The rise of the sandwich
Each time Paris Baguette makes a sandwich, John Montagu’s corpse howls from its grave. He is the man credited with inventing the sandwich, and Paris Baguette sh*** upon his memory. Though Paris Baguette is not alone in its offense, it is representative of the norm, and sandwich aficionados in Korea have noticed. As summed up by the Seoul Sandwich Lovers’ Facebook page: “Korea is where sandwich craft comes to die.”
To understand the depth of the problem, it’s necessary to sit and stare at a bad Korean sandwich, thinking about each part. Take the Paris Baguette “Lunch Sandwich,” for example. It costs 5,000 won and comes quartered and laid to rest in a clear, plastic coffin. The stench of sweet pickle and processed cheese escapes as you exhume it from its covering. There it sits, cross-sectioned, showing you what awaits: meager layers of lettuce, tomato, unpeeled cucumber, bell pepper, white cheese goo and “ham.” The Lunch Sandwich is not only an affront to Montagu, but to cucumbers as well.
Let me explain. The sandwich features cucumbers two ways: some sliced lengthwise, skin-on, and others that have been pickled to oblivion. The skin-on cucumber is sliced too thick and the skin has the mouthfeel of one of those plastic rings you take off the top of a 2-gallon milk jug back home. The pickles are — as every expat here knows — mushy, sweet and overpowering. They’re also the most noticeable smell and taste of the sandwich. The slices of ham are only molecules thick, the lettuce is too crunchy and the cheese is some sort of gooey, processed un-cheese. The bell peppers appear to be added for the sole purpose of rendering the texture even more offensive. The sandwich’s bread has the quality of Life cereal that’s been soaked in milk and then left to dry in a strange, flaky layer.
These sandwiches are all over Seoul, at Paris Baguette and a thousand other bakeries and cafés. At least the Lunch Sandwich is free of jam.
But before I get carried away, let’s remember that we’re not here to bash Korean sandwiches. Actually, quite the opposite: A handful of restaurants in the city are, like John Connor fighting an army of Terminators, leading a resistance. They are few and far between, but there are great sandwicheries in Seoul.
“Over the past couple of years a few more restaurants have opened with sandwiches as their main concept,” said Wahid Naciri, owner of Casablanca Sandwicherie in Haebangcheon. “From classic sandwiches to signature sandwiches, restaurateurs in the business now are working very hard at taking the sandwich thing to the next level.”
Naciri compares the sandwich boom in Seoul to the influx of craft beer in the expat community in recent years. “I’m very proud of the people I know near and far in the beer industry,” he said. “Without them we’d still be in the dark. Flip the image and that’s what’s starting to happen to sandwich culture in Korea.”
This month, Groove Korea shows you five of the trendsetters, spread across five different neighborhoods. These restaurants all bring something special to the table: Their sandwiches are original, they use fresh ingredients, they are prepared and presented lovingly and they’re made to order. These restaurants understand that texture is an important part of constructing a sandwich. They bake their own bread, or are using artisanal bread from bakeries in the city. They are well seasoned, flavorful and complex.
The sandwiches featured in this story range in style, but they’re all among the best you’ll find in Korea. We’ll take a look at a fried cod sandwich from a European-style bakery in Gyeongnidan, a chicken sandwich from a Moroccan restaurant in Haebangcheon, a thick club from a wildly popular café with locations across the city, an understated veggie sandwich from a funky café in the Ewha Womans University neighborhood and a gloriously hot, messy cheesesteak from a hole-in-the-wall in the Children’s Grand Park neighborhood. We’ll show you other sandwiches from those places as well.
Seoul’s cottage sandwich industry is burgeoning right now due to expatriate support, Naciri said. But he worries expat support might not be enough to cement a sandwich culture in Seoul. A change in local tastes is necessary, he said, to support a real industry.
Visiting one of these five originals — and bringing a Korean friend along for a taste — is a good first step in ensuring that Seoul’s sandwich scene is here to stay.
THE BAKERS TABLE
Sandwich style: European deli
Signature sandwiches: Tomato Mozzarella, The Fisherman
A note scribbled on the wall of this small bakery is its mission statement: “All sorrows are less with bread.” Micha Richter, the German owner of the bakery, has packed many European goodies into his cozy space — wines, beer, salami, cheese, sauces, jam — but the focus here is most definitely on bread. He showcases his freshly baked wares on a big display in the middle of the restaurant. There are styles from all over Europe: focaccia, pita, English muffin, Ciabatta, Italian country sour and ensaimadas, to name a few. Richter uses the breads on the different sandwiches he sells from the bakery. “No doubt it’s the bread,” he says. “That’s our advantage here.
I tried two sandwiches at The Bakers Table: The Fisherman and the Tomato Mozzarella. The Fisherman is, as you guessed, a fish sandwich, and the only one featured in this story. Dressed with lettuce, tomato and onions, the sandwich comes on crusty French bread. The stars of the sandwich are thinly sliced pieces of fried cod, which is warm and crisp around the edges. There’s a variation in texture as you work your way from the outside of the fish to the inside, with edges that stay crispy and chewy while the inside remains soft and flaky. Richter seasons the fish only with salt and pepper, and it’s this simple seasoning that allows the unique cod flavor to shine.
The Fisherman is reminiscent of a New Orleans po’boy — crunchy French bread, simple dressings and tasty seafood in the middle. Richter also prides himself on his homemade sauces, and The Fisherman features two: a subtle cocktail sauce and a sweet cilantro jam.
The Tomato Mozzarella sandwich has been on Bakers Table’s menus since it opened two years ago. Its thick white pieces of mozzarella and tomato anchor the sandwich, which is a model of simplicity. The mozzarella is soft, fluffy and fresh. The tomato adds acidity and juiciness. This sandwich also has two sauces: a pesto and one with a balsamic vinegar base. Again, it’s the bread that makes the sandwich. Richter’s Ciabatta is airy and chewy — a good compliment to the soft filling.
The Bakers Table is small, with just seven tables indoors. Two of the bakery’s walls are glass, giving the restaurant a sunny feel. Sitting at a table listening to classical music, admiring the pile of crusty, hearty, grainy bread in front of you, you could almost be in Richter’s hometown of Köln. Almost.
Walk straight out of Noksapyeong Station, exit 2. Continue walking straight at the traffic lights. Turn right and cross over the street on the green footbridge. The Bakers Table is at the bottom of the footbridge on the other side.
☎ (070) 7717-3501
More great sandwich joints can be found on the Restaurant section!