TDH Updates: May 2015 – City Apartment Renovation

We’ve gotten a lot of messages from people interested in our adventure of buying and renovating The Damyang House over the last year or two, so thought our latest renovation project might be of some interest as well.  This time we were looking for an apartment in the city; a task and project that was considerably easier and cheaper (and not nearly as dramatic), but not without its headaches!

By most accounts our approach to Korean real estate is completely backwards.  While most compete to bid on the newest move-in-ready developments in desirable neighborhoods, we have spent our time doing the exact opposite.  This approach could be due to years of watching HGTV, but is more realistically a result of financial necessity;  Korean real estate is crazy expensive.  The aforementioned “dream apartment” goes for almost 400 million (in Gwangju at least)…we ended up with a house in the countryside and a nice city apartment for substantially less than that.  Sure sacrifices were made (apartment location is great, but neighborhood lacks), but overall we’re pretty happy with the result.

The 32 pyeong(1200 sq ft)/3 bedroom apartment we settled on is in a complex that was “the shit” back in the day, or so I’m told.  Today it’s a bit rundown and filled mostly with an older generation that couldn’t care less about moving to a trendy neighborhood or the working class who can’t afford to.

The selling points for me were simple.  First, the location.  Geographically we’re in a good location and getting anywhere is quick and easy.  The main bus terminal is a five minute walk, both jobs are a ten minute drive, downtown is a few kilometers away and the expressway to the house is close by.  Second, the view.  Simply put it’s a fantastic view.  We looked at a couple dozen apartments before stamping papers on this one and I can assure you having any sort of view other than another building or a parking-lot is a luxury.

Renovations only took a few weeks and included new floors, mouldings, wallpaper, lighting, doors, custom kitchen and bathroom, some new windows and just about everything else you would expect in a top-to-bottom renovation.   Here are a few before and after photos of the main rooms.

Living Room:  Pretty straight forward.  New floors, wallpaper and most importantly: new lighting!  The utility space at the front of the room had already been reclaimed and renovated by the previous owner so that saved us a bit of money.

BEFORE

 

DURING

AFTER


Kitchen:  Plans A, B and C were all aborted for one reason or another.  Mostly because of strict rules regarding cutting any of the walls.  Even widening the main entryway was denied.  The utility space in the rear of the kitchen was reclaimed and made more of a usable space.  We had to replace the windows, and raise the floor about six inches so it was all much more complicated than it looks.  Sort of a funky layout for a kitchen, but it’s the only option we had left!

BEFORE

The utility space

DURING

AFTER

Bathroom:  What a nightmare this space was.  I wish I had better photos so you could see how low the ceiling was.  It was a very cave-like bathroom.  We had to raise the ceiling and replace everything in here.  The goal was to make it brighter and a bit less scary.

BEFORE

DURING

AFTER

Master Bedroom:  Old Korean apartments have utility space between every room and the outside windows.  Additionally, the inside windows are often frosted.  Design-wise it’s a bizarre setup, but probably made sense from a heating standpoint as old apartment windows aren’t very efficient!  We opted to take out the inside windows, reclaim the utility space and essentially bring the outside windows into the bedroom.  Our contractor already thinks I’m insane so he didn’t even flinch at this request (but did tell us a million times how cold we would be….he was wrong.  Our apartment has the old boiler system which cannot be adjusted so it’s constantly too hot, even in the winter).  We again had to raise the floors in the utility space to make it flush with the floors in the living room and bedroom.

BEFORE

DURING

AFTER

Restaurant Review: 들플부빔 (비빔밥)

 

 

Both 들플 restaurants are run by the same family.  The mother runs the larger 한정식 (han jung shik) restaurant serving ddeokgalbi (of course) and the son runs the nearby bibimbap restaurant; the focus of this review.  They’re both located right across from the Gwangju Lake dam (map) and because they’re just a few kilometers from the house, were some of the first restaurants we visited.  Unfortunately our first visits to both were lackluster and because there are so many other restaurants around, we never really went back and simply forgot about them.

