Texas Trip of a Lifetime Q1: Chuy’s Tex Mex and South Congress Cafe, Austin

In March this year, Matt and I visited Texas. “Why Texas of all places?” literally everyone who we told about the trip would ask.

Well, it’s a long story. It starts with a pimply Korean wannabe gangster who became a die-hard fan of the San Antonio Spurs NBA team because he mistakenly believed that one of the coolest guys at his high school was also a fan of the team. He stayed loyal to the Spurs despite persecution and ridicule, and his loyalty would be rewarded with four championships over twelve years. For this boy, the names “Tim Duncan,” “Manu Ginobili,” and “Tony Parker” take 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place in his heart after Jesus. He would eventually go on to marry a girl (she ties 5th place with Gregg Popovich) who had no interest in basketball (except for a brief stint in the finals winning Year 11 B-team, but that’s another story . . . ) and quickly shut down his genuine proposal to go to San Antonio for their honeymoon. He kept his dream alive however, and with every year that Tim Duncan became older, his urgency to see his idols in the flesh intensified. With his hero’s retirement on the horizon, he decided that 2015 would be THE YEAR to finally make his dream a reality. Some people dream of Disneyland. Others dream of the Northern Lights, the Himalayas, or the Pyramids. My husband dreamt of San Antonio, Texas.

And Matt has a real knack for getting what he wants. Before I even had time to give the idea much thought, he had bought tickets to three home games in March, and all I could say was … “Well, I guess we’re going to San Antonio.” I’m a sucker like that. A part of me resented him for not being a a fan of the Knicks, or the Bulls, or the Warriors… you know, a team based in a city that is at least in the TOP 100 places I actually want to visit in my life time. But Texas? And not even Houston or Dallas, but dinky little San Antonio?! As much as love and support my husband, I never really got on board with the Spurs mania. Honestly, I only ever cared about how the Spurs played because it would have such an effect on Matt’s emotional wellbeing. Loss to Miami in the 2013 finals: husband depressed and grumpy for about two months, not a fun time. 2014 championship win: husband over the moon, shouted me a steak dinner, happy days.

I needed to find a way to make this trip fun for me too. So I googled “Best restaurants in San Antonio” and started to build an itinerary of my own. But ultimately, I knew this wasn’t my trip; it was Matt’s and I was just along for the ride.

Now, about two months after our Texan adventure, a lot has changed. Texas has become one of my favorite places in the world, and I’m still recovering from that intense one-week love affair that now feels like a dream. In three games, the Spurs managed to turn this sport-hating nerd into a “DEFENCE!” yelling “GO SPURS GO!” chanting superfan and both Matt and I are nursing broken hearts after our beloved team were sent home after round one of the Playoffs.

So this blog series is kind of therapy for me. I just uploaded about 70 photos so I think this may stretch out to four posts. Don’t worry, it will mostly be about food but there will also be a lot of basketball because Texas is food and Texas is Spurs and those two things played equal parts in making this trip so memorable. Like Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich, they come hand in hand; one cannot be torn from the other.

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We actually started our food adventures an hour and a half north of San Antonio in Austin. Austin is one of hipster capitals of the world – home to hundreds of food trucks, the South by South West festival, and the historic Sixth Street live music district. But being Texas, Austin is both undeniably cool yet unpretentious and approachable. Kind of like The Big Fundamental’s bank shot.

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Our first stop was Chuey’s – a Tex Mex chain restaurant that’s a favourite with locals. It was hidden right in the back corner of a strip mall but was packed with people enjoying their Sunday night dinner.

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The restaurant is colourful and kitschy – like an all-American diner meets a tequila bar meets a lucha libre museum.

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Of course the meal started with tortilla chips and salsa!

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Salsa is really just a dip, so it seems simple enough, but a TRULY great salsa is hard to come by. Chuy’s Salsa Fresca is perfect – ultra fresh tomatoes with plenty of kick courtesy of lime juice and green chilli peppers. I could just slurp this up a straw like a smoothie. It was early on the game but this salsa had already won me like…

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This over the top beauty is the Queso Compuesto: a homemade blend of melted cheese, Green Chile sauce and Ranchero sauce, seasoned ground sirloin, guacamole and pico de gallo. Kind of like a taco exploded and fell into a pool of cheese soup. Welcome to Texas!

