Buddha’s Belly versus Wang Thai – The Battle For Thai Supremacy in Itaewon

Does the title look familiar? Sorry gentle reader. After a long night of farewells and bottles of Irish whiskey my mind is feels like it is floating in a dark, gray cloud. I will, however, discuss a couple of restaurants that are Itaewon staples in the Thai restaurant department.

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Buddha’s Belly was the first Thai restaurant I visited when I first arrived in Seoul four long years ago. However, over the years, there have been multiple Thai restaurants popping up all over Itaewon. One of Buddha’s Belly main competitors is Wang Thai, which is located  on the same road as Buddha’s Belly. I like to think of them as two heavyweight boxers, eyeing each other in the ring before touching gloves. Although they are within 100 yards of each other, they both offer different dining experiences.

Buddha’s Belly

The old man on the strip. I don’t know how long Buddha’s Belly has been in Itaewon, but they seem to have been around forever. It used to be located behind the Hamilton Hotel. I remember you would have to walk up these godforsaken, crickity old wooden steps, praying to the namesake of the restaurant that it wouldn’t collapse. Entering the restaurant was like entering a 70’s Japanese karoake club with a bar attached, waiting for drunk businessmen to break out into song. Now, however, they have redesigned their interior, and with a new location, seemed to have rebranded their restaurant into a quant, hipsterish Thai lounge.

Lonely Planet Description: Lonely Planet says that Buddha’s Belly is recommended by the locals and has authentic Thai food. They say the atmosphere is “ambient and relaxing”. They also mention that the have a takeout restaurant down in Gyeongridan, with a couple of tables and chairs for diners.

How to get there:  Lonely Planet suggests that you take exit 1 from Itaewon, and they completely correct. However, what they don’t tell you is that is a bit of hike, including walking up a hill. I’ll give you a more detailed account.

1) Leave exit 1 and be prepared to walk about 500 meters to the end of the strip, on the way to Noksapyeong. You will pass all the little booths of tourist crap. On your right you will pass Wang Thai, What the Book, and the Methodist Church.

2) Now, you should be seeing a hill on your right. You are going to stay right and climb that hill. If you are going down the hill and making a sharp right.. rut roh.. you are heading to Noksapyeong. Keep heading up. You will pass a cowboy boot store (yeehaw) and some small bistros, and cafes. On your right you will see the infamous Tony’s Bar (An Australian bar with a lively owner). Buddha’s Belly will be right across the street on your left on street level.

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Atmosphere: Buddha’s Belly has changed for the better over the years. As the restaurant is now on a hill, there is now a nice cross breeze when the windows are open, which is very refreshing. However, with that comes the sounds on Itaewon on a Saturday night. This particular night had some 80s sounding Korean rock band playing outside of Suji’s Deli, which got pretty annoying quickly. The restaurant is now more chic, with a small bar attached, and limited seating to give it a real, modern, casual atmosphere. If you are lucky enough to get a window seat (call for reservations), the view has a calming effect while you overlook the trees and the mountains in the distance.

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Service: Normally, I don’t really write about service, but I have to mention this moment. They seated us and we were lucky enough to get a nice view. We asked if we could change spots to sit by the window, they denied the request because of a reservation. Fair enough. However, what really annoyed me, was that once we sat down, it took like at least 15 minutes to get a menu. Now, this wouldn’t be so bad, but there were four staff members in a fairly small restaurant, two of whom were playing on their cellphones. Finally, I stood up and approached a staff member, forcing him to take his eyes away from his game of Angry Birds, and asked for a menu. He gave me that blank stare, which I’ve become so accustomed too living in this country, and said, “Oh, sorry.” He handed us a menu. Other than that, the service was adequate. Nothing special.

Food: Buddha’s Belly’s menu is huge. There are about 80 menu items which all range from 9000KRW – 20000KRW. We started with chicken satay for an appetizer. One of the qualms with Bhudda’s Belly is that they don’t allow you to mix and match. However, at Wang Thai, you can mix your satay meat. The chicken was a little dry, and didn’t come with a fork, so we scrapped off the chicken with our spoons. I’ve never really known how to eat satay, so if there is a better way to get the meat to the peanut sauce, please comment below. The peanut sauce had a little more flavor to it, which I actually enjoyed. It didn’t feel like I was dipping meat in peanut butter.

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For our main course,  I ordered the Gad Pad King aka ginger chicken stir-fry, and my wife had the Pad Pong Garee Gai aka fried chicken with yellow curry. The chicken stir-fry had a nice balance of ginger and spice. The chicken was plentiful, and the variety of peppers (green, yellow and red) played different notes of taste on my tongue. It was also a visually appealing dish with the multitude of colors bouncing off the dish. My wife’s dish was more traditional. The yellow curry dominated the dish, but it wasn’t overwhelmingly spicy. It just had a that nice kick of curry, to give it a little flavor. The chicken and rice were plentiful. I finished my meal, but my wife took her meal home.

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Dessert: Okay, for dessert we had the Lemongrass Creme Brule…. wait.. what? You don’t serve dessert on Saturday and Friday nights from 6-9? Well fuck you very much then! I don’t really understand the logic behind this, but I’m going to assume it has something to do with quick turnover. If anyone who works at Buddha’s Belly would like to explain, please comment below.

