Guide to pojangmacha: Why Koreans love drinking in tents
It’s a typical Wednesday night at Hanshin Pocha -– a street bar with a plastic tarp for a wall in the trendy Hongdae district.
The plastic stools are uncomfortable, the bathroom is repulsive, half the customers are chain-smoking and the noise level is slightly below rock concert level, but all the tables are full and people are lining up to get in.
And it’s only 8 p.m.
While every table starts out single-sex, by the end of the night the boundaries have blurred, as the guys approach the girls’ tables with pick-up lines that range from asking for shots to claiming they lost a drinking game and had to go chat up a girl.
“We’re famous for our chicken feet (닭발) and 'booking',” says Choi Sung-wook, the manager, referring to the Korean term for groups of men foraging for groups of women and vice versa. “Our waiters don’t facilitate the 'booking' -- the customers just do it themselves.”
The next generation
Hanshin Pocha is a slightly more modern take on the pojangmacha (literally meaning “tented wagon”), the orange tarp covered street bars/stalls that catered to the working classes after Korea’s liberation from Japan in 1945.
Unlike today’s pojangmacha ("pocha" for short) that serve a wide array of finger foods, the tents of yesteryear served only grilled sparrows and soju (sold by the shot glass).
It wasn’t until the 1970s that they began offering makgeolli and beer to customers, while the anju (dishes to accompany drinks) menu expanded to include chicken feet, grilled fish and noodles.
The interior of these makeshift joints hasn’t changed much, however, remaining stark.
For many, the bare and humble atmosphere is the biggest draw.
Battalions of the “necktie army” (office workers in their 30s and 40s) head to the nearest pojangmacha as soon as they leave the offices. Almost every Korean drama contains an episode in which the male protagonist downs his sorrows with bottle after bottle of soju while sitting alone in a pojangmacha.
“Even though they might not be the cleanest places, there’s just something comforting about them,” says television producer Kim Jeong-hun, a frequent patron of pojangmachas.
“When you’re living in a world that’s so fast-paced and high-tech, sometimes you just want to slink back and go minimal. I’m not looking for the best service or flashy decor. It doesn’t matter if you’re a corporate big shot or a day laborer when you’re in a pojangmacha,” says Kim.
In Korean dramas, and in reality, pojangmachas also serve as settings for confessions. The kind that's deep or dark.
“When my dad says he wants to go grab a drink and talk something over, we go to the pojangmachas near Han River,” says Charlie Rhee, a trader at a financial firm. “It’s a man thing.”
“Maybe it’s because of this atmosphere, but I feel like I can open up more and hold deeper conversations," says college student Moses Mo. "I actually don’t drink alcohol, and yet I feel like I’m more honest when conversing with people when I’m underneath the tent."
Along with the pojangmachas in Itaewon, those in the back alleys of Jongno 3-ga’s Nagwon Shopping Mall are becoming havens for gay men. While gay characters are slowly appearing on television, Koreans remain extremely conservative about sexual orientation.
In recent years, the number of actual tented pojangmachas has dropped as city officials seek to shut them down. Currently there are approximately 3,100 in Seoul.
“City officials see street stalls as major eyesores,” says the owner of Jamae Pocha in Heuksong-dong.
"The official stance is that pojangmachas are illegal and unsanitary," says one city official who declined to give his name.
Certain pojangmacha owners have also come under media fire for ripping off foreigners who don’t speak Korean -– some demanding four to five times more than the normal asking price.
That doesn't completely put off foreign customers however.
"Considering how they wash and store the food and ingredients, pojangmacha seem a bit dirty, unsafe -- gas pipes at your feet -- and noisy," says Gian Volpicella, an Italian engineer who has lived in Korea for the past four years.
"But I'd suggest these places for travelers on a budget or if you are completely drunk at around 2 a.m. and need a small snack that won't cost too much."
A matter of preference
Indoor pochas, such as Hanshin Pocha, are becoming more popular than their plainer predecessors, and are developing actual franchise chains and increasingly incorporating “booking.”
“Solo Pocha,” another representative Hongdae hot spot, bears the blatant slogan, “You come alone, but leave as two.”
Also on CNNGo: 5 best makgeolli bars in Seoul
Despite their popularity, many regard indoor pochas as a completely different beast from the original tented stalls.
“Those indoor pochas are not real," says one patron. "First of all you can’t go there alone, and pojangmachas are supposed to be places where you can feel completely comfortable eating and drinking alone."
“My favorite bar in the city is Bongja pojangmacha,” says public relations director Sophia Chong. “I bring my closest friends there because it’s small enough to have one-on-one conversations, but big enough to bring a group. Plus, the anju is delicious. Bongja has been cooking there for 21 years.”
Hanshin Pocha Hongdae branch, Mapo-gu Seogyo-dong 407-23 (마포구 서교동 407-23); +82 2 3143 0410; 4 p.m.-7 a.m.
Hanshin Pocha Nonhyun branch, Gangnam-gu Nonhyun-dong 182-29 (강남구 논현동 182-29); +82 2 515 3199
Solo Pocha, Mapo-gu Seogyo-dong 363-3 (마포구 서교동 363-6); +82 2 325 5959; open 24 hours
Bongja's (봉자네), Yongsan-gu, Ichon-dong 302 (용산구 이촌동 302 +82 2 790 8636
Also on CNNGo: Staff picks: Best bars in Seoul