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Matt couldn’t resist but order the famous “Big As Yo Face” Burrito. This would be menu puffery anywhere else, but this is Texas and when they say something’s gonna be “big”, they’re not exaggerating.

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Hmmm….

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That burrito is no where near as big as my face. We expected it to be massive and bursting at the seams with sloppy, meaty fillings but it was a bit sad, flat and quite underwhelming. A bit disappointing for the “famous” dish at one of Texas’s favourite Tex Mex restaurants.

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On the recommendation of our super enthusiastic and friendly waiter (“Southern Hospitality” is a real thing and it is awesome) I ordered the Chicka-Chicka Boom-Boom enchiladaaaassssss.

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Yaaaaaass come to mama. Freshly-roasted, hand-pulled chicken & cheese smothered with “Boom-Boom” sauce made with cheese, roasted New Mexican green chiles, tomatillos, green onions, cilantro and lime juice. I’m not usually an enchilada girl but THAT SAUCE! Cheese, chillis, lime – all my favorites and surprisingly well balanced.

Felt kind of bad for Matt and his sad burrito…. but couldn’t hide my excitement at my menu selection WIN.

Pop Laughs

Our friends who took us out for dinner were local Texans, and they ordered the fajitas for two.

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Fajitas were served as your choice of grilled meats on a hot plate, with flour tortillas, Mexican rice, refried beans and a bowl of fresh toppings.

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Lettuce, guacamole, sour cream, cheese, and pico de gallo. I wasn’t sure whether Texans were as happy to share food as Koreans are, so I didn’t ask for a bite – but it certainly looked good!! I mean… just to see a big thick dollop of sour cream and an ice-cream scoop sized chunk of guacamole made me so happy (My tortilla chips may have snuck in a few dips at these when no one was looking.)

With the incredible service, perfect salsa, and yummy yummy boom boom sauce, our first experience of Tex Mex in Texas lived up the hype, only slightly let down by the limp burrito. Overall, I give it a jolly Pop double thumbs up.

Pop Thumbs Up

The next day we had grand plans to go food-truck hopping but we woke up to miserable weather and changed our eating itinerary because it wouldn’t be very fun to eat breakfast tacos in the rain or inside the car. We headed to South Congress Cafe, a place that comes highly recommended as one of the best brunch spots in Austin.

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We were, once again, greeted with exceptional service – seriously all the servers in Texas treat you like they want to marry you and it makes you feel really great. 15% tip? No problems – take all my money.

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I was surprised by the interior, just classic and modern and not at all the hipster cafe I was expecting. It was late in the morning and I was bordering on hangry, thinking to myself “if the food here is as generic as a decor… I’m flipping tables.”

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Complimentary bread came out with what seemed to be whipped garlic butter. I love when restaurants are creative and thoughtful with the little details like the butter that is served with free bread. This was looking promising… until the waiter came to inform me that their espresso machine was broken which meant I wouldn’t be getting the latte I ordered.

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I actually didn’t know how to respond… I mean I know that an espresso machine is a machine and machines sometimes break… but this has never happened to me before. It just didn’t compute… you are a cafe and you’re telling me your coffee machine is not working… so why did you even open today???

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I may have been overreacting but this is what happens when a caffeine addict doesn’t get her morning latte. They gave me a nice drip coffee with warm milk but it just wasn’t the same…

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We asked the waiter for recommendations that were distinctively “Texan” (such tourists) and he suggested the short rib hash. It wasn’t until the dish came out that I realized that I had no idea what a “hash” actually is. When I read it I thought… “Hash… like hash brown? So maybe something like potato cakes or a rosti?”

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Nope. It turns out that “hash” actually just means chopped up meat and potatoes. This is very sophisticated version, with braised short rib, fingerling potatoes, collard greens, red peppers, jalapeno, and the most beautifully shaped poached eggs I’d ever seen.

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Just look at those perfectly runny yolks…. so sexy like a Danny Green Tar Heel Triple.

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Mmmm….. yes.

The hash was much heavier than the kind of brunch dish I’m used to, but I guess this is how they do it in Texas! Not that I’m complaining, this was packed with flavor – smoky short rib, squeaky potatoes, soft poached egg and a lot of heat coming from those jalapenos. I could definitely get on board with this kind of breakfast.

