The 2014 predictions didn’t turn out too badly. Okay, I got lucky.
There are a few factors I look for in making trend predictions. I check the Facebook feeds and Korean language blogs for repeated patterns. Sometimes there’s a system being set up to support a future trend, like new small breweries being built. Or when Gong Cha announced it would heavily invest in the Korean market, it was a no-brainer to predict tea would make a comeback. I note when a food is showing up outside its normal enclaves. When I saw a churros cafe in Jongno–not in Itaewon or Hongdae–at the end of 2013, that’s when I got the feeling that churros would be big in 2014. By autumn, churros were popping up even in Jeonju. Also, when one thing gets big, there will be the inevitable copycats. Well, some aren’t really copycats. Don Charly wasn’t copying Vatos, but it did do well by riding on the wave that Vatos created, unlike Mexican restaurants that came and went B.V. (Before Vatos).
Using this as a guide and with generous help from the fine folks at Restaurant Buzz Seoul, here are some predictions for 2015.
More Sandwiches, Particularly Cubanos
Okay, the word is that the new pastrami at Rye Post is in very limited supply. But this place is already popular with the Korean language blogerati. I’ve seen pastrami come in fits and starts in Korea. Does anyone remember Schlotzki’s Deli in Seoul? It was here in 2004, at least. Didn’t survive. Quiznos is dying out in Korea as well. Subway is doing okay.
Maybe pastrami hasn’t done well because Korean eateries make them like this.
But really, Rye Post, Caslablanca, Route 66, and others that are putting quality sandwiches on their menus are changing the scene. Particularly expect to see a lot more Cubanos this year. After the surprise hit at Maloney’s…
Oh, you don’t know that story?
I’d say the first noted Cuban sandwich was at Little Cuba in Sinchon, which opened last year. We talked a lot about it on Sandwich Lovers Seoul. Maloney’s is my new favorite dive bar. Great comfort food and great beers. Superior company. Every Monday, their special is a different home cooked meal. One Monday (August 11, 2014), they made a Cuban sandwich. I ordered it and had to wait because they were still waiting for the pork to finish roasting. I tried it and was floored. It was just like the ones I remembered in Alabama (yeah, not Miami but close). I posted it on Sandwich Lovers, and suddenly there was so much demand for the sandwich that it became a permanent item on the menu and one of their top sellers. More restaurants, like Libertine, started making them, and I’m hearing some other places are starting to actually specialize in them.
Spicier and Cheesier 2015
Even though Korea withstood the 2008 financial crisis better than most modern countries, there’s constant talk of the economy slowing down–even some deflation in some areas–in 2015. When Koreans are feeling stressed, they turn towards spicy food. The buldalk (fire chicken) craze had its roots in the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Already KFC has come out with a fire chicken menu, and I’ll admit it’s pretty good for a fast food chicken. We’ll see more dishes with the word “bul” (“fire”) attached to them, and the cheese craze will continue because it helps relieve the extreme heat. I’ll bet that even fondue itself will pop up in a few places. I went to a cheese galbi place yesterday that served its cheese in a fondue pot. Maybe there’s something there.
Oysters will be given more respect. They’re so plentiful here that they’re just piled onto platters. The concept of the oyster on a half shell will start to take hold. Yeouido is opening Seoul’s first full-on oyster bar. Some places like Libertine and OK Burger (of all places) already serve glorious versions topped with gourmet trimmings. And here we talk about infrastructure. The company opening the Yeouido oyster bar has already set up oyster farms growing French oysters in Korea. So they won’t be as expensive as oyster bars in, say, Hong Kong, where the concept is thriving, even though the oysters cost over $2 USD a piece.
Neopolitan and New York style pizzas have already gained ground. How about Chicago deep dish? It’s not for everyone, but I’m a fan. There’s a place that’s opened in Hongdae that is getting mixed reviews but is growing on popularity. I think the novelty of a knife and fork pizza will propel it forward, especially if someone comes along that makes a good one.
I meant to put pulled pork in the 2014 trends, but I think it’s really going to grow bigger in 2015. It’s cheap, it’s easy to make, and it’s a crowd pleaser. Okay, it’s hard to make well. But it’s easy enough that the restaurateurs that prefer to chase trends than to do anything original will catch on. Expect this to be 2015’s Ricotta Salad.
