At long last, an all-American burger in Seoul

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At long last, an all-American burger in Seoul

Rejoice, burger fans: your search for a wholesome all-American burger is over.
When Smokey Saloon opened in Itaewon three weeks ago, the owner/chef, David Cho, aimed to serve Korea’s best burger by emulating some of the well-known hamburger places in the United States. He didn’t hesitate to drop the names of Corner Bistro and Jackson Hole in New York and Le Tub in Florida.
Coming from a big family of burger lovers, he didn’t like what Korean restaurants had to offer. “Korean-style burgers are too saucy and sweet. Even import brands like McDonald’s and Burger King started off American, but as time passed they changed, catering to the local taste,” he said.
But Mr. Cho didn’t just complain. After graduating from Cornell University’s hotel management program in 1999, he returned to Korea and opened a tent-style barbecue restaurant in southeastern Seoul. He has spent the last three years researching American hamburgers, which required trans-Pacific travel.
So, what makes a great burger?
“The patties must be mixed with the right amount of spices and other ingredients. And the cooking time for patties is crucial. The arrangement of the ingredients inside the hamburger bun is also very important,” he explained.
And the bun? “It can’t be too soft or too hard, just right, in-between. To get that, buns need to be fresh, baked daily.”
My tablemate, a self-proclaimed burger specialist, wanted me to try her favorites: the Smokey Burger (8,900 won or $8.80) and the Big Islander (8,900 won), which are Smokey Saloon’s two original recipes.
We ordered chicken caesar salad (7,500 won) and Diet Coke (3,000 won). And what’s a hamburger without fries? Sloppy Fries (4,500 won) sounded too good to be true.
Sipping a tumbler of Coke and picking at fresh romaine lettuce leaves and tender chicken morsels at a small table outdoors, I was able to examine the interior of the 20-seat grill. With Tiffany-inspired lamps hanging from the black ceiling and whimsical paintings on the wall, the place could have passed for a Euro-chic jazz pub in the back streets of SoHo. Indian neighbors who own a restaurant upstairs passed by and greeted me cheerfully. I couldn’t believe I was in Korea.
Tasting the Smokey Saloon burgers, I knew I could trust the 30-year-old restaurateur, who by next year plans to open another Smokey Saloon in southern Seoul as a potential franchise.
To maintain quality and to monitor customer satisfaction, Mr. Cho does all the buying and cooking himself in the Saloon’s tiny kitchen.
The Smokey burger, with two strips of bacon, tomato, pickles and barbecue sauce, proved to be tender and succulent, not too fatty, and very beefy. The beef comes from Mr. Cho’s meat restaurant suppliers. He uses American bacon because Korean bacon is too thin and flavorless. Drizzled with familiar brown barbecue sauce, the Smokey Burger was wholesome and delicious.
I’m not a great fan of sweet-tasting burgers, but the Big Islander turned out to be surprisingly tasty. Fat slices of grilled pineapple went very well with the beef coated with melted cheese and fresh tomato.
And the buns. Nicely toasted and spongy, the bun, Mr. Cho said, was customized and comes daily from the Migo Bakery chain.
Smokey Saloon’s fries are unskinned wedge cuts, which deserve attention since they are hard to find in Korea. For each order, whole potatoes are freshly cut, fried on the spot for exactly 12 minutes and sprinkled with coarse sea salt. And they come in generous portions.
Topped with ground beef, chopped onion and chili peppers, which in themselves could comprise an entire Sloppy Joe sandwich, the Sloppy Fries were definitely messy for the fingers but perfect for fulfilling American diners’ dream.
After a plate of salad, a fully stacked burger and meaty fries, my tablemate began worrying about a possible weight gain. I explained to her how important it was to have the right beverage and dessert with a meal, since they could chemically cancel out unwanted deposits, if not calories, in the body. So when Mr. Cho’s family dropped by and offered us Baskin Robbins ice cream, we happily took deep spoonfuls of mint and coffee, whose dense sugar I secretly hoped would “speed digest” the meat and potato.
Smokey’s coffee (4,000 won) served in a mug only extended the feeling of simple but good dining ― not too fancy but dark and delicious, the way a classic American meal is supposed to end.

Smokey Saloon
English: Spoken, on the menu.
Tel.: 02-795-9019.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
Location: Near Hamilton Hotel in Itaewon; Itaewon station on line No. 6, exit 2.
Parking: Paid parking nearby.
Dress code: Smart casual.

By Ines Cho
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