BEFORE I INTRODUCE THE MONKEY LASER CAFE — which is, to clarify, a cafe along a rural patch of Korean coast with a pet monkey and a laser strobe light — it’s important to start with the fact that V and I were looking for a particular mythical patbingsu, a.k.a. the lovely East Asian dessert of shaved ice, condensed milk, sweetened red beans and any topping in the world: ice cream, almonds, kiwi, tomatoes and so on.
V had experienced her first-ever patbingsu here, in Ganjeolgot Cape (home of the “first sunrise in Korea” because of its southeastern placement), only weeks into her first contract in Korea, and was glossy-eyed by mountains of fruit and beans that somehow got better as it melted together. This is the rare treat of a truly good bingsu: the thing should get better as you eat it, not worse.
Months later, during our romantic first summer together, we indulged in the icy treat almost weekly. We scoured Busan for the best of the delicacy, scoping out homemade beans at Namcheon-dong and cafe-hopping the mega bowls at Tom n’ Toms and Mango Six, all to capture the magic of that first time. We never found it — cafe bingsus are typically ice-fests capped with a fancy swirl of chocolate and ice cream for an egregious 9,000 won. The ice is chunky, the beans from a can, the toppings minimal.
Last Sunday, we found a free weekend and decided to head out to Ganjeolgot to rediscover V’s dessert-laden past, what she’s called the “best patbingsu I’ve ever had.”
And we found it.
It began with a mistaken train ride from Haeundae to Gijang, which for some reason she thought was where Ganjeolgot was located. We exited the train station to a sudden downpour of rain and hopped into the only taxi in the parking lot, but the driver informed us that Ganjeolgot was in Ulsan and we should just take the train. So we ran back into the station and waited another hour to hop the next train to Taewhagang Station in southern Ulsan. By the time we got there, it was still raining pretty hard, so we jumped in a cab and zoomed off for a 30-minute, 25,000-won cab ride in the exact direction from which we just came.
Turns out Ganjeolgot is sort of in the middle of Gijang and Ulsan, and if we’d done any research whatsoever we’d have saved a good chunk of time and money.
Ganjeolgot, land of presumably giant mailmen
After some roadside hotdogs and preliminary sightseeing, we spotted Ganjeolgot’s prime tourist attraction: a giant green post box along the bluffs of the coast. There’s nothing to do with the mammoth except take photos of it and step inside the thing to find, believe it or not, a slightly smaller post box.
Up the hill from the box was the famous lighthouse, and because of the intense rain and fog that day, we were graced by the foghorn’s blare every 10 minutes. The outside of the lighthouse is walled with comics, and the centrepiece of its courtyard is a very masculine, kind of Roman-looking statue. The toddler Korean girls seemed to be having a good time emulating the heroic pose while their parents took photos.
But after some time staring off into the sea, we decided to delve into “Cafe Town”, a stretch of tents set up along a large parking lot serving coffees and desserts. Most tents are decorated with fake flowers and fairy lights, and so we chose one at random with a view of the ocean, called “Chocolate Cafe”. We ordered a few drinks and the “Couple Bingu” and awaited with anticipation.
Binging on bingsu
Was it the best bingu in Korea? Pretty damn close.
The thing is made by its generous heaps of red beans, topped with sliced-up watermelon, banana and kiwi. No question: fresh fruit beats the canned jelly shit every time. Rice cakes hidden underneath earned extra points in the texture department, and the simplicity of this particular dish — no fancy nuts or ice cream, giving way to more beans and fruit — is key. The one negative is the chunky ice; a better ice shaver would solve the problem.
En route out, we stumbled upon the only non-tent cafe in Cafe Town. It’s a pre-fab-style place with a large banner out front that reads “MONKEY HOUSE”. Peaking inside, we realized why it was named that.
Okay, so let’s get to the part about the monkey and the laser
Yes, there’s a monkey. His name is Sun Oh-gong, and he wears a diaper. Oh-gong is hand-fed bananas by the owner, a raspy-voiced 50-something-year-old with long wavy dyed-brown hair, gold teeth and thick silver rings who wears the same plaid red tie as his son (who has identical wavy brown hair), and even tighter pants tucked into military boots. They sell Western-made men’s jewelry, advertise Harley-Davidson motorcycles and blast Korean techno while shooting a green laser around Oh-gong while he swings around his tree in the middle of it all.
So we bought some drinks and stayed a while.
We asked them for directions on how to get out of there, and followed the map the father drew. It’s actually very simple: walk straight past the lighthouse, then wait at the bus stop for the only bus that shows up twice an hour, the #715 to Wollae. In Wollae, it dropped us off at the terminal stop, which was in front of a dry-cleaning shop and convenience store. There, another bus to northern Busan began its route, and we rode it for an hour as the clouds reformed above us.
As for the bingsu: as the song goes, it’s nice work if you can get it, and you can get it if you try.
Photos courtesy of V and her iThing.