That is until about a month ago.  During at least three unrelated conversations with three very different people, the name of this place came up.  It’s not exactly an inconvenient location and our initial visit wasn’t necessarily bad, so we headed back to see what, if anything had changed.

Sure enough, the signage outside was new.  Possible renovation?  A good sign (no pun) nonetheless.

 

 

I remember our first visit being sort of uncomfortable because it was so empty and quiet inside.  Needless to say we were shocked when we walked into a full and absolutely bustling restaurant.  I had to go back the next day just before opening time to get the second (people-free) picture of the dining room.

 

The menu offers some classics (육회/멍개/불고기), a vegetarian option (산채), and at least one I’ve never even seen before (청국장공).  A pretty solid selection.

While you wait for your bibimbap, you’re served a small appetizer of cooked pork, onions and garlic to be eaten bossam style with a variety of leafy greens and a homemade 쌈장 sauce.  There is also a small spicy salad (think fresh lettuce kimche) and a side of acorn jelly.  Sounds simple, but it was damn tasty.

The bibimbap comes out just about when you’ve finished these snacks.  It arrives as a stacked combo; the heavy dolsot bowl/rice on the bottom and a large brass bowl filled with your bibimbap selection on top.  Another large brass plate with homemade kimches.  A+ for presentation for sure.

If you’re off the beaten path far enough to end up in a place like this, you probably already know to scoop your rice out of the dolsot bowl and into the brass bowl.  The kettle on the table is used to fill up your dolsot bowl and should be set aside while you eat.  This will make “rice porridge” and is typically what you eat last (it’ll be piping hot so you don’t have much of a choice).  Depending on which type of bibimbab you order you will either mix in gochujang or a soy based sauce.

At 9,000won I’d actually consider this place cheap considering both how much you get and the quality of what you get.  I’ve been back a couple of times in the last two weeks just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke (we were famished during our initial return visit) and I can assure you everything on the menu is delicious…choosing a favorite would be tough!!

Looking for something else?  Plenty of other restaurant recommendation can be found here.

Restaurant Review: 황가네 (Eco-Park Restaurant)

 


I’ve spent a lot of time at this restaurant over the years so it goes without saying I’m a bit biased and probably couldn’t give an objective review even if I wanted to.  However, judging by the reaction of family and friends I think I’m justified in giving this no-frills restaurant an enthusiastic two thumbs up.This place is well known amongst locals, mostly due to the cheap prices and pungent flavors (seriously the kimche at this place is beyond “fermented”!), but also has it’s fair share of signatures on the wall from visiting local/national celebrities.  Famous or not, this place is packed with customers during mealtimes, mostly ordering the star of the show:  the kimchee jiggae.  The kimchee jiggae (see photo above) is made with the aforementioned “funky” kimchee, but is also chocked full of pork and homemade green tea tofu.  Best 6,000 you’ll ever spend!


The green tea tofu can be ordered on it’s own (comes with dipping sauce) and will usually be served with the ban-chan before your main dish arrives.  It’s fresh.  It’s delicious.  Order some to-go on your way out!


Speaking of ban-chan, the six pictured above are usually what you get…the portions are certainly representative of Jeolla-Do (read: large) and refills often happen whether you ask or not.  The ban-chan (and food for that matter) is definitely on the salty side, but most good Korean food is.  The menu has a few different options, all of which you would expect to find in a place like this, but honestly I never venture far from the kimchee jiggae.  They are accommodating for vegetarians as well, but make sure you ask (everything except the tofu itself has meat and/or seafood in it).

Kimchee Jiggae, Ban-Chan and Green Tea Tofu

 

순두부 지께

Getting there from the house is easy.  Head towards the Eco-Park (take a right on the main road and a left at the gas station) and continuing walking past the park entrance (it should be on your right) for another few minutes.  The restaurant will be on your right and looks like this:

Stop by next time you’re in the area…you won’t regret it!
Looking for something else?  Plenty of other restaurant recommendations can be found here.

