Seoul Food: Seoul’s Best Korean Dishes

A bowl filled with vegetables and an egg yolk with side dishes.

Enjoying a bowl of bimbimbap in Seoul. Photo by reibai licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

There’s great food almost everywhere you look in Seoul, but here’s a quick primer on the Korean dishes that shouldn’t be missed, and where to best enjoy them.

Korean Barbecue

Seocho Sariwon: This restaurant has been serving up tender marinated beef (bulgogi) in refined surroundings for nearly two decades.

Seocho Sariwon

1321-7 Seocho-dong, Seocho-gu
02/3474-5005

HOURS: Daily 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
COST: Entrées ₩10,000-25,000
SUBWAY: Gangnam (Line 2)

Any place that bills itself as a “legendary” bulgogi (marinated beef barbecue) house runs the risk of inflating expectations, but in the case of Sariwon it’s not mere bombast—this really is one of the most renowned and consistently excellent places to sample a much-loved Korean specialty.

Sariwon’s beef is soaked in a blend of fruit juices and spices that gives it a tender, melt-in-the-mouth quality, and is accompanied by a generous range of fresh vegetables and dipping sauces.

The restaurant is large and perpetually bustling, but with its simple wood decor and warm service maintains traces of down-home character. Visitors are also likely to appreciate its extensive, reasonably priced wine list and innovative grills, which include vents that suck barbecue smoke away from diners.

Hongik Sutbul Kalbi: Run by a former butcher, this no-frills, raucous barbecue house is renowned for its fine cuts and generous portions of beef and pork grilled at your table in the traditional fashion.

Hongik Sutbul Kalbi

331-1 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu
02/334-3354

HOURS: Daily 4 p.m.-4 a.m.
COST: Entrées ₩10,000-25,000
SUBWAY: Hongik University (Line 2)

Proof that all Korean barbecue joints are not created equal, Hongik Sutbul Kalbi is probably the only one of the dozens of meat restaurants in this district that is swarmed on a nightly basis.

It has amassed a legendary reputation due to the owner’s keen eye for quality—he’s a butcher by trade—and for offering a variety of types and cuts of meat for very reasonable prices.

All the meat served is fresh, not frozen, and grilled over red-hot coals at the table. Orders also come with a generous spread of side dishes and “bottomless” pots of doenjang jjigae (a spicy bean paste stew).

It’s extraordinarily good value, but don’t expect much in the way of sophistication here—it’s loud and crowded, and a downright bizarre gallery of cartoon characters painted on the walls is the only attempt at decoration.

Service can also be spotty, but that’s forgivable given the sheer volume of customers staff are usually dealing with.

Bibimbap

Namsangol Sanchae Jip: This country-style restaurant serves a delectable bibimbap (rice mixed with vegetables, meat, egg, and red pepper paste) crammed with fresh mountain herbs and vegetables.

Namsangol Sanchae Jip

8-16 Yejang-dong, Jung-gu
02/755-8775

HOURS: Daily 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
COST: Entrées less than ₩10,000
SUBWAY: Myeong-dong (Line 4)

Given the visitor traffic the neighborhood enjoys—the cable car to the landmark N Seoul Tower is just steps away—this restaurant should by all rights be a tourist trap, but somehow it remains a welcome taste of rural cuisine in the middle of downtown Seoul.

Done up like a mock countryside home, with plenty of wood, farm bric-a-brac, and paper lanterns, it has an intimate, unpretentious air, with patrons and prices to match.

The menu is heavy on healthy, largely organic choices like sanchae bibimbap (a mélange of rice, pepper paste, and vegetables) and boribap (a set meal with barley-infused rice as the centerpiece). Meals can be washed down with dongdongju, a creamy rice wine frequently enjoyed by the country’s farmers.

Congdu: Try this bean-centric restaurant for a healthy bibimbap livened by a savory soybean sauce.

Congdu

Seoul Museum of History, 2-1 Sinmun-no, Jongno-gu
02/722-7002

HOURS: Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.-10 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m.-7 p.m.
COST: Entrées ₩10,000-25,000
SUBWAY: Gwanghwamun (Line 5)

Museums aren’t generally known for fine dining, but Congdu has enchanted visitors since it opened its doors in the Seoul Museum of History in 2006.

Defining its cuisine as “new” Korean, the restaurant emphasizes fresh, organic, local produce, particularly soybeans or kong (hence the restaurant name), which take center stage in dishes like tofu seafood steak and doenjang bibimbap (rice mixed with savory soybean paste and vegetables).

