smokers), we ignored her pleas.
Later, she asked us: “How old are you guys?” My friends and I gave each other odd looks and then told her our ages. “Just so you know, I’m 18,” she responded. Awkward.
Since she was being very strange, we ended up just ignoring her and talking to her marginally more mature friend instead. Unfortunately, she turned out to be quite an aggressive gal, basically forcing one of my classmates to become Facebook friends with her. She also refused to believe that we were students from Berkeley, saying: “You lie. Foreigners always lie.” Quite rude. I hope my classmate ‘unfriended’ her.
We left the bar pretty soon after that and ended up getting some Italian food from a local restaurant. Hilariously, it turned out to be one of those frilly places designed for young guys to take their sweethearts out on dates. Filled with flowers and lace, the interior decor resembled that of Barbie’s dream home. We decided to eat there anyway.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by some of the so-called Western-food in Seoul. For example, “Chicken + Beer” appears to be a very popular combination. There are no less than a dozen restaurants in Myeongdong alone that cater to this strange combination. Basically, the water gives you a pitcher of beer and a bucket of chicken. Yes, this is a thing in Korea and it is huge!
Oddly enough, waffle restaurants are very popular in Korea as well. You may be wondering “is a waffle restaurant what I think it is?” Yes. There is apparently a very high demand for waffles because I literally pass by 3 waffle restaurants every morning on the way to work. Myeongdong is pretty much comprised of waffle restaurants (and boutique cosmetics stores).
Imagine if Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles came to Korea. People would literally have heart attacks from over-excitement.
All kidding aside, Seoul has been quite the adventure. But what I’m really craving is some good ol’ fashioned American fast food.