Fast-food steak: A nice idea, if it only workedI have an English friend in Malaysia who happily married into a Muslim family ― a process which required his own conversion to Islam. Whenever I meet this chap on his frequent business trips to Korea, the first thing he wants to do immediately after arriving is repair to a galbi house and devour pork, bacon or a mixture of the two ― mounds of it. Denied it at home on religious grounds, the man just can’t get enough of the stuff over here.
In similar vein, I often wonder if there are vegetarians around who, when safely out of sight and sound of their peers, have a secret craving for steak.
Steak. Let’s face it: A chunk of quality beef may be a very simple meal, but it is also one that has conquered the palates of food lovers the world over. The problem is, of course, that unless you are American, Argentinean or Australian, you have little chance of getting a steak at a reasonable price. This is especially so in Korea, which is geographically unsuited for beef farming and maintains a closed agricultural market.
To be welcomed, then, is Pepper Lunch, a Japanese-style “fast and casual” restaurant that claims to serve steaks at extremely affordable prices. Set opposite Lotte Department Store next to the entrance to Myeong-dong’s pedestrian precinct, it is a relaxed, cheerful-looking place.
Inside, the dominant tone is brown; all seating is bar-style, including a bar placed along the windows. The deal here is you order from the simple menu as you walk in, then take your seat, and are served there. I should add that the seats are uncomfortably close together ― presumably designed for the frame of a Japanese steakophile rather than, say, a Texan cattle consumer.
Anyway, no sooner have we crammed ourselves in than there is a volcanic sizzle in the kitchen, and ― hey presto! ― our meal arrives. Truly, an Olympian performance ― possibly the fastest serving time I have ever encountered in any restaurant, anywhere.
The house flagship is the “tender steak,” which goes for 15,000 won ($12.80). This is a fair-sized chunk of beef, served on a sizzling platter, with a nest of bean sprouts and a garnish of green runner beans, carrot and grilled garlic. The steak cooks on the hot iron in front of you and is already chopped, so when one side is done, you simply pick it up with your chopsticks and turn it.
While it is a fair-sized portion, the steak itself is on the watery side, and taste-wise, it is ― well, I have certainly tasted better. It comes with a bowl of plain rice. There are two sauces: honey brown and garlic soy. As the latter would keep you banned from social engagements for at least a week, I found the brown to be preferable. This is a typical Japanese brown sauce, and not overly sweet as the title might suggest.
The pepper curry steak (8,900 won) is a mound of rice topped with curry powder, surrounded by chopped steak on, again, a sizzling platter. The drill is to mix it all up, fried-rice style. The curry powder is not overly strong, and all told, I preferred this to the “tender steak,” although the missus insisted that she would have preferred bokkeumbap. We also ordered butter corn (1,500 won), a bowl of standard sweet corn.
More problematic is the miso soup. This is an average-tasting example, comes in smallish bowls, and you are charged for it (1,000 won per bowl) ― which may turn off a lot of locals who expect free miso. (I have heard, though, of an even greater sacrilege: Apparently, in some Korean restaurants in the U.S. of A., one is charged for extra kimchi. If that is not grounds for the impeachment of the manager, what is?)
When it comes to liquid refreshment, there is, in keeping with the general concept, little sophistication: Sodas, juices and local lagers are about it. Service, on the other hand, is spot-on: friendly, observant (“Soda refill, sir?”), good with children and, as noted, very, very swift.
Verdict: Frankly, I am not enamored. Fast food has its place, but steak is quality food ― and quality food is not fast food. After all, if one sees an ad proclaiming, “Coming soon to a neighborhood near you: McCordonBleu!” one is best advised to steer well clear. Likewise with Pepper Lunch. It is a bold experiment, but I would suggest that if one must eat steak, save one’s won and eat the real thing.
English: None spoken.
English menu: None.
Location: Across from Lotte Department Store, next to the entrance to Myeong-dong’s pedestrian area.
Subway: Myeong-dong Station, line No. 4, exit 6.
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily (last orders 10 p.m.).
Telephone: (02) 771-6980.
Dress: Come as you are.
Credit cards: Accepted.
Web site: www.pepperlunch.co.kr
by Andrew Salmon