When people ask what my favourite place to eat in Dublin is, I give a three-tiered answer. For a high-end treat, it’s Forest Avenue; for daytime heartiness I’d pick the The Fumbally; and in-between, for the great but affordable meal out, for me, it’s been Kimchi at The Hop House for a long time.
Manager and owner Kyoung Hee Lee arrived in Dublin from Seoul, South Korea in 2001. ‘My job as a market researcher brought me to Ireland,’ she tells me. ‘At that time, there was no Korean restaurant in Dublin. So The Hop House is the oldest Korean restaurant in Dublin at the moment.’
She took over the old Shakespeare pub on Parnell Street, around the corner from The Gate, and transformed half of it into a Korean and Japanese restaurant, while the other half retained its old man pub charms [see our review of the Shakespeare elsewhere in Barfly]. In the beginning, it was their sushi that drew people through its doors as it became known as one of the best places for rolled rice in the city. I came for the sushi but stayed for the bibimbap.
Bibimbap is served in a heavy, hot stone bowl and arrives meticulously ordered into sections of steamed rice, fresh vegetables cooked to keep their crunch, alongside your choice of tofu, beef or salmon flakes. You’re usually in charge of how much of the spicy gochujang (an umami-packed fermented chilli pepper paste) or soy sauce you want to add. It’s the raw egg yolk on top that makes the dish; once you mix everything together, the egg cooks in the heat of the bowl and its accompanying ingredients. It’s awesome.
We come in on a Saturday night to a packed restaurant, full of couples, families and friends. One of the things I love about The Hop House is its busyness. And yet, somehow, the staff are always on it; they’re polite, fast and never fail to humour me when I throw in a ‘gamsabnida’ at the end of my order.
Tonight, we go for our old favourites of chicken mandu dumplings (€4.50), which are satisfyingly crispy on the outside and full-flavoured on the inside. Our other starter is the char sui (€6), steamed and pressed pork slices served with a teriyaki sauce. These slices of pork are sweet, sticky, savoury, soft and tender. We marvel at how something so simple can be so eye-rollingly gratifying.
Everything is fresh and prepared daily. There have been three chefs in The Hop House’s eight years. ‘They have contributed to our current menu and have become our greatest asset,’ says Hee Lee. ‘The first chef’s name was Mr. Cho, the second was Mr. Kim and the third is Mr. Jang Jungsig. All of them are professional Korean chefs.’
Beef bulgogi (€12.90) is another Korean dish that is as popular as the bibimbap. The shredded, sweet beef is piled high on a hot plate and the dish arrives surrounded by banchan, the small plates of side dishes that come with a number of the dishes here at The Hop House. There is a little tin of sticky, steamed rice. There is a plate of lightly fermented courgette, bean sprouts and potatoes. And then, of course, there is the bowl of the famous spicy and sour cabbage kimchi.
I love stews and casseroles, and Korean food features plenty of both. The doenjang zigae is probably my favourite thing on the menu after the bibimbap, but tonight I go for a casserole over my beloved tofu stew. The kimchi jeongol (€15.80) is a bubbling, evenly spiced casserole heaped with fermented cabbage and cubes of tofu that arrives on top of a fiery burner.
Desserts have always been a bit of a non-event (why is that, I wonder?) but they do have decent, bought-in ice-cream and a cake or two. It’s called Mochi Ice Cream on the menu but our bowl of green tea ice-cream (€4.50) seems to be regular, creamy ice-cream as opposed to the traditional Japanese pounded sticky rice with an ice cream filling. Our bill, which included an 8 Degrees Brewing Holwing Gale Ale and a sparkling water, came to €50.20.
It’s often what takes place around the meal at The Hop House that has lifted the place in my estimation. My husband-to-be threw me a surprise 30th birthday dinner here. I used to meet one of my best friends for regular lunches here at a time when we both worked nearby. I watched the South Korea vs Uruguay match in the 2010 World Cup in its beer garden. It was gas, with the South Korean fans literally screaming whenever their team so much as touched the ball; so much in common with the earnest abandon of Irish fans. They lost to Uruguay that night, but spirits were high thanks to the free panjeon (a crispy spring onion pancake) and bottles of Hite beer.
Over the years, I’ve probably eaten here about 20 times and I’ve never had a meal in the restaurant I didn’t love. That’s a tribute to the people, the place and the food. Here’s to many more meals at The Hop House.
Words: Aoife McElwain
Photos: Evan Buggle
Kimchi at The Hop House
160 Parnell Street, Dublin 1