Our waiter also recommended the carrot cake french toast. Carrot cake and french toast are two perfectly good brunch foods, each one already quite decadent by itself. It seemed a little bit crazy and unnecessary to combine the two.. but hey

Tony Hey

Why not?

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You can’t tell from just looking at it, but just think about the fact that this carrot CAKE (presumably packed with sugar and butter) has been battered with egg and FRIED into a french toast. And if that wasn’t enough of a toothache, they served it with PECAN CREAM CHEESE SYRUP on the side. This was BoBo level gluttony.

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Matt loved it. It’s a sweet tooth’s wildest fantasy. But as someone whose sweet cravings are satisfied by an after dinner mint, I was done after two bites. I could see the beauty in it, but it just wasn’t for me.

Despite the lack of espresso, we had a really lovely, lazy Southern style brunch at South Congress Cafe. I give it a very enthusiastic Patty Mills towel wave.

Patty Towel Wave

In spite of the rain, we wandered down South Congress avenue (or “SoCo” if you’re cool) and walked off our brunch just happily browsing the many antique stores, second hand book shops, vintage boutiques, and novelty stores that fill this very hip part of town. Our favourite was the Big Top Candy Store, a gorgeous old fashioned candy shop where we stocked up on sweets to take home for sharing (… or not).

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They even had a soda fountain! But sadly we were still too full of hash and cake to try it.

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And here marks the end of the first quarter. Team Austin has scored some major points with its friendly Tex Mex and its classy Southern brunch cuisine, and I’m excited to see what else they have in their playbook.

See you in Q2. Until then, here’s Patty and BoBo with a short lesson in the art of “frogging.”

Frogging

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Matjib anxiety, unlimited eggs, spicy pork ribs, and a fried rice love confession

Matjib (맛집) is a relatively recent Korean food phenomenon. The literal meaning is clear (맛/mat = taste, 집/jib = place) but I looked up the term on Naver Dictionary to see if there were any nuances in the term that I was missing. This is what it told me:

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Definitions are so much more fun in Engrish! And you know what, they’re actually pretty accurate.

The term matjib can be used pretty loosely to describe any half-decent restaurant, but from what I gather, to be a true, legitimate matjib, the restaurant needs to have:

a) great tasting food that has earned it a good reputation among local diners; AND

b) a pretty high level of fame obtained through online blogs, or by appearing on one of Korea’s MANY food-centric television programs.

Also, this may just be me imposing my own beliefs on this concept, but I think a matjib has to unique. For example, even though there are lot of really good chain restaurants in Korea, I don’t think a restaurant that has an outlet in almost every suburb deserves to be called a matjib. I mean, a spin-off restaurant or two is okay, but what seems to happen here is that once a restaurant gets really popular, it just spreads across the city like a virus. I get it, the restaurant biz is tough and you gotta capitalize on your success. But to me, the best kind of matjib is a small family-run restaurant in a random suburb that specializes in one dish and has gained its reputation on the basis of the quality of its food alone. This is probably just me being a food snob.

On one hand, matjibs are incredibly easy to find because every neighborhood in Seoul has at least ONE, and trendy areas like Gangnam, Itaewon, and Sinsa have DOZENS of matjibs each. But their ubiquity actually makes genuinely outstanding restaurants hard to find and a lot of restaurants will just create their own reputation by paing “power bloggers” to write about them and TV programs to feature them. So, for example, if you look up “Gangnam matjib” on Naver and one restaurant shows up 7 times in the first 20 results, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s actually good. It could have just thrown a lot of cash to a lot of bloggers. One trick, I am told, is to include the world “oppa” (오빠) in your search terms so you pick up genuine bloggers who write things like, “me and my oppa went on a date to this amazing matjib!”

There is no chef’s hat system here, no good food guide, no Michelin stars, no Urbanspoon/Yelp equivalent. There are a couple of semi-decent matjib apps, but they don’t attract enough user reviews to really be helpful. Basically, it’s chaos and there’s no available map to navigate this dense and ever-changing jungle. This has led to what I call matjib anxiety – the stress that results from the tension between your greedy desire to eat at ALL the best restaurants and the knowledge that, with only one body and one lifetime, this is actually physically impossible.