Restaurant Review: Hwansun Black Tofu (달맞이 흑두부)

 

 

Black tofu restaurants can be found littered throughout the Korean countryside and the Damyang area is no exception.  Unfortunately I wouldn’t recommend the two I’ve visited in Damyang (the one across from Sosaewon and the one across from Sanggyo both received a thumbs down) and instead will point you in the direction of the DalMatJi Black Tofu Restaurants.

The two I know of, have been to, and would recommend, are in Gwangju (신창동) and Hwansun.  The Hwansun branch is of particulary importance because it’s on road 817 which is a road frequently used by cyclists.  The “beast route” and the route I use to Wolchulsan National Park both use this road.  There is tons of good food along this road, and oddly enough, a plethora of Damyang style galbi restaurants!

The traditional hanok style restaurant is easily visible from the road and will be on your right if you’re headed toward Gwangju.  The decor inside maintains the traditional theme and has seating for groups of just about any size, although it’s limited to floor seating.

 

No surprises on the menu; it offers a variety of tofu dishes as well as bossam (pork) and jeon.  I’ve only eaten the beosut jeonguel (버섯전골), but made sure to make everyone else in the restaurant uncomfortable by staring at their menu choices.  It all looked delicious.

The banchan was small and boring by Jeolla-Do standards, but refill requests were gladly granted.

The mushroom stew (버섯전골), however, was impressive and plentiful.  It only takes a few minutes for the veggies to cook down before it’s ready to eat and if it cooks down too much you can simply ask for more broth (called 육수).

It’s not the cheapest lunch option around, but well worth the price for the quality and quantity that you’re given.  Not to mention it’s a beautiful restaurant and a fun place to take visitors or stop by while you’re out exploring the countryside.  Enjoy!

Looking for a bit more meat in your diet?  Plenty of other restaurant suggestions can be found here

Restaurant Review: Eco-Park Restaurant – 엄마손맛집 (Mom’s Food)

 

 

 

This little gem of a restaurant has been sitting under our nose for the last year and a half, and for one reason or another we never walked through the doors and sat down for a meal.  Thankfully a day out with the Gwangju Birds Korea Group put this place on our radar and we’ve been back multiple times since.

The restaurant is located directly in front of the parking lot entrance for the Gwangju Lake Eco-Park.  Here’s the google map.


Upon entering it’s pretty clear chunggukjang (청국장) is the star of the show at this spot.  If you’ve never had it, it stinks…in a good way.  The interior is small, but that’s understandable considering the entire operation is run by an adorable elderly Korean couple.  The 할아버지 (grandpa) runs the front of the house and the 할머니 (grandma) cooks the food.  They’re both ultra friendly and a little Korean and a smile goes a long way in a place like this.

 

 


The menu is simple and reflective of the location by offering some true Korean countryside classics.

 

Menu

The steamed chicken (백숙) is served EVERYWHERE around here and I can almost guarantee I know a better place to get it (남향가든 just around the corner) so stick with the cheaper (and faster!) menu items.  The zucchini stew (애호박찌개) isn’t shy with either the zucchini or the pork and uses the 닭도리탕 broth (a bit on the sweet side).  It’s delicious, but the Chunggukjang (청국장) is much better in my opinion.  It’s the real deal.

애호박찌개

 청국장 (to be fair this was take-out)

The Seafood Jeon (해물파전) is the unsung hero of this place.  It’s amazing.  Better than the soups.  Better than most of the Jeon around Damyang.  This is what my friends originally recommended and for good reason.

 

해물파전

                                

해물파전

해물파전

Additionally, if you’re a fan of Korean food and strong flavor, you’ll love the banchan at this place and similar places around the neighborhood.  They’re made with local ingredients, in-house, with pride and without short-cuts.  Restaurants in North America would advertise this to ad-nausea, but around here it’s just what’s expected.  Those massive re-purposed water jugs behind you with fermenting locally-grown garlic?  They’ll be on your table in a few weeks.  The owners were making the dried anchovy banchan when we arrived and were so proud of it they gave us a healthy portion to take home when we left. Amazing.

Garlic

반찬

반찬

 Looks like Kalguksu (칼국수) takes center stage during the warmer months, but personally I’ll be returning for the makoli and pajeon!


