Vegan eats, vegan drinks, vegan love
In an often-overlooked pocket of Seoul hidden just north of the Han River lies a place to protect the domesticated creatures that many of us have grown to love. More than just a sanctuary for rescued animals (and the plant-eating people who adore them), Coexistence Café provides a feeling of home: It’s like going to grandma’s house to spend a sunny afternoon eating delectable goodies and staring at odd, fragile trinkets in every nook and cranny.
At Coexistence, there are several rooms to explore during your visit, each more endearing than the last. In the first section there’s a dog shrine, complete with Polaroid snapshots of pets and a simple décor that includes blankets and animal paintings; the outside patio has an urban garden and a hand-painted mural featuring happy animals under a Tuscan sun. Some might be tempted to dismiss the styling as overly precious — the entire café is doused with nature and a clear love for animals — but the staff say they designed it that way intentionally, hoping to make it an inviting experience for all visitors.
The café was originally established by CARE, or the Coexistence of Animal Rights on Earth, the biggest animal rights group in Korea. Each year they raise more than 1 million won for animal rights causes. The not-for-profit business was founded in 2002 by Soyoun Park, wife of current director AJ Garcia, who established the offshoot café with her husband as a way to promote a cruelty-free lifestyle and to reduce animal suffering. The space was also a perfect vehicle for them to introduce more vegan food to the community.
Garcia says the Coexistence mission is not just about vegan food, but about “reducing animal suffering by living a compassionate life.” The way to do this, he says, is to go vegan, vegetarian or to simply make a decision to reduce your consumption of animal-based products. In Korea especially, where modern society is built on a meat-centered diet from Korean BBQ to the equally popular chicken hof, an effort needs to be made to understand how animals truly contribute to the balance on planet Earth — and it all starts with food. “There are a lot of animal protection groups,” Garcia says, “but we wanted to take it a step further and provide Korea with good, vegan food.”
They’ve got veggie versions of several Korean favorites, including a vegan cheese tteokbokki and black bean noodles, along with some other international dishes like cold mung bean noodle salad, stacked roasted veggie and vegan burgers (which are highly recommended), pastas, homemade cakes and Soy Delicious ice creams. On the beverage side of the spectrum, they also carry organic juices and a wide selection of coffee drinks.
Operating vegan means the Coexistence kitchen has put together a menu that includes tofu, tempeh, grains, corn and soy-based milk products, but absolutely no animal products to be found: no eggs, no meat, no dairy, no honey. The café also commits to using only non-GMO products and produce in their dishes. “There are a lot of restaurants in Itaewon that offer vegan food now,” says Garcia. But Coexistence stands apart in one important way: “All our profits go to support CARE. This is our way of giving back to the community, our way of protecting the animals on this Earth.”
Running — and walking — smoothly
In addition to its restaurant, Coexistence has an animal adoption center for rescued cats and dogs on the second floor of their bright yellow Dapsimni-area building. An army of gracious volunteers and donors help keep the place running smoothly, providing love, attention and daily walks to the dogs to make sure every animal arrives in their new home healthy and happy. Garcia and Park house more than 300 animals in this shelter and in two others they operate as well.
The third level of their space will soon be used as an education center, where the owners hope they can launch what will someday amount to a movement: doing activism in defense of animals while also educating the community about the treatment of not only domesticated animals in Korea but animals in different cultures all around the world. The Coexistence Café strives to add a dash of love to their food — both for humans and animals — by bringing greater awareness to the Korean community.
From Dapsimni Station, exit 4, walk straight and take your second left. Walk five more minutes until you see a bright yellow building on the left side. The café is on the first floor.