Wine doesn’t do well during down economies, but Korea has changed. Wine used to be primarily drunk as a status symbol. But now Korean palates are starting to appreciate the taste, especially with young professionals. The FTAs have been in effect long enough to bring some infrastructure in place. Before the IKEA brouhaha, which I think historians will note as the moment when Koreans started really caring more about value than price, the wine market was going through its own readjustment phase. While makkolli and imported beer were in the spotlight, the wine market was getting obliterated. Some major importers left Korea last year, in fact. The big boys noted the drop in sales, and they lowered the prices. Suddenly, wine became much more affordable. Wine bars are starting to sprout up again. Let’s hope that with the cheese craze that we’ll see more variety and better prices for cheese in the future.
More Craft Beer
It’s okay to make predictions multiple years in a row. Baum + Whiteman have been predicting Korean food’s rise every year since 2008. The infrastructure is about in place. Breweries are about to open. The big guys are getting into the brewpub business, though I hear that Devil’s Door is so bad that a friend of mine had to throw up in the bathroom. Galmegi, Maloney’s, Hand and Malt, Craftworks, Magpie, Ka-Brew–that’s six craft brewers that have appeared in the past five years. Am I forgetting any?
The little secret that I think everyone knows by now is that the majority of craft brews have up until now been made in the same brewery by the same people following other people’s recipes. This will change with the opening of Hand and Malt’s and Craftworks’s operations. Galmegi had opened a brewery last year.
The only obstacle right now is still legislation. There’s some rule about taxing each batch, so if a craft brewery makes an experimental batch, or if the batch is not to their liking, they still get taxed on it. So, some end up selling experimental or not-so-great batches to lower end pubs so they don’t lose so much money in taxes. So we’ll still have a problem with consistency.
IKEA says in its Steve Urkel voice, “Did I do that?”
The side effect of the craze of IKEA’s furniture is the popularity of its food court. As soon as it opened, the Korean blogs were abuzz about how cheap the food was there. And when you eat a food enough, you start acquiring a taste for it. A Scandanavian restaurant, Hemlagat, has opened near Namdaemun and has also been garnering a good bit of buzz. So expect more Swedish…
Meat used to be scarce in Korea. So, a meatball is a statement of decadence. Of wealth. Of “OMG a ball of MEAT?”
Route 66 used to be the Pizza Pub, which was a self serve beer bar concept. It wasn’t doing well, so they changed it to a sandwich shop. I assume they were sensing the rise of the sandwiches. Their star was this glorious meatball sub. I’ve had it. I want to do nasty things with it. I’d guess that the meatball sub there helped support the bar in its early months. Then a place opened called Meatballism, which specialized in tofu. No, MEATBALLS! And now Miya Got the Balls is opening.
France Gourmet. OK3 and OK5. La Cave du Cochon. Even though Meili’s Delicatessen closed, I think sausages, pressed meats, and the raw mystical art of charcuterie won’t hit it big but will be big enough to take notice.
Oh man, even more so than in 2014. What would go better with the craft beer trend? And what else would go better with American BBQ than…
It’s been conventional wisdom that Koreans love Scotch, but they don’t like bourbon. That’s changing. Small batch artisan bourbon is appearing in nicer cocktail bars, and it’s been popular at Linus Bama BBQ. Costco Korea has reduced (or stopped) selling its store brand Scotch and is selling its Kirkland Premium Small Batch Bourbon, which I’m sipping on while I’m typing. Not bad stuff. Like charcuterie, it won’t be big, but its stock will rise.
We started seeing lobster rolls pop up with Locos, which is the poster child for awful Korean Gyungridan restaurant trying to mimic western cuisine while not understanding the cuisine at all. Check out this W24,000 lobster roll.
I know what you’re thinkin’.
Then these foreign-born Korean guys open up Lobster Bar and give us this for W19,000.
They, like Rye Post, have moved to a larger location and are doing quite well. But I’m seeing lobster being offered in other places as well. Who knows? Maybe we’ll see lobster kimbap.
This one’s a hunch. If you make pizza, you can make a calzone. They’re fun to eat. Brew 3.14 has a really cheesy one.
American Comfort Food
Macaroni and Cheese started appearing in a few places last year. The Beastro made waves when it opened, and it’s really American comfort food (with a bit of emphasis on the South) with a more gourmet veneer. I dream of their fried chicken. Here’s to hoping for more Southern Fried Chicken, Biscuits, Smothered Steaks, Mashed Potatoes, Spaghetti & Meatballs, Meatloaf (logical evolution of the meatball trend), Sloppy Joes, and the acceptance of the concept of gravy in Korean culture.