Not interested in locally grown food cooked with care?  Here’s a few more options you proably wont’ like.

Restaurant Review: 산수옥모밀 (SanSuOk Momil)


The SanSuOk Momil (soba/buckwheat noodles) franchise is a staple around Jeolla-Do.  They’re littered throughout the neighborhoods of Gwangju, but oddly vary in terms of quality and consistency.  The most famous one is downtown and the same family owns operates this one adjacent to the Duam-dong Home Plus (동광주).  The Duam-dong location (specifically) offers hands down the best buckwheat noodles in town and is a convenient option for lunch if you find yourself at Homeplus picking up some last minute items for the weekend.

 

 

 

 
The Duam-dong SanSuOk restaurant is located on the northside of Homeplus, directly across from the parking garage entrance (map).  It’s an unassuming storefront to say the least.  Inside you’ll find chairs and tables in the front and floor seating in the back.  It’s guaranteed to be packed during peak mealtimes, but the wait is never long as Koreans tend to inhale their noodles at warp speed.


The menu offers a variety of different momil dishes, both hot and cold, as well as some other traditional favorites you’d expect to find in a place like this (만두, 돈까스, 떡만두국,etc).  I’ve honestly never been disappointed with anything on this menu and for just over ten bucks between two people it’s surprisingly affordable and filling (and vegetarian friendly!).For a cold noodle dish I would recommend the 마른모밀, which comes with a small bowl of broth and a cup of cold sauce to either dip your noodles in or simply pour into the bowl of noodles.  For a hot dish I’m a big fan of the 냄비모밀, which comes with bits of fried tofu as well as a cooked egg in addition to the momil noodles.  And don’t sleep on the buckwheat mandu (메밀왕만두)…they’re amazing!

 냄비모밀

마른모밀

 마른모밀

 lunch

Not in the mood for noodles?  Plenty of other suggestions can be found here.

Restaurant Review: Sanggyo Galbi (쌍교 숯불갈비)


Sanggyo has recently undergone some major renovations, presumably to solidify their reputation as “the” top dog in the Damyang restaurant market.  I try not to let fancy buildings influence my judgement of the food (it’s Korea after all…some of the best food in the country is found in some of the scariest looking restaurants), but it’s hard not to be impressed with this beautiful hanok inspired two-story restaurant.  As a testament to the quality of the food, I can tell you that for the better part of a year, during the renovations, they had people eating in make-shift shacks and it didn’t affect business in the slightest.  Be prepared to wait at least 45 minutes on the weekends…mind blowing when you see how big it is inside.

 

Like any good tourist restaurant (not a negative in this context) they provide, both floor and table seating as well as private rooms.  The food comes out quick and servers are accustomed to obnoxious picture taking so snap away.

 
They offer two local specialties: ddeok galbi and Damyang style BBQ’d galbi.  I’m sure you can find better ddeok galbi elsewhere in town, so stick with the galbi they’re famous for.  The Damyang style of BBQ is a bit different in that the meat is brined and cooked in back and comes out piping hot and ready to eat.  You have a choice between regular and spicy (it’s not spicy at all).  Both are delicious.

 
The basic banchan will arrive almost immediately and consists of three types of salad, three types of kimche, three types of seaweed and a couple of other odds and ends.  The server will recommend which salad or seaweed to eat with the meat, but after a decade of living in Korea I’m pretty sure that there is no rule about what goes in your lettuce leaf wrap.

Additional servings of meat are easy to order and encouraged by the staff.  Refills of banchan are no problem what-so-ever.  Basically, arrive hungry and ready to eat.  Be sure to save room for the “shik-sa” portion of the meal…because it’s not dinner unless rice is involved!  We, for some reason, always order the sujaebee and are always disappointed.  One portion is more than enough for three or four people though so at least it’s not expensive.  In fact our entire meal for three people, including five orders of meat (don’t judge), five beers, and an order of sujaebee was about 80,000…and I didn’t eat for the next 48 hours~

 


Not interested in galbi?  Plenty of other options can be found here.