Because everyone knows me as “the one who’s obsessed with food,” I’m always the one choosing the restaurant, so matjib anxiety is like an everyday thing for me. That’s why I LOVE when someone else does the research and recommends a great place for dinner. It’s even better when they manage to find an absolute GEM that meets all my snobby matjib criteria. I had that rare experience lately when a friend shouldered all of the matjib anxiety (and probably some added “Dinner date with a food snob and I’m choosing the restaurant” anxiety) and took me a to a great restaurant in an area I’ve never been to or heard of.

We took the train to the eastern edge of Seoul and arrived at Cheonho station, a place where the most famous attraction is a grassy mound of land. We were headed to a place called “등갈비달인” or “Master of Pork Ribs.” The original restaurant did so well that it has two spin-offs, but they’re all within 100 meters of each other! I love that. This means that they cater to demand by saving people the annoyance of standing in a line and and at the same time stay loyal to their neighborhood.

It is a typical “college student” eatery – cement floors, plastic stools, and round steel tables. Pretty soon after we ordered, they brought out the complimentary side dishes, including FRIED EGG AND CHEESY CORN ON A HOT PLATE.

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This takes banchan to a whole new level. And you know what’s even better than free fried egg and cheesy corn on a hotplate? Free fried egg and cheesy corn on a hotplate WITH UNLIMITED REFILLS. At this point, I was already like, “I’ve found my new favourite restaurant.” You can also choose the option of a full plate of corn or two eggs, but the combo is hard to beat. We went through three of these that night. “Only three?” I hear you ask? Look, I gotta leave room for the food I’m actually paying for.

Because there is no such thing as too much egg, we also ordered a steamed egg stew (gyeran-jjim) as a side. As we were waiting, the server comes up to us with a can of upside-down spoons. Each had an item from the sides menu written on it, and he said whichever one we picked would be on the house. MORE FREE STUFF? My goodness, this was a restaurant after my own heart. I wasn’t really interested in any of the sides apart from the egg stew… so I was praying that I would pick that one so we could just eat it for free. And in a rare stroke of luck, I picked it. Free egg stew woop woop!

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It’s not just any egg stew, by the way, it’s CHEESE egg stew (3,000 won). I’d never seen this before, but why not? It makes so much sense. And it’s freaking delicious.

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I was already 100% satisfied with my experience before the ribs even came out. There is a cheese option for the ribs too, but for the sake of our arteries we ordered the original version (11,000 won per person) that comes with a mountain of soybean sprouts (kind of healthy, right?) There are degrees of spiciness you can choose from, but from my experience, I’ve found that at places like this, “mild” actually means “really spicy” and “really spicy” means “burn a hole through your stomach.” So we chose mild and it still had plenty of kick. The pork ribs are stewed with a special spicy marinade and kimchi, and the crunchy sprouts balance out the heaviness of it all. In the background you can see the “Coolpis” drink (unfortunate name) that is commonly served here wherever ultra-spicy food is the specialty. It’s a milky peach juice which sounds disgusting, but is actually quite good and does a great job at cooling down the fire.

The ribs were yummy, but they weren’t so spectacular that I would rave about this place based on the main dish alone. It was the combination of endless fried egg and corn, free cheese egg stew, and really good service that made this place so enjoyable. On the topic of good service, it is REALLY rare to get good service at normal Korean restaurants, because they’re usually staffed by cranky stressed-out ahjummas or underpaid “care factor less than zero” arabite kids. But the service here was super friendly, attentive, and fast. There was one waiter in particular who was suspiciously nice… so nice that I started to think he may have taken a liking to my friend who happens to be a smoking hot mother of four. I teased her about it, half joking, but my suspicions were confirmed when I looked through the night’s photos the next morning and noticed this:

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FRIED RICE LOVE CONFESSION! Too shy to ask for her number, the waiter put his heart on a plate …. literally. Too bad we didn’t even notice and ploughed straight into the bokkumbap (3,000 won). Which was amazing by the way… complete with cheese (couldn’t resist) and flying fish roe. This roe with rice thing is new to me, but I love it now! The salty smokiness and crunchy texture of the roe adds another dimension to the humble bokkumbap, and is totally worth the 500 or 1,000 won extra.

