by Tyler Cowen
on September 28, 2012 at 2:38 pm
Maybe Alex’s request wasn’t quite specific enough. Where should I (we) eat in Seoul, and what should we order? What are the general principles for finding good food in Korea, Busan included? Your assistance is much appreciated.
get the tasting menu
Has a newly opened New York City branch that is the new inside spot for diehard meat-eaters and Koreans.
oh, wow-will check it out next time i’m in nyc! that’s the best food i had in seoul, was taken there by locals! each dish was fantastic.
“What are the general principles for finding good food in Korea, Busan included?”
Stay south of the 38th Parallel. The restaurants north of there are the pits…
Where is my “like” button?
The first night we were there we went into some random restaurant. I couldn’t read anything so I randomly pointed to something. It was good.
After a week though, I had to make a KFC run. I can only handle so much rice and kimchi.
Koreans make some greatly superior fried chicken you should have tried Bon Chon.
There is an amazing chain of Korean barbeque restaurants, called “Saemaul Shikdang” (새마을식당) which has branches all over Seoul. It’s fairly no frills, but has absolutely fantastic spicy pork bulgogi, salted pork shoulder, and kimchi stew and I’d heartily recommend all three. The value is also much better than other grill restaurants you’ll find commonly recommended.
When my wife and I lived in Seoul (worked as an Econ officer at the embassy) we routinely went to Saemaul Shikdang and always took our visitors there. In order to find the branch nearest you, just enter the name (“새마을식당” in Hangul) into Google maps. I’ve heard there are more than 200 locations in Seoul alone but that number is apocryphal.
are you two a couple? not that there is anything wrong with that.
I’ve never been to Korea, but my favorite korean dishes are: Kalbi Tang (beef short rib soup) and Panjun (korean seafood pancake). I like their stews and soups in general.
You’re going to Busan? I used to live there and from what I remember (although things are constantly changing around there) the far end of Gwangan beach has a lot of sishimi places or you could go to Jugalchi fish market. I used to go to a BBQ place in Haeundae right near my old apartment called An-Ga it was really good.
For Seoul, I’m less familiar but http://www.seouleats.com/ has a lot of restaurant reviews.
But the thing is in general most of the restaurants are good (except for those Gimbap Heaven places I never went to a BAD Korean restaurant in Korea) and in my opinion a lot better than the Korean food you general find in North America. If you aren’t worried about spending you should probably find a good place for Korean beef Galbi (as the higher price places also usually serve a much better selection of Banchan which is really the big difference between Korean food in Korea vs. the US).
If you are planning on exploring some of the nightlife areas you don’t need to worry too much about a specific restaurant – these areas will literally be jam packed with BBQ and other restaurants so just have a look at what seems good. The most common BBQ is pork belly (saymgupsal) and it’s usually cheap and quite good with a few bottles of soju. You should also find some places that specialize in serving meals consisting of various banchan (those are usually the most interesting) – try finding a quality place that serves makali and pajeon for a snack or light meal. Koreans always eat when they drink so any Korean bar also has a fairly substantial menu (some better than others).
Keep in mind that except for touristy areas in Seoul restaurants won’t have English menus (like I know even in China they usually had english menus at many places but for some reason not in Korea). Also most restaurants tend to specialize in a couple of dishes so you kind of have to go with the flow if you happen to sit down somewhere.
Definitely the giant sashimi complex at the end of Gwang ali beach. It’s two giant 12 story buildings. Pretty hard to miss.
Hae mul Tang at Busan fish market. You can choose your own crab, shells, etc. It is more expensive and not as good as some hole in the wall place, but the experience is more fun. I ate whale at the Busan fish market one time. One time…
Any of the grilled meats are worth while. Just because they are cheap and for the flowing liquor. I recommend the sirloin. Regular sam gyup sal is massively over rated, it’s still better than any of the cheap cuts slathered in corn syrup, though. Grilled; smoked duck, smoked sam gyup sal, sirloin (usually imported of Aus or the US), han-woo (Korean beef), scallops and other clams,
Don’t go anywhere recommended by a young Korean person (under 40). You will end up with bibimbap or some chintzy fly by night but highly fashionable joint. “Korean food is very spicy”, “I will get you a fork” etc will be a constant refrain. Anyone over 50 will take you somewhere good, in all likely hood.
Any of the traditional styled soup places are amazing. Chu-oh tang is one of my favorite foods, let alone traditional Korean soup. You will end up with dwen jang jigae and Kimchi jigae at some point, regardless of where you eat. People quite often order them after dinner at one of the afore-mentioned places.
