Who says Korean dishes are all the same? For those who didn’t pay attention – Korean cuisine has a nice and exciting diversity, and it’s constantly evolving and creating trends from traditional Kimchi, Tteokbokki 떡볶이 (spicy rice cakes), and Bibimbap 비빔밥 – no, the country offers much more than that. So I explored different alleys and districts, a.k.a. – ‘dong’s, (‘neighborhood’ in Korea representing a sub-municipal level administrative unit), and you might be pleasantly surprised by the “yummy-licious” experience!
I have also put the subway station number with each title so you know where to look for it. (just in case the spiderweb-like Seoul subway is too complicated to navigate.
Gangnam-gu Office (#730)
Fine dining at a Michelin Star Restaurant
Starting off with an up-scale fine-dining experience in Seoul and I was brought there by my friend @ MUOKi. This is a MICHELIN Guide Restaurant and I was introduced to innovative dishes from their tasting menu. I enjoyed the high chair at the bar and we can see how the kitchen works and how our dishes were made under the supervision of chef James. Insider’s tip, make a reservation for lunch as it’s usually less crowded, and they offer practically the same menu with dinner but priced less.
There are a number of modern fine-dining restaurants in the city, and check out the Michelin guide or Asia Best Restaurant for the most updated info!
- Michelin 3 Stars: La Yeon, Gaon
- Michelin 2 Stars: Jung Sik, Mingles, L-Impression, Alla Prima, Kwon Sook Soo
- Michelin 1 Star: BICENA
On the other side of the Han River, Sinsa-dong is a trendy and hip 700m walking street for trendsetters and fashionistas. Fashion labels, outlets, cafes, bakeries, and flagship stores could be found on both sides of the street. ELBON the Table was an interesting 3-story concept store on the north end of the street featuring western dishes with a twist. The day that I was there I had a pretty nice three-course lunch (the highlight is the chocolate dessert!). A place for the adventurous mind!
Deux Cremes – A popular bakery in Sinsa-dong, fruit tarts in many different flavors like banana, strawberry, blueberry, cranberry, and grapes….
Itaewon doesn’t look like Korea at all. Many foreigners stay here and it felt as if I was in L.A. or Sydney. Itaewon is also an area for a fun night out: lots of bars, clubs, discos, salons, and jjimjilbang (Korean traditional bathhouse)… Itaewon could be so crowded all night long on the weekends that traffic could be still busy at 4 am in the morning.
Itaewon, however, looks quite different in the day. There are many restaurants serving international dishes including cuisine from India, Pakistan, Turkey, Thailand, Indonesia, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, and Mexico.
Cafe in Seoul
You may or may not know, coffee is in Korean everyday life. There are over about 90,000 coffee shops in Seoul as of 2022. In terms of coffee shops per capita, this number is even higher than in places like Seattle or San Francisco!
Yeonnam dong, Hongdae (#239)
We were in Seoul during Christmas and it was minus seventeen degrees outside. Looking for a place to get warmed up with a nice cup of coffee, we headed to Antique Coffee and we were pleasantly surprised. The cafe is located in Yeonnam-dong within walking distance from Hongik University Station (Hongdae), serving their signature dirty cream coffee with dirty heavy butter pastry that makes every diner’s mouth water.
The cafe has a retro interior and the variety of pastries in Antique Coffee is enchanting. From chocolate, strawberry, to macha. The only problem that we had was which one to choose and how to burn all the calories after we visit.
We had some time to kill before dinner and so we were strolling in one of the alleys behind Hamilton Hotel (a popular meeting point at Itaewon) and found Bruworks Nitro Coffee. That’s right, Nitro coffee is nothing new. Nitro Coffee is a coffee infused with nitrogen gas, which makes it creamier and richer than straight-up iced coffee. I love it! Nitro Coffee is available in a lot of cafes (as if we need more cafes in Seoul – South Korea is one of the biggest coffee markets in the world), but not a lot of them are authentic. First off, I don’t think Nitro coffee should be mixed with ice, but some places do. Luckily, the Nitro Coffee that we had in Itaewon was amazing!
Express Bus Terminal (#339 / 734 / 923)
Starbucks at Famille Park
It’s “the most beautiful Starbucks in Seoul“, and you will soon find out why. The dome marks the 800th store (yes! Eight Hundred!) in South Korea, and Starbucks Famille Park welcomes visitor to enjoy a cup of coffee in an “urban coffee forest” – the interios make use of eco-friendly materials including burlap bags. Coffee trees are also planted in the store, offering a serene and chill environment.
The outside of this Starbucks branch is a dome-shaped geometric structure and it’s the most magical location you’ll find in South KoreaOnce you walk in and see artificial birds fluttering towards the glass-domed ceiling, you may not even recognize that this is actually a Starbucks. To me, the wood colors, earthy tone, comfortable couches, and warm lighting does has some resemblence to Starbucks’s coffee vibe.
Gogigui 고기 그리 (Korean Barbecue – Beef)
We had a date with a friend in Seoul yet she told me she hadn’t been to Maple Tree House before. It is ranked #17 on TripAdvisor out of 120,940 Restaurants in Seoul.