Much like the venue, service is hushed and unobtrusive, and the expansive views of the museum’s grounds contribute further to Congdu’s serene air.

Korean Fried Chicken

Reggae Chicken: Perfectly cooked chicken in a flavorful batter is the specialty of this small but soulful restaurant near Hongik University.

Reggae Chicken

147-19 Donggyo-dong, Mapo-gu
02/333-3438

HOURS: Mon.-Thurs. 5 p.m.-2 a.m.,
Fri.-Sat. 5 p.m.-3 a.m.,
Sun. 5 p.m.-1 a.m.
COST: Entrées ₩10,000-25,000
SUBWAY: Hongik University (Line 2)

Run by some free-spirited flower-children types, Reggae Chicken is a temple to the blissed-out vibes and heady idealism of the 1960s and ’70s, from its psychedelic wall prints and cheerful staff to the roots reggae (naturally) that’s nearly always on the stereo.

But it doesn’t get by on warm feelings alone; it also whips up some of the tastiest fried chicken in Seoul, and in a city where there are chicken shops on nearly every block, that’s saying something.

Reggae Chicken’s specialty is coated in a delicious wine and curry-seasoned batter and accompanied by homemade salsa/dipping sauce, home fries, and onion rings. There’s also a good range of cold imported beers on offer.

Do arrive early if possible—with only a half dozen tables and a city-wide reputation this place tends to fill up fast.

Cheers: This Buam-dong chicken restaurant is justifiably lauded for its golden fried chicken served on a bed of crispy potatoes.

Cheers

258-3 Buam-dong, Jongno-gu
02/391-3566

HOURS: Mon.-Thurs. 2 p.m.-1 a.m., Fri.-Sun. noon-1 a.m.
COST: Entrées ₩10,000-25,000
SUBWAY: Gyeongbokgung (Line 3)

You can’t throw a rock in Seoul without hitting a fried chicken and draft beer joint, which are among locals’ favorite spots to socialize. So why do so many people flock to this particular one?

The lines to get in frequently extend down the block, patrons are forced to sit cheek to jowl, decor is nonexistent, and the service is pretty gruff, when you can get a server’s attention at all.

But then there’s the chicken—crisp, cooked with just the right amount of batter, and served in a heaping basket on a bed of delicious home fries, accompanied by an addictive sweet chili sauce. Wash it down with a couple of cold local beers and the buzz surrounding this place will make perfect sense.

Kalguksu

Myeongdong Gyoza: This restaurant’s hearty, garlic-heavy take on handmade wheat noodles in broth continues to draw crowds on a daily basis, and the fantastic kimchi (pickled cabbage) served as a side dish only adds to the attraction.

Myeongdong Gyoza

25-2 Myeong-dong 2-ga, Jung-gu
02/776-5348

HOURS: Daily 10:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
COST: Entrées less than ₩10,000
SUBWAY: Myeong-dong (Line 4)

Don’t expect much in the way of luxury, relaxation, or variety here—this perennially packed eatery has a vaguely assembly-line feeling and only a handful of items on the menu. But there’s a reason it draws such a large, diverse crowd.

Those few things it does—basically noodles and dumplings—it does exceptionally well, and at near rock-bottom prices. The kalguksu noodles are delightfully chewy and come swimming in a substantial beef broth, while the pork dumplings are the size of small fists and cooked to perfection.

If there’s a lineup to get in, and there probably will be, it’s worth the wait.

Samgyetang

Tosokchon: The ginseng chicken soup at this legendary restaurant, containing an entire small chicken stuffed with rice and ginseng and a rich broth with no fewer than 30 medicinal herbs, is a good cure for hunger and a lot of other things.

Tosokchon

85-1 Chebu-dong, Jongno-gu
02/737-7444

HOURS: Daily 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
COST: Entrées ₩10,000-25,000
SUBWAY: Gyeongbokgung (Line 3)

This rustic restaurant has been serving up samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup) for decades, amassing a reputation that’s seen it frequented by everyone from pop stars to presidents.

As in other samgyetang shops, Tosokchon’s version consists of an entire small chicken in a bubbling pot of soup, stuffed with glutinous rice and ginseng, but it’s distinguished by a rich broth made from over 30 ingredients, including many Chinese medicinal herbs.

Locals swear by this dish in the summertime, when it’s believed to restore a heat-drained body, but for those who can contend with occasional crowds and somewhat curt service it’s likely to prove therapeutic any time of year.

