20 (Mon) September 2010
Shrimp and Vegetables in Oyster Sauce
-Itaewon, Yongsan, Seoul, Korea-
with the guys
Alas, the gentrification of Itaewon. Time was, it was the only neighborhood in Seoul where certain types of cuisine were available (e.g., Thai, Middle Eastern, Indian). The restaurants back then were small, sometimes dingy affairs located in back alleys, patronized by expats or locals in the know. As the city became more cosmopolitan and international restaurants began popping up everywhere, Itaewon remained as the only neighborhood where the food was authentic and reliable. The customers were still primarily foreigners so the restaurants didn’t feel the need to dumb down the dishes to accommodate the notoriously conservative palates of the general population, as was the case with restaurants in other parts of the city – try finding cilantro in any pho joint outside of Itaewon. But now, Itaewon has visions of grandeur, restaurants with celebrity owners and uniformed waitstaff and al fresco seating and plats du jour and wine lists. The customers (“clients”) are now primarily young, hip Koreans, the disposable income crowd, tired of the scene south of the river. Ironically, and predictably, by bringing their business to Itaewon, they’ve made it mediocre, virtually indistinguishable from the rest.
Pattaya was, until this evening, my favorite Thai restaurant in Korea. Even when they’d opened a branch in Cheongdam, which inevitably featured watery curries and overcooked pad thai, the original Itaewon establishment kept it real. Not having been there in over a year, I wondered, perhaps even hoped despite witnessing the evolution-devolution of the neighborhood in general, whether Pattaya had resisted the temptation to attempt betterment. As I approached, I noticed from a distance that they had added a patio. It was filled with Koreans.