It is Saturday night and I’m driving around Mokdong in the Avante with two of my consigliere. I have Madonna’s second album playing at full volume. The first track, “Material Girl”, was written by Peter Brown, who also includes Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen among his clients. The high-heeled 1984 skip pop jam hit prompts one of my consigliere to question my choice of music for today’s grueling Seoul traffic anxiety-fest. “Material Girl”, I explain, is a song that is not only still relevant 28 years after its first release, but is actually quite reflective of Korean society as a whole. However, while Madonna’s idea of a “Material Girl” was an ambitious career woman fighting to get ahead, the Korean version would be more of a disappointing, vapid, room salon girl addicted to Prada bags and plastic surgery.
Some boys kiss me, some boys hug me
I think they’re O.K.
If they don’t give me proper credit
I just walk away
They can beg and they can plead
But they can’t see the light, that’s right
‘Cause the boy with the cold hard cash
Is always Mister Right,
It’s actually a VERY Korean song, except it wasn’t written, or performed, or ripped off, or plagiarized by a K-pop bimbette troupe. But whenever I fire up this album and the first track loads, I can’t help but think of how suitable this song is for the Korean experience:
Some boys try and some boys lie but
I don’t let them play
Only boys who save their pennies
Make my rainy day
Prompting further visible discomfort from my friends, I skip to the third track, “Like a Virgin”, written by Billy Sterling and Tom Kelly, who count Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, and Cindy Lauper as clients. “Like a Virgin” is the first song that pops into my head whenever I attend a wedding in Korea. It’s got an upbeat Billie Jean style bass line coupled with a “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” poppy, synthesizer kind of edge. This song also serves as an excellent backdrop on those rainy nights, when all you want to do is check into a hotel, change all the light bulbs to pink, throw on your Pororo print panties, school girl uniform, and ankle socks, and then dance like a bad girl while pouting your duck lips and blowing kisses in front of the mirror (you little slut).
I made it through the wilderness
Somehow I made it through
Didn’t know how lost I was
Until I found you
I was beat incomplete
Id been had, I was sad and blue
But you made me feel
Yeah, you made me feel
Shiny and new…
But I’m not really here to talk about music today. What I’m here to talk about is burgers. Man stuff. You remember burgers, right? You used to eat them before you moved to Korea. I remember them too. You know me; I never write about food. I hate food blogs, and Korea blogs, and Korea food blogs that review and post pictures of food in Korea. I hate foodies, and people who take pictures food, and people who take pictures of coffee, and mixed drinks, and then pose with the cup next to their face, as if to prove to everyone that they did in fact consume what they just photographed. What’s wrong with these people? That being said, this is the one and only time you will ever read a restaurant review on this website. I am very particular when it comes to food.
Best Burger in Korea?
Madonna album turned down, and we’ve been circling around Mokdong for about 40 minutes looking for this place. The problem is that we have all been to this restaurant, just never by car. So we aren’t quite sure where it is. All the buildings look the same in Korea. Generic poured concrete blocks filled with PC rooms, Cafes, Icecream shops and Pizza Shops. If you’ve seen one block in Seoul, you’ve seen them all. We circle and circle the block where we are fairly certain the restaurant in question (Hallasan Burger) is located.
Hallasan (한라산) is the name of the volcano on Jeju island. The volcano has no connection to burgers whatsoever. The name was just a fluke idea by the restaurant’s owner. Rumor has it that the Korean owner/head chef of Hallasan Burger studied for three years at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York before apprenticing under epic chef Eric Ripert. The owner recently returned to Korea, and while serving as head chef at two large hotels, has opened this small boutique burger joint on the second floor of a nondescript building in Mokdong. From my previous visit to Hallasan Burger, I remember that there are no actual signs on the outside of the building. There is only a small green and yellow sign in the elevator area of the dingy, otherwise cookie-cutter office building in the heart of Mokdong.
I searched and searched the internet for directions, but this place doesn’t have a website (yet, that I know of), and so we took to the streets and searched for the place the old fashioned way; by going from building to building. Finally, my friend spots what looks like the building. He gets out and runs into the stairway to look for the green and yellow placard that reads “Hallasan” in Korean. We have arrived. There is no actual parking in the building itself, so you will have to park in the garage of the Officetel next door (with Thai restaurant), if you drive.
We park, exit the garage, and walk back to the “Hallasan” building. The elevator is out of order and we take the stairs to the second floor. On the second floor, there is a strange bar with black walls, and black lights hung all over the place. They have a few white cats running around the bar, which adds to the creepiness, I suppose. Past that bar and on the right side is Hallasan Burger, the small sign on the door is only in Korean, and lists the opening hours as 12pm to 3pm, and 7pm to 10pm. We arrive around 7:30 and all twelve seats are already taken.
