There are certain scenes in Korean films and television with a ubiquitous presence, such as that of the solitary woman seated on a train watching the scenery fly by through the window, looking cute and tipsy while daydreaming and slurping hot barbeque meat with soju.
These scenes have been enjoyed by fans of Korean pop-culture around the world, including in Cambodia where Korean grilled meat and soju is an increasingly popular repast.
Korean restaurants are flourishing in the Kingdom these days. Gogi Train in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kork district is the third branch to open in the capital, joining two other successful branches located near the Institute of Foreign Languages (IFL).
Gogi Train Tuol Kork officially opened on November 11, 2020, three years after the first two restaurants opened for business.
What makes Gogi Train TK distinct from the two previously established branches is its design – the exterior resembles a train station and the interior is like the inside of a train car combined with a barbeque restaurant in South Korea.
Soeng Savy, 25, is the manager of Gogi Train and she can be found within its train-like interior among its two rows of tables – each one complete with a shiny exhaust vent pipe.
She revealed that the concept for this restaurant had sprung from the owner’s imagination.
“We created the train concept because we wanted customers to feel like they are travelling somewhere or going on a journey instead of just being stuck at home,” says Savy.
She also noted that the owner hoped the restaurant made people feel like they were in a scene in a Korean drama, which is a dream shared by many fans of Korean culture.
“The whole place tries to remind people of Korea in every detail from the signs on the walls to the floor under your feet. When people come here they can always manage to get a few good selfies from their visit,” Savy tells The Post.
Whenever customers step into the restaurant the first thing they hear is Korean music.
If they pay close attention they’ll realise that it’s mostly classic songs from the period when K-pop first exploded in popularity throughout Cambodia.
The music gives Gogi Train a good vibe, with people going from table to table dancing and humming along.
Patrons don’t have to dress up fancy to eat at Gogi Train. The elaborate decor is impressive but the moment you enter it’s obvious that it’s meant to be casual and relaxed.
Savy shared some of their history, saying: “Our first two [restaurants] opened in 2017 but at the time even though we wanted to do something a little bit innovative we were cautious, so we designed them with a normal look.
“After the success of the first two [restaurants] we were ready to try designing this third branch with a unique theme and so we’ve had the Gogi Train open for about two months now,” she says.
Gogi is a Korean word that translates to “meat” in English, so the Meat Train is of course primarily known for its barbeque selection.
The second most popular dish on their menu is the Korean spicy crab with soy sauce. The crab is sold by weight so the price varies but is typically within the range of $20-$30.
Gogi Train only serves Korean cuisine and at first there was only a Korean chef on staff. However, during their first few years in business they observed their customers closely and noted what they seemed to like or dislike.
The customer feedback convinced the management that they should hire a Cambodian chef to work alongside their Korean chef to subtly adjust the flavours to satisfy the Khmer palate. Still, the food remains distinctly Korean.
Savy continued, saying: “All of our ingredients are imported directly from Korea. Sometimes we even run out of certain things and we can’t serve some dishes until the next shipment arrives.
“The first time we had Korean customers, it felt amazing to see that they loved it and they even called to reserve a table in advance for their next visit,” Savy recalled.
Gogi Train is always packed with people and the split-level floor plan can accommodate around 500 patrons during the week and 700 patrons over a weekend. They often have customers waiting in line for a table to open up.
The barbeque is served in different sets according to the size of your party or your appetite. The single set costs $7 and is meant to feed just one person. Set A is good for two to three people and is priced at $15, while Set B is enough food for three to four people and costs $25.
Cambodian barbeque has a smoky flavour and it makes for a smoky restaurant, whereas Korean barbeque is made using modern technology that gets rid of the smoke but keeps plenty of flavour.
With a few veggies and meat grilling and the table in front of you crowded with Korean kitchenware – from the grill pan to the flattened metal chopsticks and the spoons, dishes and cups – it really feels like you’re dining on a train in Korea and it’s easy to forget that you’re still at home in Phnom Penh.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that the food at Gogi Train is even better than the wonderful atmosphere and design. The crab arrives at your table covered with chillies and the sauce even has chillies floating in it. Anyone who loves spicy food will be in paradise.
Pick up the crab and give it a deep dip into the sauce before taking a bite to get the full flavour of the dish. Gogi Train’s Korean spicy crab is absolutely brilliant.
I’ve only mentioned the top two offerings on the menu, but if those aren’t to your liking you need not worry – the menu has a lot of other great dishes as well and you’ll find that you have plenty of options to choose from.
Savy mentions, with obvious pride, that whenever she checks the online reviews or comments from customers she sees people saying that the quality of the food is beyond what words alone can describe and is well worth the money spent.
“Yes, I admit that our food is quite expensive but we offer some of the best Korean food in town and to know that our customers agree with that is super exciting,” she enthused.
While many eateries have struggled in the Covid era and some have even had to close their doors permanently, Gogi Train has not had to hit the brakes or slow down one bit.
Be that as it may, Savy says they have tried to accommodate customers [with heightened Covid concerns] by offering take-away and even allowing them to borrow all the utensils used to barbeque at no extra charge as long as they return them when they are finished.
This strategy has allowed them to retain customers who love Gogi Train’s food but are wary of crowds due to the pandemic.
Savy admits that the level of success and number of customers they’ve had was unexpected and that it sometimes presented a challenge.
She says: “We thought our staff could take a little rest some days [after the mealtime rush] but then hour after hour more hungry people just keep coming. It can be tough some days we are totally exhausted.
“Sometimes we serve so much food that we have to stop because we run out of ingredients before we do customers.
“We’re adapting to the situation by adding more staff. Also, this space is a lot bigger than our other two branches and our staff gets tired walking from table to table, especially going upstairs.
“We solved this by installing an escalator for the staff to use when going up there,” Savy explains.
Savy says that soon they will add a tasty new Anchovy sauce for the barbeque that can go right into the pan with the meat while it’s grilling.
Right now, though, Savy is especially focused on fine tuning the restaurant’s atmosphere:
“We kind of want to do something slightly different with the music. For example, from 7pm to 9pm go with the normal vibe but then after 9pm our customers like the music a little louder and the lights dimmed a bit, so a little bit more of a party or club vibe,” she says.
Gogi Train is open every day from 11am to 10pm and it is located on Street 528 in Boeung Kak I commune, Tuol Kork district, Phnom Penh.