Yanggogi has made fits and starts. During the 2008 American beef protests, lamb galbi restaurants cropped up, promoting themselves as clean healthy alternatives to beef. But when people calmed down and realized the American beef scare was a sham, they forewent lamb. Quietly, Chinese pubs serving lamb skewers with a spice bowl for dipping, survived the lamb fallout and grew. More sources of lamb solidified from Australia and New Zealand, including lamb with less odors. I know, I know–the hypocrisy of a people with one of the world’s smelliest cuisines complaining about the smell of lamb…
Yet I think it’s catching on now. At my local Home Plus supermarket in Gimpo they have pre-packaged lamb galbi and spicy bulgogi. E-Mart just announced that they’re going to be carrying lamb in their stores with a big promotion. Infrastructure.
Let’s not forget that lamb has started spreading outside Middle Eastern and Indian restaurants. Silence of the Lamb, anyone? It’s the Year of the Sheep!
Regional and Homey Italian
Italian has been the first big western cuisine success story in Korea. Yes, it’s been raped beyond recognition at Sorrento, Spaghettia, and all Korean-borne pizza chains. We started seeing some respect in recent years. Good pizza places did well. Good Italian places have done well, like Paolo de Maria. Regional places are starting to appear now, specializing in Milanese and Sicilian (Ciuri Ciuri) styles. The homey Il Gattino was a surprise hit with the expat foodie crowd. So add Italian comfort food to your list as well.
In the Health Department…
Last year Lee Hyori got everyone into lentils. There were those dangerous detox diets before that. Expect America’s chia seed fad to make its way to Korea. It’s already showing up in conventional supermarkets. The Greek yogurt fad will also grow here as Koreans discover the joys of yogurt without sweeteners.
Value Over Price
The fallout over IKEA’s pricing was a good thing. It started a discussion on how Koreans get fleeced. In the past, the rapidly upward mobile Korean market could be counted on for getting easy money. The nouveau riche were gullible enough to believe that the higher price the better the quality–or even more shallowly–the higher their status would be for buying it. Think of the mediocre foreign brands that became premium items in Korea–The North Face, New Balance, Gymboree. I’ve told the story before of the foreign chef who started his new position at a top Korean hotel. He was startled by the high prices, so he lowered them. The Korean customers complained!! It was not uncommon to see a samgyetang–basically a chicken soup–going for W300,000 in fine dining restaurants.
Jung Sik Dang, Edward Kwon, Lobster Bar–those guys have been proving that food doesn’t need to be super expensive to be of good quality.
And the arrival of IKEA and people realizing that they were getting charged double for the exact same shitty crap compared to people in other countries outraged them. Hopefully this has started a widespread consciousness of value to the point where Koreans will get just as outraged when domestic companies pull the same stunt (Hyundai, Samsung).
More Korean Food TV
With the popularity of “Tasty Road” in Korea, there have already been some copycat shows. Expect more. But as I mentioned in the 2014 review post, a lot of western media shows filmed episodes and whole series here late in 2014. They will air in 2015. Expect to see a good bit of Korean food TV in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and Australia.
This is the first time I’ve ever predicted an actual person would become trendy. This may be a bit self serving as well. But I met Sue this summer, and this girl is cray-cray for food and has this gravitational personality. She helped me on “Parts Unknown with Anthony Bourdain” and other shows, and she will be appearing on some of the shows I’ve mentioned above. She already has a popular Instagram account @KimchiHangover, and she’s about to debut her blog of the same name (kimchihangover.com).
What will be fading away for another day this year?
However the fuck you spell it… I still love you, and you have had a good long run. Since 2007, really. But there hasn’t been as much innovation as we were hoping. The only innovation has been to flavor the brew with whatever you can get your hands on. Chestnut makkolli–lovely. Peanut makkolli—like alcoholic peanut butter! Buckwheat flower makkolli–the best flavored burps you’ll have. Yuja makkolli–a bit sweet. Blueberry makkolli–um, is this for kids? Tomato makkolli–okay, STOP right there!
Churros and Soft Serve
The faster you rise, the faster you fall. They won’t die as quickly as the Schneeball, but those who put all their peanuts on those two will lose a lot of them in the coming year.
I don’t know. They may still have some life left in them if they still have strong concepts and smart business practices. But people have gotten tired of going out to wait in line for a place with few seats. These places are great when you want to sit down casually, eat some greasy cheap food, and enjoy some nice beers. But they’re not worth waiting in line for. And after a few attempts at showing up and not having any seats, people will just give up.
What will you think 2015 has in store for us? Tell us in the comments.