The single waiter, who speaks no English tells us to wait outside, and he will call us when a table is ready. The three of us can already smell what we’ve come for; what is probably the best burger and fry set in all of Korea. Collectively, the three of us have been in Korea for over 30 years. That’s a lot of food, a lot of restaurants tried, a lot of burgers, and a lot of disappointment. Searching for the perfect burger in Korea is a kind of Holy Grail challenge that can be all-consuming. Personally, I stopped eating burgers a long time ago, because the disappointment of poorly executed burger after poorly executed burger started to wear me down; chip away at my soul. You can only be disappointed so many times before you start to lose hope.
After about 20 minutes, the waiter comes out and tells us that a table is available. We walk inside and sit down. It’s a small place, with a half exposed kitchen, a single refrigerator, and three tables with four chairs each. There is one waiter, and the chef/owner mans the kitchen with the help of a single trainee. The menu is a single page of tan colored paper with only five burger options. Previously, I had the “K1 ‘Premium’ Burger”, but today I order the “House Hanwoo Steak Dream Burger”, which is a flat-grilled, crisp edged cheeseburger, using grain fed hanwoo (Korean) beef. The patty is accompanied by shredded romaine lettuce, fresh tomato, onion, cheddar cheese and generously sized slices of avocado. The sauce is something like a mayo-wasabi mix. Price: 23,000 KRW:
House Hanwoo Steak Dream Burger from “Hallasan Burger”
One of my friends orders the “Seoul Burger”, which according to the menu, has a mix of rump, rib-eye and fillet steak, served with a side of béarnaise sauce, -almost impossible to find in Korea. When it arrives, the “Seoul Burger” is somewhat disappointing. It arrives with standard fast food trimmings, and processed cheese, which is a bit of a letdown considering the 19,000KRW price tag :
“Seoul Burger” from Hallasan Burger, Seoul
My other friend orders the “Island Bacon Sandwich”, which is not a burger, but actually a Reuben sandwich with extra lean corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and thousand island dressing on grilled rye bread. The set includes oven baked, sea-salt and vinegar potato chips and one 1/4 sliced kosher dill pickle. Price: 21,000KRW:
“Island Bacon Sandwich” from Hallasan Burger, Seoul
It is worth nothing that the only available sides are house-baked sea salt and vinegar potato chips, or what the menu calls “duck fat skin-on” chips. Personally, I prefer the duck fat skin-on chips because the sea salt chips are a touch sweet and for me, slightly under-seasoned. Each burger or sandwich is served with a single 1/4 cut kosher dill pickle (no Korean pickles here, for the love of Christ). The owner/chef doesn’t offer any drinks aside from water, and there are no sauces or seasonings available at the tables. The walls are a dark green in color, and the tables look like re-purposed doors surrounded by short-legged bar stools.
Though I can’t speak for the other dishes, I will offer a short review of the “House Hanwoo Steak Dream Burger”. This overall dish had good balance, the acidity of the kosher dill working well with the richness of the hanwoo patty, though by contrast with the duck fat skin-on chips, this dish seemed a touch salty. The hanwoo patty itself was of high quality and had silky smooth texture yet deep, intense flavor. With wasabi-mayo and avocado slices, it could be argued that there was kind of a “California Roll” flavor going on here. The oven baked buns are made in-house, and present a slight hint of garlic seasoning, but not enough to be overpowering. The burger was not so large as to be messy, and could be enjoyed without the use of fork or knife. This restaurant is not typical Korean plastic-chemical fast food fare, nor is it gimmicky Itaewon/HBC “please take a photo of our food” fare. Just honest burgers, with no options and minimal sides. So confident is the owner/chef, that you cannot even choose how long your patty is cooked. Simply order, and wait. No nonsense, no whining, no endless options to customize.
The bill came to 63,000KRW for three of us. Water is free, of course. There is no restroom inside of the actual restaurant (the place is tiny), so you will need to use the restroom in the hallway outside of the restaurant. Since no alcohol is served, people tend to eat, and then vacate their seats as opposed to loitering around. Previously I had come during lunch time, and I didn’t have to wait, but I’ve heard that evenings are much busier, and on weekends, the wait time can be from 20 to 30 minutes. I heard about this place from a friend, who is a chef at a well known French restaurant. I doubt that many foreigners have been inside the place, since it only opened two months ago. The technical precision in the kitchen is hard to fault, and the dishes had lovely flavor balance. The limiting factor for any Korean kitchen is the ultimate quality of the ingredients that can be obtained, especially with regards to vegetables (compared to the finest produce in the Mediterranean or Japan) but the owner of Hallasan Burger is clearly a top class chef. His cooking and own style have clearly developed from years spent overseas.
Best Burger in Korea? After years of searching, I can confidently say “Yes”.
They don’t yet have a website (that I know of), so I do not have the exact address. I’ve done my best to mark the location on the maps below. You go out Exit 8 of Omokgyo station, turn left at the first side street, and the proceed down the street for about 100 meters until you see Kimbap Cheonguk (김밥천국) on your right. Turn right immediately after passing Kimbap Cheonguk. Go another 50m and you should find yourself at the intersection below. Because there was no address on the building, I can only point you towards the general area (see picture 2). Look for the “A+” room salon with red windows on the second floor:
Second floor, check the stairway for the green and yellow sign.
Within walking distance of Omokgyo Station.