After Hours: Hummus Kitchen in Itaewon, South Korea
For generations of U.S. servicemembers, Itaewon has been a mini-America of sorts, a weekend playground of shops, restaurants and bars avoided by South Koreans nervous about interacting with expats and soldiers.
Today this “foreigner’s district” on the outskirts of U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan is packed at night not only with U.S. troops but also with young, hip South Koreans who have made Itaewon into one of the trendier areas in Seoul. Better-traveled than their parents and grandparents and interested in trying new cuisines, they are fueling the district’s turnaround from a sleazy strip of bars into a fashionable cluster of upscale foreign restaurants.
One of the latest additions to the neighborhood is Hummus Kitchen, a chic one-room affair named after the traditional chickpea dip. The eatery bills itself as “contemporary Middle Eastern casual dining.”
When we visited on a warm spring weeknight, the restaurant was crowded with both Korean and expat diners. With its sliding glass doors open to the busy sidewalk, it became a quasi-outdoor cafe. I brought along a handful of friends, including one who would be perhaps the restaurant’s toughest critic, a hard-core foodie with Iraqi-Iranian-Indian roots who reads Middle Eastern cookbooks for fun and talks reverently about her grandmother’s Iranian cooking.
The menu includes everything from salads to kebabs, with unusual offerings — at least for Korea — such as the fattoush, a bread and vegetable salad; pistachio hummus soup; and lamb or beef shakshuka, a traditional stew topped with egg and yogurt.
We ordered two appetizer-sized mezze dishes: labneh (9,000 won: about $8), a mild white yogurt cheese with the consistency of whipped cream cheese, served with vegetable sticks and a warm pillow of pita bread, and sambusak (13,000 won), four small phyllo pastries served with the freshest mustard I’ve ever tasted. Both dishes won raves from the entire group, particularly the piping-hot sambusak, with a mix of labneh, mozzarella and spinach oozing from their crisp phyllo shells.
We split the grilled curley-flower and couscous pita — it wasn’t clear whether “curly-flower” was Konglish for cauliflower or was an intentional renaming of its starring vegetable — served pizza-style on a wooden board with a pizza cutter. The dish (18,000 won) was somewhat bland but was saved by the toppings of fig jam and chopped jalapenos served on the side.
I had the Hummus Kitchen salad, a 21,000 won sampler platter that included a green salad topped with pomegranate dressing, falafel, pita bread, a chopped vegetable salad, hummus, labneh and a fuschia-hued beet dip that was quickly scooped up by my fellow food critics.
As at most new restaurants in gentrified Itaewon, a meal at Hummus Kitchen doesn’t come cheap, with a single main-course dish or a combination of mezze dishes plus a drink easily costing the equivalent of $30 to $40. Dishes such as the roasted garlic chicken with pistachio crust, grilled shrimp in harissa cream sauce, and fried calamari and shrimp range from 14,000 won to 23,000 won, and kebabs run from 20,000 to 32,000 won.
Wines, beers and cocktails are available, as well as non-alcoholic drinks, such as the tart apple-mint cooler and the creamy, delicately sweet avocado smoothie, my favorite item of the meal.
According to my foodie friend, Hummus Kitchen did a respectable job of passing the authenticity test, though the jalapenos were a particularly Korean touch.
However, the restaurant passed the ultimate test: she — and the rest of us — would go back.
Directions: Take Exit 3 at Itaewon Station and walk straight for about five minutes. Hummus Kitchen will be on your right just past Sortino’s restaurant.
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday: 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Food: Contemporary Middle Eastern.
Clientele: Koreans and expats.
Dress: Casual but nice. Think a sundress or a polo shirt and khakis, not sweatpants.
Menu in English: Yes.