As with all foreign country eating experiences, your most memorable meals will be the least expected and least hyped ones.
A lot of Westerners seem to enjoy Korean-Chinese. Not my bag as I abhor Chinese, but might be worth a try. Don’t have a specific recommendation.
Jjajang myun (Korean style black bean sauce “Chinese” noodles) is horrible. Avoid at all costs.
I recommend Bistro Seoul (Gangnum) and Doore (Insadong). Bistro Seoul is an upscale, westernized version of Korean food. Doore is traditional Korean. I ate at both during my stay in Korea this past May.
I also recommend downloading an episode from the Kimchi Chronicles (public television show on food and culture in Korea). I would download “The Seoul Food Chronicles” episode which provides a summary of what the host recommends in Seoul.
“The Seoul Food Chronicles” on YouTube:
What to avoid: The only times I’ve had bad food in Korea is when I went places specializing in something else. There is your now classic example of “avoid places with pretty people having a good time.” But there are also other cases such as “This place serves European/American beer” where the food quality was noticeably worse. I didn’t notice them getting foods of other ethnicities very right at all, so stick to various versions of korean food.
Yeah – young Korean women like going out for pizza and pasta but the Korean take on these dishes is an utter disaster just avoid anywhere that serves non-Korean or Japanese food. Nowadays there are foreign chefs opening legitimate French and Italian restaurants in Seoul but I’m sure they’re expensive (even by US standards) and I assume you want Korean food so why bother?
It sounds crazy, but the quality of the options at the Lotte department store is very impressive. There is one right downtown close to city hall. Almost everything I tried there was delicious and while not cheap, fairly affordable. The best part is the diversity of options. One of the pleasures of the trip was getting to shop around and look at all the selections before choosing something–most of it is just for display, they make yours fresh when you order. It kind of reminded me of the outdoor food malls in Southeast Asia, but with a/c.
I cannot comment on the Lotte Department store, but we did eat at the Shinsegae Department Store in Busan (world’s largest department store). It was a spiffy place with tons of options, and the only bad food we ate in Korea. I would run away form Department store food. Too many other interesting places to eat, and if we weren’t stuck in a huge storm, we wouldn’t have stayed. If you find yourself hungry in a department store, grab something to tide you over and get the heck out.
I am from Busan. I think the very traditional style of dining may be a bit hard for you since it requires sitting on floor rather than on chair. If I were taking American friends out, I would bring them to restaurants in a mall. I recommend this place in Busan (http://english.shinsegae.com/english/dept/dept_store.asp?STORE_CD=16). There are restaurants on the 9th floor, on the 4th floor, and in the basement (prices increase with altitude). It is very easy to get there using public transportation.
If you want exotic experience, I recommend that you visit markets. Two interesting markets are (http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SI/SI_EN_3_1_1_1.jsp?cid=264168) and (http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SH/whereToShop/whereToShop.jsp?action=about&cid=997641). These are accessible by public transportation as well.
Unlike Seoul, Busan has a simple subway network so I do not expect you to encounter difficulties with it. Buses are a different story (some bus drivers will give you a roller coaster ride). People may get intimidated if you ask them questions in English (not all of them speak well enough to give directions etc), but they will generally try their best to assist you (expect lots of body movements).
Im living in Busan and here are some dishes you may like
1. samgaetang- chicken soup with ginseng broth
2. bibimbap- mixed vegetables and rice with an egg, beef, or fish (you can order it without the spicy pepper sauce~ just say ” go-chu-jang bae-go ju-sey-yo”
3. Seollungtang- a beef soup with noodles and rice
4. Galbitang- another type of beef soup
5. Sundubu soup- a spicy tofu stew with egg or meat (a favorite of mine)
6. Sundae soup- pig intestine soup (another favorite of mine)
If you feel adventurous, rumor has it they can cook up some delicious canine!
Here are some more;
Bulgogi(marinated beef), galbi (marinated ribs), mulnaengmyun (buckwheat or rice noodles in water), daegutang(cod soup- there is a great restaurant in the haeundae area that serves excellent daegutang)
If at any point you are looking for something other than Korean food, try the new fish n’ chips place in Sinchon, Battered Sole. It’s a brand new place, run by a couple of young Brits looking to make their mark.
Check out Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations about his trip to Korea. My half-Korean wife was enthralled (meaning it has to be at least half authentic, I guess).
