My friends in Korea are always on the lookout for somewhere I can eat easily with them as a vegetarian, which is lovely of them. Dining out is such a big part of the culture here, and it sucks if I have to miss out or always drag whoever I’m with to the same few places. Last week, my friend Alessandra suggested that shabu shabu might be something I could have, provided I had my own hotpot to cook my food in. She did some research and found 레타스 (Let Us/Lettuce) Shabu Shabu (website Kor. only) in Hongdae, which has individual hotpots for each customer and an all you can eat vegetable buffet. ‘Unlimited vegetables’ was certainly music to my ears, so we decided to head there for lunch (where prices are less than half of what an evening meal would cost). Plus the delightfully punny name was too good to resist.
Once seated, you have a choice of five different broths to cook your meat/vegetables in, depending on what you’re in the mood for, though the original broth is the only one that is vegetarian. Along with the broth, you order your meat. I wasn’t really bothered about enquiring whether I could simply order the broth and eat the vegetables to save some money, but if you want, I’m sure you could ask. I ordered pork, which was the cheapest meat on offer at less than ₩9,000, and gave it to my friends to share. This price covers the buffet, drinks, and even unlimited dessert (!), so even without the meat it seemed like a great deal (the meat servings aren’t particularly generous anyway, particularly in comparison to everything else on offer). In the evenings, when pricers are somewhat dearer, you can also enjoy unlimited beer.
The restaurant staff bring over your individual pots and set the temperature for you. It takes a little while for the broth to heat up, so in the mean time, I went over and grabbed my fill of all the buffet had to offer. I returned to our table with not one but two plates full of vegetables (including more varieties of mushrooms than I knew what to do with), tofu, noodles, potato salad, mashed sweet potato…even vegetable samosas and fries. When eating shabu shabu, you’re traditionally supposed to cook the meat and eat that first, followed by the vegetables etc., so while my friends tucked into their beef and pork, I just got started on my veg.
Eventually, we had eaten so much that we could hardly move. This was especially true of me, because why on earth wouldn’t I take advantage of unlimited vegetarian food? We had a little break before tackling the unlimited dessert situation, which comes in the form of rice cakes, self-serve green tea ice cream with what seemed like every topping imaginable, and a variety of hot drinks. Usually, I would be back for several servings of all-you-can-eat ice cream, but I was so full from the main course that I had to limit myself to just one bowl, along with a coffee.
Overall, this place was great. Great value (at lunchtime, anyway) and delicious food, whether you’re vegetarian or not (my friends assured me the meat was delicious). The only problem is you’re supposedly limited to being there for one and a half hours; however, when we were there it wasn’t full, and while we left within the allocated time, we didn’t think we would have been asked to leave if we’d stayed a little longer.
레타스 Lettuce/Let Us Shabu Shabu, 홍대점 Hongdae branch
From 홍대입구역 (Hongik univ. station), leave at exit 9 and walk straight. Take the first right; the restaurant is about half way down the street on the left, on the 2nd floor.
Weekday lunchtime prices start from less than ₩9,000 for pork and less than ₩10,000 for beef. They creep up considerably for fancier beef, and/or in the evenings. They do a special deal from 2-5pm, when the price kind of sits between those of lunch and dinner.
Phone number: 02-338-4952 / they have a branch in Gangnam, too, if Hongdae is no good for you – 02-595-4952.