Value: The damage was 54000KRW for two mains, an appetizer and a couple of Thai beers (Chang). I don’t know if I would go back. The value at some other Thai places is better, however, if you are looking for a more chic and hipsterish atmosphere and are willing to pay for it, then Buddha’s Belly might just be the Thai restaurant for you.

Who should go to Buddha’s Belly: Hipsters looking for a nice view and a cool breeze while discussing the finer points of Nietzsche.

Who should avoid Buddha’s Belly: Although I saw a family here, it is not too family-friendly in my opinion. It’s more a bar/lounge atmosphere, as opposed to Wang Thai, which has a more family-friendly atmosphere and layout. Also, people wanting dessert past 6pm on a weekend (such BS).

Wang Thai

A friend recommended Wang Thai a couple of years ago, and I’ve always gone back to satisfy my Thai needs (food that is). Wang Thai has always treated me great, with a good food and fair prices. I love the atmosphere, which is open-spaced, clean and honest. The service has always been great, and it is an excellent alternative to Buddha’s Belly, and currently, it is my go to place for Thai food.

How to get there: Leave from exit 1 at Itaewon station (Line 6) and walk straight down the main strip for about 5 minutes. Wang Thai is in the same building as What the Book, on the third floor. You will probably be asked if you want a custom-made suit from the suit guy at the entrance.

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Atmosphere and Service: When you walk into Wang Thai, one of the first things you notice is that it is a large, open-spaced restaurant. The tables are separated nicely from each other and the atmosphere is more lively. There are Thai decorations on the wall, and various plant life as well. The restaurant also has private rooms for larger parties. The restaurant is spotless, and their bathrooms are on premise, which are nice and clean.

The service is exceptional. A couple of times I’ve been there, normally on a Saturday night and the place is packed. Although we were waiting for about twenty to thirty minutes, the staff  routinely came over and gave us glasses of water while we waited. The air-con feels great in the summer, and if you need a little reading material you can head down one floor to What The Book, and grab a magazine or novel. Also, most meals come with a complimentary dessert: a bowl of coconut milk, ice and what appears to be little tapioca balls. Our water is always refilled on a consistent basis, and we sure as hell don’t have to wait for 15 minutes for a menu.

Food and Drink: We ordered the satay to start. One advantage of the the satay is that it comes with a variety of meats, which include chicken, pork and beef. The peanut sauce is a little small, and for six sticks of meat, you normally have to order a refill (free of charge). The meat is well done, and moist. It falls off the stick easier and is more flavorful, even without the sauce. For the main course, I ordered the chicken pad thai and my wife ordered yellow chicken curry. The pad thai is very generous, and has just enough heat to keep things interesting. The chicken is fresh, and plentiful, and it seems as though the bowl never ends. Most of the time, I have to pack up Wang Thai to take home. My wife’s yellow chicken curry had some kick to it. She wouldn’t go anymore spicy than what it is. If you want to put it on the “Kimchi” scale, it’s about two notches above the heat level of kimchi. The curry also has a little hint of coconut to offset some of the heat, a very flavorful dish. For dessert, the manager came by and served us green tea, and little bowls of coconut with ice and tapioca. Both meals we had to pack up and bring home. Very generous portions.

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Value: Four meals, including an appetizer and three sodas cost about 60000KRW, which is not bad considering you can get at least two meals out of it. The portions are exceptional and the price is fair. I would give the edge to Wang Thai when it comes to value. If you want a full meal, with a fair price, I would suggest heading to Wang Thai as opposed to Buddha’s Belly.

Who should go to Wang Thai: If you have a large party, definitely consider going to Wang Thai. They have the space, as opposed to Buddha’s Belly, which doesn’t have the space to accommodate more than six people. Also, Wang Thai is a more family friendly. I’ve seen people with their kids there, and they have a little more space to move around.

Who should avoid Wang Thai: Although I’ve brought dates there many times, I would give the slight edge to Buddha’s Belly for a “date” spot. Buddha’s Belly is a little more intimate and romantic.

Final Thoughts: I might be a little too hard on Buddha’s Belly, but their service and lack of dessert really sucked. That said, I’ve heard really good things about the service from multiple people, so maybe it was just a bad day. However, when you are at work, especially in a customer service industry, get off your fucking cellphone and actually do some work. At Wang Thai, the servers are constantly on their feet, ready to serve. My glass of water is always full, and they have my order out fast. Based on service, being the deciding factor, the edge goes to Wang Thai.

Congrats Wang Thai! You are the Itaewon Thai food champion!

3 comments

  1. Buddha’s Belly is the worse for service and there so called reservations! I went with a group of friends at 4 o’clock for some of their amazing cocktails. We asked to be seated in the free window spot but were rejected as it was “reserved”. I asked them what time the reservation was and they said 6pm, 2 hours away. I said we would be done in an hour but they flat out refused so we left. We would have had one or two drinks each and they lost out on that money for a reservation two hours away, It’s madness!

    1. That sucks Gemma. I know the feeling. We felt that it was a little too pretentious for us. I have a problem when I see six servers, all on cellphones playing Candy Crush, and ignoring my plea for more water.

      1. Candy Crush is the evil in which we have to fight against to get good service in Korea!

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