In Busan, the seafood is the best. (You can get good galbi, bulgogi, & bbq, in the U.S.) Try to have roasted shell fish (jo gae gu ee). It’s often cooked in a large shell at your table. There are places near the Jagalchi Fish market. But I’ve had both great and mediocre there, so use your antennae. I also recommend having mool hweh, a cold raw fish stew in a red peppery broth. I can give specific info on a location in a later post. And if you have local hosts, have them take you to Gi Jang, 10-15 minutes outside of Busan, for crab. It’s the big crabs, sometimes called coral crabs, and the restaurant does all the cleaning.
The mool hweh place is called Pohang hweh gwan. It’s in the Yeonsan-dong area of Busan, which you can get to via subway line 1. The actual address is 1127-28 yeonsan 5dong, yeonjaegu.
I lived in Seoul for six years.
On your question on the general principles of finding good food in Seoul, clusters of restaurants that specialize in the same dish are scattered in neighborhoods around the city. For example, Mugyo-dong in central Gangbuk has a number of restaurants that serve octopus slathered in hot sauce (nakji-bokkum). Shinsa-dong across the river specializes in raw crabs preserved in soy sauce (ganjang gejang). And Shindang-dong has a number of restaurants that serve rice cakes in hot sauce (ddeokbokkee). One cannot go too wrong by traveling to that neighborhood and walking into any restaurant.
As for specific recommendations: Korea has a wide variety of edible flora, the “namool.” My favorite was Deemeebang in Insadong; it is a bit tucked away but definitely worth it if you are interested in sampling a wide variety of local vegetable dishes. Ordering there is easy–just choose the set menu that fits your appetite and price range.
Korea has plenty of options for marinated beef dishes, but if you enjoy beef for beef’s sake, I suggest Bamboo House in Gangnam. Yes, there are beautiful people there, and yes, they are having a good time, but I’ve yet to find such marbled sirloin like that anywhere else.
In the evenings, be sure to go to a pojangmacha: these are the temporary restaurants that are little more than a truck with a tarpaulin stretched over. There will be one on the street near your hotel. The trucks usually specialize in one or two items, so order what the other patrons are having. Though my first order of silkworms (beondaegee) at a pojangmacha was on a dare, over time it became my favorite item.
The others are right about jagalchi-shijang in Busan–be sure to go. The fish is excellent. In addition to raw fish, the Busan natives like to have a fugu (blowfish) stew that is not spicy (bok-jiri). I thought the stew as a little bland and always asked them to add some pepper flakes.
If you would like to sample some dog, I have a recommendation.
Although I can’t recommend a specific place to eat this dish, I highly recommend that you ask around and find a good place to eat Sannakji (live squid tentacles). It’s an unforgettable dish — an interesting experience, and also very delicious when dipped in sesame. You can look up videos on youtube.
The chain “BBQ Chicken” is the best fried chicken I’ve ever had, anywhere. Ask around–Koreans LOVE fried chicken (at least 3-4 joints in every neighborhood).
Kyochon sucks, though.
Try gopchang, sounds disgusting but it’s great with soju:
Also, for drinking, if you don’t like the taste of soju (which you will inevitably be offered), try Chung Ha (hangul: 청하) or makkeolli instead. Chung ha is like a cheaper version of sake, but I actually prefer the taste.
The absolute best beef (and kimchi) in the world is served at a small Korean bbq place in Itaewon. Looks like a complete hole-in-the-wall but is actually quite famous. Unfortunately it’s a bit hard to find. The name is Itaewon Sootboll Galbi (literally Itaewon Charcoal BBQ) – see if you can get a Seoulite to direct you there. Otherwise you might be be able to find it by going to Itaewon and asking around – it’s off of the main drag on a side street, which you can find by going to a well-known cafe called Standing Coffee. Your best bet is to get your hotel to direct a taxi there for you. Good luck – it’s worth the hunt!
I recommend Ahn’s Kettle House on Hooker Hill, in Itaewon. Best cheese ramyun in town.
dried seaweed, available as a side dish or a (possibly spicy or flavored) pack in convenience stores
bibimbap – stone rice hot pot w/ meat and egg
if its hot, get the noodle soup with chunks of ice floating in it
Avoid all the BBQ stuff.
Eat like a peasant – doen jang jige ( fermented soy paste, tofu, clams, zucchini, onions, chiles, etc) – best stuff on earth. And also not bibimpap please but dolsot bibimbap – made in a hot stone pot. Maybe a scallion pancake or two
These dishes will do you well,
Check out this back alley food tour. It is very very good hitting a variety of places frequented by Koreans
Sorry! The link is: http://www.ongofood.com/taste-tour/
What does a vegetarian eat in Korea?