Mandu

Jaha Sonmandu: The little kimchi, pork, and vegetable-stuffed dumplings at this eatery not only look exquisite, they’re loaded with flavor.

Jaha Sonmandu

245-2 Buam-dong, Jongno-gu
tel. 02/379-2648

HOURS: Daily 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
COST: Entrées ₩10,000-25,000
SUBWAY: Gyeongbokgung (Line 3)

Setting, skill, and experience help this restaurant take the art of mandu (dumplings) to entirely new heights. Based in a bright, airy house with generous views over the laid-back Buam-dong neighborhood, Jaha Sonmandu basically only does dumplings, but does them exceptionally well—these are fresh, handmade bundles of goodness with taut skins and flavorful pork, scallion, or kimchi stuffing that are served steamed or in savory soups and stews.

Prices are a bit on the high side for these dishes, and service is frequently rushed—a byproduct of the restaurant’s enduring popularity. But the place fully deserves its city-wide renown, and the generous portions will satisfy all but the most severe hunger pangs.

Sundubu Jjigae

Cheongdam Sundubu: Have it your way at this Apgujeong-area restaurant, which serves multiple variations of this classic stew of silky tofu, egg, vegetables, and potent red pepper.

Cheongdam Sundubu

654-14 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu
02/545-4840

HOURS: Daily 24 hours
COST: Entrées less than ₩10,000
SUBWAY: Apgujeong (Line 3)

Tofu comes in all shapes and forms at this Apgujeong-area institution—pan fried, in salads, minced with beef and nuts—but the star of the show is sundubu, a rich, spicy stew of silky-soft tofu, egg, and vegetables in a chili-heavy broth.

Sundubu is typically made with a bit of seafood, such as clams or shrimp, but Cheongdam Sundubu has upped the ante by offering around a dozen different versions, incorporating everything from beef to curry and ham and cheese.

Note that despite the prevalence of bean curd very few items on the menu are actually vegetarian.

The decor and service here are pretty bare-bones, but the quality of the food can’t be faulted.

Dalkgalbi

Yooganae: If you can’t make it all the way to the city of Chuncheon, the hometown of this fiery but delicious medley of stir-fried chicken, vegetables, and a chili marinade, visit this Seoul-based dalkgalbi specialist.

Yooganae

62-1 Changcheon-dong, Seodaemun-gu
02/325-4655

HOURS: Daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
COST: Entrées ₩10,000-25,000
SUBWAY: Sinchon (Line 2)

This is the slick, polished Sinchon outlet of a nationwide chain that specializes in dalkgalbi, a tongue-numbing dish of chicken and vegetables in a potent pepper sauce that’s stir-fried on a hot plate at the diner’s table.

Dalkgalbi may be about the only thing on the menu, but there’s a surprising number of ways to introduce variety to the dish—optional additions include rice cakes, thick or thin noodles, sweet potato, even cheese topping.

Make sure to order rice near the end of the meal—the servers will mix it with what’s left on your hot plate and a few additional toppings, such as sesame leaves and seaweed, for a flavorful (and hearty) finish.

Tteokbokki

I Love Sindangdong Tteokbokki: You’ll love tteokbokki (rice cakes simmered in red pepper sauce) too if you stop by here for a taste of Korea’s spicy-sweet street food favorite, served with vegetables, fish cakes, and even cheese, fresh seafood, or extra chili on request.

I Love Sindangdong Tteokbokki

302-4 Sindang 1-dong, Jung-gu
02/2232-7872

HOURS: Daily 24 hours, but closed on the first and third Monday of each month
COST: Entrées less than ₩10,000
SUBWAY: Sindang (Lines 2, 6)

This sprawling eatery is the result of the merger of seven smaller restaurants that populated Sindang-dong Tteokbokki Town, an area specializing in (as the name implies), tteokbokki, a popular street snack of cylindrical rice cakes, fish sausage, and vegetables simmered in a sweet but fiery pepper sauce.

The district has been around for decades and there are other tteokbokki venues that are better-known or older, but none can compete with I Love Sindangdong Tteokbokki in terms of scale or variety.

In addition to the standard version of tteokbokki, the restaurant offers beef, seafood, cheese, and ultra-spicy variants, at low enough prices that enthusiasts can probably afford to sample all of them. A laid-back, festive atmosphere is cultivated further by regular retro DJ sets and live guitar performances.


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Seoul.

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