Restaurant Review: Daega (대가 – 생선구이)

Daega is another popular “destination restaurant” for both domestic tourists and Gwangju day-trippers alike.  It’s situated directly across from the Gwangju dam and it checks all the right boxes by being comparatively cheap, serving local specialties and having a somewhat quirky “traditional” interior design.  Even during the winter months, when everything else is dead, this place is thriving on the weekends with a packed parking lot and a full restaurant.

 

Even if you don’t like grilled fish (looking at you dad), this place is just straight up fun to be in.  Walking through the big wooden front doors, you’re greeted with a large open restaurant offering floor seating, table seating and a few private rooms in the back.  There’s tons of traditional kitsch around to keep your eyes occupied while your stomach waits for your food to arrive.  They even have a water-way built into the floor with goldfish swimming around!

The menu has a few options, depending on the size of your group, but it’s basically your choice of grilled fish with or without ddeok galbi.  Don’t sleep on the ddeok galbi…it’s better than most (all) of the Damyang restaurants specializing in this tasty local treat.  The set menus toward the top will give you a mix of different fish, ddeok galbi and the dolsot rice.

The banchan will arrive first, of course, and while it doesn’t look like much they are extremely friendly about refilling the dishes you like, especially if you catch them before the lunch/dinner rush.  The kimche is at least a million years old and is phenomenal…refills are a must.

Next out is the dolsot bap.  If you’ve never had it before, it’s basically two dishes in one:  rice and 누룽지 (I’m not even going to try and spell that in English).  Simply scoop out your rice into the separate rice bowl (not pictured).  Don’t scrape too hard because the crispy burnt pieces stuck in the bowl is what makes your 누룽지.  Next, fill the stone bowl with the barely tea from the pitcher on your table and put it aside until the end of the meal.  During the time it takes you to eat everything else, this burnt rice and barely tea will turn into a delicious after dinner porridge.

Shortly after you’ve dealt with your dolsot bap, the fish and ddeok galbi will arrive.  The type of fish will vary depending on which set menu you choose, but it’s all delicious!  If you’ve been in Korea longer than five minutes you probably know the fish comes out whole…you’ve been warned.

  

Here’s what the entire spread looks like:

 


For dessert you have a choice of coffee, shikhye or do-it-yourself ice cream cones.   Or you can do yourself a favor and skip the crappy dessert and order another round of OB and a few more of those tasty ddeok galbi paddies!

Restaurant Review: Vietnam Restaurant and Mart

Spring Rolls

Fried Spring Rolls

Pho Bo

Pho Bo

What this place lacks in decor and ambiance, it makes up for in authenticity and taste.  Don’t be fooled by the dilapidated exterior of the building and the exposed kitchen and appliances indoors.  They’re serving Vietnamese food miles beyond what you’ll find in Gwangju (those Vietnamese chain restaurants basically serve Korean food for twice the price).

 

 

Walking in, I was met by a small Vietnamese server and a handful of younger Vietnamese friends having lunch…always a good sign to see actual Vietnamese people in a Vietnamese restaurant.  Rumors of Bahn Mi sandwiches proved false (possibly sold out?)  (update: been back a couple of times and still no Bahn Mi sandwiches) so we opted for the litmus test of Vietnamese food:  Pho and Spring Rolls.

It wasn’t cheap at 24,000 for two people, but two bowls of soup and a plate of spring rolls was more than enough to fill us up and ultimately well worth the price.  Simply put, it was delicious. (The fresh spring rolls are better than the fried)

This place is also a mart selling Vietnamese snacks and ingredients.  The mart is in the back, where you will also find additional seating.  The best part is they sell fresh cilantro if you ask nicely…2,000 for a large handful.

The location is pretty easy to find as it’s close to the river, noodle street, and one of the most famous restaurants in town, SeungIl Shikdang (승일 식당).  Here’s the google map link.  Just in case, here’s the map from my phone:

If you have room for dessert, head down to the river and get in line with the rest of these suckers and buy some of the “famous” Damyang donuts 🙂