Mapo in central Seoul is known for its pork. Try Jeong Dae-po (no English menu but it’s a very limited menu — you can get marinated pork (dwaeji galbi) or plain pork belly (samgyeopsal), and indicate how many people’s worth you want): http://bit.ly/UAzDem
Well, Busan is a harbor city and people would recommend seafood. I oppose it (AA theorem). In Busan, I would recommend the food from North Korea as many refugees stayed there after the war was over. They have a version of NangMyun, called Mill Myun, which is quite interesting, and Pig Stew, both of which can be traced back to people from the North. KkongJangOh and fuku would be very ethnic food experience in Busan.
In Seoul, it depends on where you are staying. The conference hotel, which you are probably staying, is pretty far from the areas with good restaurants. So you will probably need to travel for about 30 min, depending on traffic (I recommend avoiding the rush hour as much as possible). In KangNam district, try to go to DoSan Park area, which offers excellent dining experience. For traditional bbq, I recommend SoPoong (nearby DoSan Park), which is not known to many but I find it to be the best (in terms of meat quality – only offers a limited number of dishes, which is always good sign). For pork, I go to a place called KeoMeong, which offers the pork from JeJu island – known to offer the best port in Korea. There is another place called NonHyunDong PyungYangMyunOak, which offers bulgogi, Naemyung, and OhBokJaengBan – I am not recommending WooRaeWok as they have several branches in US (yet, WooRaeWok is quite different from the ones in US). All of them are near DoSan Park.
In old district, there is HaDOngKwan which is famous for Korean style stew – GomTang. ShinJeong in Myongdong is quite famous for ShabuShabu along with own duck dish.
Well, I would avoid Itaewon as much as possible. It is the place where lots of foreigners go but it is actually place to eat American and others, not Korean.
Usual rule is not to go to the restaurant that offers a huge menu, just like many Korean restaurants in US. Try something unique and specialized restaurants and those who have stayed in business quite awhile. Ah! Try seafood market in NoRyangJin in very early morning (you will be up anyway from the jetlag. It is a Korean version of Tsukiji market in Japan.
Good luck and eat lots of interesting food that you cannot find in Annandale and US.
I live in New York and spent a couple of years in Beijing. I was in Seoul for a week around a friend’s wedding and spent as much time as I could foraging for food. First, check out http://www.seouleats.com. A couple of personal suggestions.
1. Stuffed Roast Duck—A small place in Hannam Dong (where you probably won’t otherwise go), recommended by the blogger behind Seoul Eats. Principal dish is roast duck stuffed with ginko, rice, raisins and other beans, paired with a mustard and salt for dipping. Cross-culturally mindblowing, as you can tell from the following: http://happylunatic.blogspot.com/2009/05/paul-ajosshi-gets-jiggy-with-fowl.html and http://www.fatmanseoul.com/2009/05/27/a-deliciously-fowl-dish-in-hannam-dong/ Make sure to call for reservations.
2. Myeongdong Kalguksa (mentioned by Peter Webber (above))—Classic place for chicken dumpling soup. Everyone knows it.
3. Noryangjin Fish Market—I’ve never been to tsukiji, but this was pretty cool. You negotiate for a fish, then bring it to a restaurant on the second level overlooking the market. They can prepare as sushi and/or in a soup. People seem to eat it with copius amounts of soju or beer.
It’s fun to walk up in Samcheongdong. I went to a good noodle place, Nunnamujip (http://hiexpat.com/seoul-restaurants/nunnamujip), and a little topokki place up there. Also had fantastic bibimbop (with various greens, rather than in a hot stone pot, from a stand in the Dongdaemon market (which is amazing in its own right).
The best restaurant I’ve experienced in Seoul is the Ehwa Restaurant, 이화 at 302-162 Ichon 1(il)-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, South Korea. The phone number is 792 1577. It is near the river and not far from the National Museum of Korea (a very worthwhile place to visit). The National Museum uses it for important guests. It is about 5 blocks (2 west and 3 south) from the Ichon Subway stop. (It has no connection with the Ehwa University.) I recall the cost as being in the $50-60 range with beer. It is about a $10 cab ride from downtown Seoul. Most of the rooms have sit on the floor seating but one room has western style tables and chairs–but call in advance to make sure it is available. The Jap-chae is the best I’ve had anywhere (I always ask for a second helping).
In KangNam district, try to go to DoSan Park area, which offers excellent dining experience.
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