The best bargains in town (we think)When the going gets tough, people just don’t spend enough money, my taxi driver grumbled as he slowed to pick up another passenger, ignoring my pleas not to do so.
His behavior was understandable, in these times when everyone in Korea seems to be complaining that it’s hard to make ends meet. With so much to be spent on the big things in life, wouldn’t it be nice to find ways to save on the little things ― like, for instance, a restaurant meal that costs about what you’d pay for instant noodles?
The JoongAng Daily went looking for such places in Seoul. Here are the ones we found; maybe they can help you add some slack to your household budget. If you stumble on any amazing bargains of your own, tell us about them at
Prince’s name, pauper’s prices
Ondal was a 6th-century warrior in the kingdom of Goguryeo who was better known as “Babo Ondal,” “babo” meaning “fool.” People gave him that name in his youth because he was always smiling, even though he was teased for dressing in rags and begging for food for his sick mother. This devoted son grew up to marry a princess.
That story has nothing in particular to do with Ondal Wang Tonkatsu (“Ondal King Pork Cutlets”), a restaurant in Donam-dong in northern Seoul. But owner Hong Seong-woon sells his food so cheaply that he might remind you of his restaurant’s namesake. With a hearty smile, he’s constantly asking customers whether they liked the food, and urging them to have more free rice.
“A plate of tonkatsu has been 2,900 won ($2.50) for eight years,” Mr. Hong says. “Though I want to raise the price a little because of the recent rise in the inflation rate, I see younger customers enjoying my food, so I can’t do that to them.”
Mr. Hong says his tonkatsu wasn’t always so cheap. When he opened the restaurant 27 years ago, the dish sold for 3,500 won ― still cheap compared to other places. But he lowered the price even more when the 1997-98 financial crisis hit.
“People come because it’s cheap, and because of the special steak sauce that I developed,” Mr. Hong said. “I can’t tell you the recipe, but I can promise you that it is better than what most top hotels serve.”
Two thick chunks of crispy pork cutlets are served in his special sauce, along with salad in Thousand Island dressing, steamed rice and vegetables on a platter. A bowl of soup and a cup of cola or cider are also included in the price. This kind of meal goes for 6,000 won at other places.
In the afternoon, the place is a favorite among kids, and adults come by at night for a cold draft beer and some crunchy snacks.
To get there, use Sungshin Women’s University station, line No. 4, exit 1. It’s right by the exit.
Item: Tonkatsu (pork cutlet) dinner
Price: 2,900 won
500-won videos for study breaks
The cheapest place to rent a video in Seoul ― at least, the cheapest we’ve found ― is in Sillim 9-dong, better known as Gosi-chon, a hilly area near Seoul National University known for its population of students renting rooms where they study for exams.
At the bottom of one of the Gosi-chon hills is a video shop where students taking a break (or anyone else) can rent a video for just 500 won (40 cents), instead of 2,000 won. “Students are our customers, and we can’t charge them like you would charge in other areas,” said a clerk at the shop, Yeonghwa Sanchaek.
From Sillim station, line No. 2, hop on any green bus to Seoul National University. Get off when you see Woori Bank, walk back about a block and go into the alley where a lot of young people are going; look for a yellow sign that says “video” in hangul.
Item: Video rental
Price: 500 won
Thousand-won noodles, no frills
Koreans’ favorite fast Chinese meal is jajangmyeon, noodles in black-bean sauce. At an eatery called Shillagwon on Jeonnong 3-dong, northern Seoul, you can get a plateful for 1,000 won, a third of its typical price. You’ll know it by the sign that says, well, “jajangmyeon 1,000 won.”
This eatery is four bus stops away from Cheongnyangni station, a train station surrounded by traditional markets. It’s a low-roofed building in an alley, and odds are it will be crowded with people yelling for jajangmyeon or jjamppong (noodles in spicy seafood soup). An older man in the kitchen yells, “Come and get it.”
“There were so many jajangmyeon places around here that I needed to do something to get noticed,” said the owner, Kim Haeng-jung.
Mr. Kim cooks the food, serves it (or yells that it’s ready) and runs the restaurant all at the same time.
“Because it’s so cheap, we don’t deliver like other jajangmyeon restaurants, and we don’t wait on tables either,” Mr. Kim said. The phone rang, and Mr. Kim told the caller that he didn’t deliver.
“I’m kind of busy, so hurry up and ask what you want to know,” he told a reporter.
