For a long time, I have born the nickname Jens. The ‘s’ doesn’t stand for Sotham; it stands for superlative. I have a bit of a penchant for exaggeration. For several days before my recent trip to Ulsan, all I could think (and talk) about was paying a visit to Toolbox, a burger joint in old downtown I had discovered on a previous Ulsan sojourn. I sermonized in a Facebook chat to a friend about how excited I was for my Toolbox burger.
“Seriously, top five burgers I’ve eaten in my life.”
“What were the other four?” he asked.
I told him I’d get back to him, and then I thought about it … all day. I’ve eaten the legendary burger at New York City’s Corner Bisto. I’ve had my share of ‘animal style’ burgers at In-N-Out Burger in Los Angeles. I’ve even been fortunate enough to taste the gourmet slider trio in Manhattan’s famed Old Homestead.
After a fair amount of consideration, I came back to my friend with a retraction of my former statement. The Misso burger (swiss cheese, salami, bacon, onion and a whole avocado) at Toolbox is, in fact, the BEST burger I’ve ever had.
When I arrived at Toolbox and discovered that they had sold out of the Misso burger, I was crestfallen, but I opted for the Signature burger (cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, chips and horseradish mayo) instead. When I took my first bite, I realized that it wasn’t only the accoutrements that had made the other burger I had eaten so phenomenal — it was the gorgeously flavored, juicy, 150-gram handmade patty, the perfectly toasted bun and the awesome balance of condiments. I inquired with owner and chef, Hee-Hoon Jeong, about his journey to create the perfect burger.
Hee-Hoon LOVES burgers. When he went to Australia on working holiday in 2008, he learned how to prepare Aussie-style burgers and returned to Korea with a mission to learn about Western-style food. He partnered up with Dho-Yoon Kim, who attended culinary school in New York, and the two set out to bring proper burgers to their hometown of Ulsan. Hee-Hoon was eager to share his philosophy and goals.
“I want to make special, handmade burgers that stand apart from fast food.” Hee Hoon says, adding that he wants to be part of creating a “burger culture” here in Korea.
And he is well on his way. Toolbox has a solid reputation among Ulsanites, and I’ve seen quite a number of blog posts about this little gem from travelers who have visited there. Its reputation is well-deserved. Not only is the food excellent, but the prices are also reasonable and the service, despite being a one-man operation, is fast and friendly. The minimalist industrial-chic space is warmed up by wonderfully kitschy decorative elements that augment the ‘toolbox’ theme. It’s also, to my delight, K-pop-free.
There are two Toolbox locations, one in Bangeojin and one in Shinae (old downtown). The menu features a variety of burgers, all using Toolbox’s signature 150-gram homemade patties, including a Mexican-style chili burger and, a new addition I’m planning to try on my next visit, a Mac-n-Cheese burger. The menu is rounded out by a nice selection of sandwiches and salads as well as items like fish and chips and loaded chili fries.
Ulsan, just an hour by bus from Haeundae, is a great place for a short getaway. The river promenade and Grand Park make for great days outdoors. There are also a few bars in old downtown, like JJ’s and The Royal Anchor, and from what I hear, new downtown is like a Hongdae-in-training. That said, Toolbox alone is worth the journey. Hee-Hoon speculated to me about the possibility of opening a Toolbox in Busan. Now that would be the BEST thing EVER!
Getting there: Open Tuesday to Sunday 11am to 10:30 pm in Seongnam-dong (Shinae/Old Downtown). From the Shinae Clock Tower (Shigae-tap), with your back to the river/walking street, walk against the traffic flow for one block, and then turn right. At the next intersection, turn left. Just past the alley to JJ’s, Toolbox is on the right-hand side of the street
Photos by Stacy Austin