Written and photographed by Justin Ramsay
Winter is upon us, and in Korea that means heaters, jackets, thermal underwear, and hot soup recipes are being pulled out of storage and put into use. This is also the time of year when those lucky enough to have lengthy vacations start to think about where to jet off to in order to escape the icy claws of winter. Some may choose to take the adventurous route and head to equally cold or even colder parts of the world like Russia or Mongolia, but the majority will opt to head to the warmer climates of Indonesia, Thailand, and the like. Apart from the ideal weather, beautiful beaches, and landmarks that these countries have, one of the things that always sticks with travelers is the cuisine. After a trip to Southeast Asia, they often find themselves craving a particular dish, only to find that it is non-existent in their home neighborhood. With that in mind, this month’s Where to Eat section takes us to Dongmyeong-dong once again wherein lies a cozy little Thai restaurant called “U Thai.”
The restaurant is located on a side alley next to McLeod, which was covered in a previous issue of the Gwangju News, and so could easily be overlooked by those who just stick to the main strip of restaurants and cafes. The storefront is easily identified as a Thai restaurant partly due to the name written in English and the distinct Thai text emblazoned on the sign above the entrance. U Thai has large windows that give a clear view of the small, well-themed interior of the restaurant. Upon entering, one immediately notices the décor. There is something to see in every direction, and the restaurant is full of pictures, decorations, and products that are distinctly Thai. The walls are painted in a rustic fashion with various colored paints, sections are wallpapered with pages of Thai newspapers, and another section of the restaurant is covered in gold-framed photos and paintings of the Thai royal family, which are a staple in Thai restaurants all over the world. Elephant decorations, a Thai welcome sign, posters advertising Thai beers like Chang and Singha, palm leaves, metal tables, and coolers in the restaurant really do a fantastic job of bringing a little slice of Thailand into Gwangju.
There were quite a few diners already in the restaurant when my wife and I arrived, so we made our way to an empty table and grabbed a menu as quickly as possible. The simple three-page menu on a clipboard did not have English names for the dishes – instead, the Thai name was written in Hangul with a brief explanation (also in Hangul) – but they were still easy to decipher as every dish had an accompanying color photo that showed exactly what you are able to order. After a quick look at the menu, we settled on Tom Yum Goong, U Thai egg noodles, Pork Kao Pat, Thai spring rolls, and a few Thai beers. While we waited for our food to arrive, I really enjoyed the fact that the lighting in the restaurant was very subtle and the Thai background music was toned down. This allowed diners to engage in pleasant conversation and feel relaxed, which can sometimes be difficult in many other restaurants with their bright fluorescent lights and K-pop blasting from the speakers. Since it was a Saturday night, we were expecting to have quite a lengthy wait for our food but were pleasantly surprised when the dishes started being delivered to the table quite efficiently.
Tom Yum Goong is one of my favorite soups. I love the slightly spicy, citrusy taste, and I was very happy to see it arrive in its heated serving bowl. The soup was tasty with a good balance of sourness and spices. The prawns in the soup were not chewy, and there was a fair amount included in the dish. The Tom Yum Goong was one of the more expensive items on the menu at 16,000 won, but it was very tasty and good for sharing between 2 -3 people along with some other dishes. The Thai egg noodles also contained shrimp, and the noodles had quite a pleasant texture, but the broth was a bit bland for my taste. This was easily remedied by adding some of the spices that are included at the table so diners can season to their liking.
Usually I am not a huge fan of rice dishes, but I thoroughly enjoyed the Pork Kao Pat. The Thai rice made for a nice change from the Korean sticky rice that I eat daily as it had a slightly drier, almost crunchy texture to it that was complemented and flavored perfectly by the lightly seasoned pork and vegetables. When we ordered the spring rolls we expected two or three to be served on a plate, which is what generally happens at other Thai restaurants that I’ve tried in Korea. U Thai, however, had quite a generous portion size of six spring rolls. Granted, they were a bit on the smaller side, but the larger amount made up for it and, more importantly, they were good. The outside of the spring rolls were crispy and had a good crunch to them, which combined with the soft contents very well.
On our way out of the restaurant, we thanked the owner and asked him why he decided to open a Thai restaurant in Gwangju. He said that he used to work at a company, but used to travel to Thailand a couple of times a year as he really enjoyed it. This led him to opening the restaurant in order to practice and apply what he had learned during his time in Thailand. He also added that he personally had brought all of the utensils, decorations, pictures, and more back to Korea with him over the years of traveling back and forth.
We left the restaurant feeling thoroughly satisfied and very full. If, like me, you enjoy a bit of Thai food from time to time or just want some delicious, warm soup to stave off the winter chill, then pay U Thai a visit and give the Tom Yum Goong and other scrumptious dishes a try.
Justin is an English teacher from South Africa who has lived in Gwangju since 2013. He is a big fan of food and the arts and generally goes where something good can be eaten, seen or heard. He is often involved in GPP performances and writes monthly food articles for the Gwangju News. In his free times he’s usually playing boardgames, videogames or just enjoying a nice stroll around Gwangju.