Eoeun-dong is by no means a fancy or big neighborhood. It is understandable that there are not a lot of restaurants and that most of them are not of the highest quality. If you wanted to provide an upscale, lavish culinary experience, you probably wouldn’t choose a washed-down neighborhood like Eoeun-dong to set up shop in.
However, even if the quality or quantity are not there, you would at least expect some variety. By my basic knowledge of economics, four restaurants selling the same type of food, all located in the same 100-meter long backstreet should not all be able to survive. In the magical land of Eoeun-dong, however, these basic principles do not seem to apply.
What kind of enchanting food are these restaurants selling, you might ask? What could be so extraordinary that all four restaurants seem to make steady revenue despite being at most 50 meters away from each other? It’s donkatsu, or deep-fried pork cutlet, and if you’ve tried it, you know there’s nothing particularly special about it.
Despite this, you can find at least one restaurant that sells this ordinary dish in every single alleyway of Eoeun-dong. A whopping 16 restaurants offer donkatsu in some form or another: Mori Mori Bentto, Yoshida, 111-7 Meal (its omelet donkatsu is good but a tad pricey), Gwangjang, Sodo (personal favorite), Ameagari, Moriya, Asobu, Very Sinjuku, Kuma Kitchen, Kongsarang Gulnaeum (during the summer), Hare, Gisimaeng, Aqaba’s Dining Table, Terrace 5th, and Viva Cutlet. Everytime I think there is no way another one could open , one surely does — Kuma Kitchen opened just last May.
|Sodo in the early 2000s (from The KAIST Herald archive)
But why? Why are there so many donkatsu places in Eoeun-dong? And how are so many of them still open? (Sodo opened in 2001 and Gishimaeng opened in 1992) For any aspiring entrepreneur planning to escape the blocky confines of an office, opening a donkatsu restaurant is one of the safer and easier options. Lack formal training or simply have no cooking abilities at all? No problem! Just get a piece of loin, pound it, bread it, fry it, pour over some store-bought sauce, and you’ve got donkatsu. Concerned about not being able to attract a clientele? Worry not! Donkatsu’s popularity doesn’t stop at any generation and its relatively cheap price makes it accessible to a wide demographic.
If a donkatsu restaurant was such an obvious investment, you’d also expect to see these crispy slices of pork around every corner of Goong-dong. Instead, although Goong-dong is around four times the size of Eoeun-dong, it has half the number of these restaurants. It is evident that the cutlet sovereignty over Eoeun-dong is not simply due to the virtues of the dish. Both neighborhoods are next to universities, but there is still a visible disparity in restaurant variety.
Perhaps it’s simply that KAIST students enjoy the crackling sound of a knife slicing through donkatsu breading more than Chungnam National University students do. Although most people seem to be fond of donkatsu, there is no noticeable KAIST-specific obsession for the dish that would warrant the existence of 16 restaurants all selling similarly tasting donkatsu— I would be surprised if anyone could distinguish them in a blind test.
It’s not that KAIST students love donkatsu. It’s simply that they don’t have better alternatives. Due to their generally busy and hectic lifestyles, most KAIST students cannot afford the time to venture away from the campus’s direct surroundings. This means that, when planning to eat out, a quick trip to Eoeun-dong is the most realistic option. The mostly-male student body looks for generous portions of decently tasting meat of some kind at an affordable price. Out of all the possibilities in Eoeun-dong, donkatsu is the only dish that checks all of these boxes. In the end, the 16 donkatsu restaurants in Eoeun-dong are all mostly full during weekday dinner times not because they offer exceptional food, but because they offer the most passable food.
However, any ambitious but uninspired entrepreneur looking into Eoeun-dong from the outside wouldn’t really know this. Two and a half years ago I engaged in a casual conversation with the owner of a restaurant in Eoeun-dong that specialized in duck dishes. She mentioned how her son was pressuring her to change the focus of their shop from duck to donkatsu. To him, KAIST students were in love with donkatsu and his family also had to capitalize on this.
I’m not sure if the restaurant went through a short donkatsu stint before disappearing, but just like that, another possible meal option in Eoeun-dong disappeared. I don’t dislike donkatsu in any way. But, I surely hope that any future entrepreneur deviates from the safe path to give me enough of a reason to regularly take the walk to the West Gate. Until then, though, delivery food and Goong-dong it is.