One of the most fun, satisfying matjib experiences I’ve had in Korea – mainly because I got so many free egg-related goodies! But all the food was really good, quite unique, and the service was exceptional, though that may have had more to do with the fact that the waiter was in love with someone at my table… so don’t be disappointed if you don’t get the same level of attention :)

등갈비달인 (Deung Galbi Darin)
서울 강동구 성내동 12-37번지
12-37 Beon-ji Sung-neh-dong Gang-dong-gu, Seoul
(Short walk from Cheonho Sation, Exit 6) 

서울 강동구 성내동 12-37번지
02-488-4638
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Ansan Multicultural Food Street: Noodles Worth Traveling Pho

A question I get asked a lot by people is “What food do you miss the most from Australia?” They’re probably expecting an answer that has something to do with Vegemite or meat pies or avocados or kangaroos. But truthfully, what I really miss most is the ethnic food. One of the greatest things about Sydney is how multicultural it is, and all the amazing, authentic food that comes along with that. I get cravings for random things all the time… in fact I can give you a list of the top ten foods that I miss right off the top of my head:

1. Kebab
2. Pork roll
3. Yum cha
4. Pho
5. Hainanese chicken rice
6. Laksa
7. Pad thai
8. Indian curry
9. Lebanese meat plate complete with falafel, garlic sauce, hummus, tabbouleh and bread.
10. Wonton noodle soup

Thai curry would make that list too, if only I didn’t have a life time supply of Marion’s Kitchen and other miscellaneous curry pastes in my pantry thanks to the black market curry smuggling operation I have going on.

And yes, there are versions of these things available in Korea (except Hainanese chicken and laksa . . . IF YOU’RE MALAYSIAN OR SINGAPOREAN AND YOU’RE READING THIS YOU NEED TO MOVE TO KOREA BECAUSE THERE IS A MASSIVE MARKET OPPORTUNITY HERE FOR YOUR DELICIOUS FOODS) but they all seem to be lame Koreanised imitations of the real thing and/or come with premium “foreign food” price tag. You can get a cheap kebab in Itaewon but it’s really just a glorified chicken salad wrap. You can also get delicious, authentic Turkish food but it’ll cost you more than 20 bucks for an iskender plate. I miss Auburn and Parramatta and Granville and Harris Park and Haymarket and Greenacre and Eastwood and Haberfield! I’m back in Sydney for a week in October, but that’s already more suburbs than days I will have to see them again!

So I’m always complaining, “Wah wah wah, this pho tastes like dishwater… whinge whine whinge, a pork roll without pate and pickled carrots is NOT A PORK ROLL, etc etc” And then one day, somebody tells me that there’s this magical place on the outskirts of Seoul called “Ansan.” The pho there is actually good, they tell me, and actually made and eaten by actual Vietnamese people. It’s the Cabramatta of Seoul. Where the bulk of Seoul’s migrant population live, work, and eat. Not only is there good Vietnamese food, but there’s also Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Nepalese, Uzbek… it’s the most multicultural place you’ll find in this largely homogeneous country.

I made it my mission to visit as soon as I had the opportunity. It’s an hour away by subway which is a long way to travel for a bowl of pho, but I was quite confident that it was going to be worth it.

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The “Multicultural Food Street” of Ansan is right opposite the station and stretches several blocks. We went on a Saturday night when the area is alive with hungry locals and curious visitors. We decided to walk around and explore for a little while before we sat down for dinner.

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As I walk around, I start tripping out. are we still in Korea? Did the subway take us through a magic portal into a different universe? There are signs everywhere in languages that are NOT Korean OR English … OH MY G… IS THAT WHAT I THINK IT IS?! IS THAT A FREAKING BANH MI CART?!

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YES! OMGOMGOMG IT’S A BANH MI CART!!! A REAL VIETNAMESE SANDWICH CART!!

At this point, Matt had to tell me to calm down and lower my voice. It looked like the cart had closed shop for the evening, but I vowed to be back again during lunch hours.

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We walked down the main plaza and there were just ALL KINDS of street food that I had never even seen before. Signs we couldn’t read. Languages that I couldn’t even identify. Shop owners we couldn’t communicate with. Almost all traces of Korea had been taken over by foreigners.