“Whenever we feel like eating jajangmyeon, we come here,” said customer Kim Dae-seong, who was eating with a friend. “It tastes just like any other jajangmyeon, and the portion is enough to fill you up.”
From Cheongnyangni station, line No. 1, exit 4, take green bus 3216 or 3215, and get off at the fourth stop in front of Hyesung Girls’ High School.
Cross the street, go into the alley and you’ll see the sign.
(noodles in black bean sauce)
Price: 1,000 won
Soup for hangovers; soju optional
A restaurant with only eight tables ― four on the raised wooden floor where people sit with their shoes off, the other four closely packed with chairs ― is packed with elderly men slurping away at hwangtaeguk, a soup made with pollack that’s frozen during the winter and thawed.
Said to be good for hangovers, a steaming bowl of hwangtaeguk contains golden strips of pollack, chunks of cooked radish, tofu and beaten eggs.
After adding rice, you can season to taste with powdered red pepper, salt or salted shrimp, suggests Park Sun-ja, the owner of Sintobulyi ― better known as the place that sells hwangtaeguk for 2,000 won. The soup is warm and soothing; the kimchi on the side is just ripe enough to add a pungent taste to complement the mild dish.
The deals at Sintobulyi don’t stop with the soup, which normally goes for 6,000 won elsewhere. While I was there, a man in his 50s walked through the narrow door and said, “Give me a bowl, and don’t forget the half bottle of soju with it!”
A half bottle of soju sells for 1,000 won (a whole bottle is 3,000 won). One bottle is too much for one person to drink, the customer explained. Because the food is good and not many places sell soju by the half bottle, he said, he always eats here when he passes by.
Asked about her low prices, Ms. Park said, “There are senior citizens around here who cannot even afford 2,000 won for food; I don’t think this is cheap at all.”
From Jonggak station, line No. 1, exit 3, pass Tapgol Park and turn left into the alley by the police station. You’ll see a big signboard that says “Hwangtaeguk 2,000 won” in Korean.
Item: Hwangtaeguk (pollack soup)
Price: 2,000 won
Almost as cheap as doing it yourself
Korea is no exception to the rule that whenever you go to a hair salon, you spend more than you’d planned to. Typically in downtown Seoul, a haircut costs 15,000 won, a perm up to 100,000 won.
But there’s a place in southwestern Seoul that will cut your hair for only 2,000 won. Perms and colorings cost 10,000 won and up, depending on the length of your hair, said Jo Yun-jeong, owner of Jo Yun-jeong Hair Shop.
“My mother runs hairdressing classes supported by the Ministry of Gender Equality in the same building. She thought it would be nice to have a cheaper hair salon for the neighborhood residents that also serves as a place where amateur hairdressers can get experience before opening their own shops,” said Ms. Jo. “They are mostly middle-aged women who want to use their official hairdressing licenses.”
The shop is located on the third floor of a building where the government’s Woman Resources Development Center holds various classes. People of all ages and both sexes were waiting to get their hair done on a recent afternoon.
“I come here all the time; it’s cheap and the designers are wonderful,” said Kim Oe-sun, who was getting a perm. All the thrifty housewives living nearby know about the place, she said.
“I followed my friend here, hearing that it was cheap and cuts hair well,” said Choi Woo-seung, a 29-year-old male customer. “I trust my friend.”
To get to the salon, use Sindorim station, line No. 2, exit 2. Take green bus 6613, get off at the second stop and you’ll see an office building with a Ministry of Gender Equality sign in hangul.
Price: 2,000 won
Some low-cost surfing in Gosi-chon
For Internet users who think the 1,000 won per hour typically charged by PC bangs (computer rooms) is too much, Gosi-chon (see the item to the left of this one) is the place to be. The student crowd there can find not just cheap video rentals, but cheap PC rental rates.
“You can find the cheapest PC room if you walk further down the alley,” said a Mr. Chang, who was taking a last drag on his cigarette before heading in to use a computer.
According to Mr. Chang, who seemed to know the lay of the land, most PC rooms in the area charge 1,000 won per hour during the day and 800 won at night, which is typical of Seoul.
But in Gosi-chon, you can pay as little as 600 won per hour.
Mr. Chang didn’t recommend this, however ― he said “600-won places have bad computers.” He said 700 won per hour was as low as one should go.
“There are about 70 PC bangs in this neighborhood, and obviously you need to lower the price if you want to draw customers,” said a worker (himself a student preparing for the bar exam) at Speed PC Bang, which charges 700 won per hour.
Item: Internet access
Price: 700 won/hour (600 won in some places)
by Lee Min-a