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“Excuse me, what is that big round thing?”

“This? It is like pizza. Very good!”

“Pizza? Is it like a roti?”

*blank look*

“Is it sweet? Savoury?”

*blank look*

“How much is it?”

“Very delicious! Just two thousand!”

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Even though we didn’t know what half the stuff was – it all looked delicious. I saw this lady’s spread of meats and got excited thinking it was Chinese BBQ, but on closer inspection it was mostly offal and offcuts. Not quite brave enough to try it, but still happy to see something completely different and exciting.

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See the big red words that say “개고기”? That’s a sign for dog meat. You know you’re truly in the Korean ghetto when the local butchers specialise in dog meat!

Taking in the smell of all this unidentifiable ethnic food made us hungry. We walked over to a Vietnamese restaurant that a couple of Korea food blogs had recommended.

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It’s called Dieu Hien Quan. I love that I have no idea how to pronounce that or what that means!

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The place was covered with gorgeously tacky Chinese New Year decorations. There were a few other diners there, but none of them were Korean. And they were all eating fetal duck eggs! Which I had never seen in real life before! I felt like a foreigner in my own home country. It was great.

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I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see a sauce caddy. Just like the ones back home… *sigh*

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I wanted to order the deep fried spring rolls, but Matt’s on a ridiculous diet so we got the summer rolls instead.

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It came out with some sexy looking sauce that bizarrely resembled the Aboriginal flag.

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Really simple fresh rolls – mostly vermicelli with some greens and mystery meat. But tasted so good! Especially with the sauce. Fresh flavours and textures that are unmistakably Vietnamese. I missed you mystery meat!!

And now the moment I had been waiting for. One half of me bursting with anticipation, the other half trying to stay calm, knowing that almost all of the ethnic food I’d eaten in Korea had been a disappointment.

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First the garnishes. There was plenty of coriander… but no Thai basil! Coriander is fine, but the pho I know and love is always served with Thai basil. Surely someone in Korea must grow it. Okay, this was slightly disappointing but it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. I still had high hopes for the soup.

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I took a deep breath before my first spoonful and said something theatrical like, “Okay, here it is. The moment of truth.”

And… thumbs… are …. UP!

This is good pho. Not the BEST pho I’ve had, but it’s good. Really good. Needless to say, INFINITELY better than the el blando bowls of rice noodles they sell in Seoul. The broth is clean but full of flavour (I added some chopped birdseye chillis to mine for extra heat). Worth an hour on the subway? Definitely yes.

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Matt had chicken pho. Pho is the only time our preferences switch and he always takes the chicken option while I take the beef option. I still don’t understand chicken pho… I feel like pho is in it’s essence a beef based dish. You can choose to have raw beef, beef brisket, or beef tripe, or any other part of the cow! But chicken? Seems wrong. Well, whatever, his life, his choices.

I just realised I didn’t take note of the price. How very unlike me!! That just means it wasn’t cheap enough to excite me, but it wasn’t expensive enough to outrage me. I’m guessing each bowl was around the 8,000-9,000 mark? Seems about right.

Once we we were done, we decided to hit the streets for some dessert.

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I like my dessert savoury, and these big pastries with specks of green were catching my eye. But then I spotted the rolls in the corner that looked like they were filled with chives and possibly, scrambled egg? SOLD.

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Doesn’t look like much but gosh…. this little thing was SO DAMN GOOD. Something about that salty egg and galicky chive combo… one of the best street snacks I’ve had in Korea! And it’s not even Korean! Google tells me that it’s Chinese and called Jiu Cai He Zi. Jiu Cai He Zi, I’m in love with you, and I will come back for more of you.

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Ansan is an adventure. There’s a lot to explore and try, much of it unfamiliar, some of it even a bit scary. It’s like nothing you’ll find anywhere else in Seoul; it is the anti-Itaewon. Just pack a good book and take line 4 all the way down. I’ll be back soon for banh mi, more Jiu Cai He Zi and a Pakistani restaurant a friend recommended. And then I’m going to find a pho place that has Thai basil and actually try that big pancakey thing. This may turn into an Ansan food blog, just warning you.

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Dieu Hien Quan

경기 안산시 단원구 원곡동 788-19번지
031-493-3756
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