If you would like to try Korean BBQ at Maple Tree House, it’s better for you to make reservations because it could be crowded during peak hours. 🙂
To be honest, barbecue beef is always one of my favorite dishes and I could have it all day every day if I can. Maple Tree House has quite a lot of choices and I would definitely come back in the future when I am in Seoul!
Dak Galbi 막 갈비 (Spicy Chicken Stir Fry)
Hyehwa is an area close to Dongdaemun, which is commonly known as Daehangno. Since the Seoul National University Yangon campus is nearby, the area has an exciting shopping scene and dining alleys, and vibrant nightlife.
But that day we were looking for Chicken Galbi. Dak-galbi, or spicy stir-fried chicken, is a popular Korean dish made by stir-frying marinated diced chicken (on a sizzling hot pan at the table) in a gochujang-based sauce with sweet potatoes, cabbage, perilla leaves, scallions, tteok, and other ingredients. To me, it tastes the BEST with cheese, and never, never, skip the cheese. It is also a habit for Koreans to add rice to the pot after the chicken is finished.
Address: 8 Myeongdong 4-gil, Myeongdong 2(i)-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Phone: +82 2-3789-2492
For this one, it’s very secretive.
Seashell hot pot
GDTONG makes a great seashell hot pot and that place is popular among not only tourists but the locals. It used to be near the busy Konkuk University district (which is a popular shopping area for the locals), and then just when we finished shopping, we realized that the restaurant has moved to Nonhyeon! I particularly like the clear soup base and the taste of the soup, while they do not have a variety of choices on their menu but fish balls, noodles, or seashells to add to the hot pot.
Address: 143-26 Nonhyeon-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Chimaek 치맥, Chi-Mc! (Fried Chicken and Beer)
Not everyone knows Chi-Mc, or “Chimaek” – a.k.a. fried chicken and beer is a popular South Korean supper snack until the hit TV show My Love from the Star slew millions of super fans in entire East Asia a couple of years ago. As a result, the demand for chicken shops up-surged tremendously across the country.
Dongdaemun is a paradise for the young and hip. Not only do the trendy fashion malls offer an overwhelming diversity of clothing from the high-end to the low-end, but also the shopping malls are open 24/7 to ensure visitors have more time to shop and less time to sleep. Across the landmark Doota!, DDP (Read more: Dongdaemun Design Plaza) is a modern, multi-purpose development project designed by the late architect Zaha Hadid; I was there visiting some temporary exhibitions in DDP and was looking for food in its underground mall afterward. There was a hot pot restaurant that was quite funky. Each diner has its own pot and a plate of meat. More, they could grab vegetables, other hot dishes, desserts, and unlimited Chi-Mc at the buffet bar. Nice! I reckon it’s a good place for one, or a group of friends.
Patbingsu 팥빙수 (Shaved Ice)
What is patbingsu? In Korean, “Bingsu” means shaved ice, and “Pat” means red bean. The word, literally, is “red bean shaved ice”. While shaved ice isn’t new to food lovers, South Korea’s shaved ice has its own unique taste and style.
A traditional patbingsu consists of fine and soft shredded ice with red bean paste (pat) and condensed milk; Today, the dessert is served with various exciting toppings that include seasonal fruits, azuki beans, tteok, yogurt, matcha sauce, sometimes with a scoop of ice cream! Having a bowl of patbingsu is a popular culture among locals and it is spreading to the rest of Asia. There are many patbingsu shops in Seoul, especially Dongdaemun, Insa-dong, Myeong-Dong, and Itaewon.
As for me, my favorite patbingsu is still the traditional kind, the soft texture of red bean and condensed milk complement each other, and the sweetness is softened by the cooling ice. Not only the dessert tastes great and is presented with colorful toppings, but also fun sharing a bowl of ice with a group of friends after a fun night out and dinner!
Address: 18-9 Euljiro 6(yuk)-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Juk 죽 (Porridge)
Insa-dong is definitely the neighborhood for tourists looking for a souvenir. The entire street is filled with traditional Korean gifts from handicrafts, tea leaves, handkerchiefs, books, and accessories… to designer products. It’s almost impossible to not find something nice for a friend or a loved one at home. In the quest for a perfect souvenir(s), I found that Insa-dong has also quite a few nice restaurants with Korean-style tea and juk (porridge).
Yes, The Korean recipe for making tea and porridge is traditionally made for well-being, nourishing, or even healing. To me, porridge is a healthy, but tasty comfort food to cleanse my body after a huge Korean barbecue party the night before, and a white fish and veggie porridge could do it for me just right. Other tasty choices would be Abalone porridge, crab porridge, and chicken porridge…. The possibility is countless!
More Korean tea houses are everywhere in Seoul as well…
Gaesung Mandu – Koong
Address: 30-11, Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Phone: +82 2-733-9240
Korean tea is a beverage that has a wide variety of recipes that does not limit to a hot and comforting brew of tea leaves, but other ingredients that have medicinal and healing abilities.
The origin of Korean tea dated back to the 6th century, from the Buddhist temples in Korea like Bulgapsa and Hwaeomsa. These are the birthplace of Korean tea culture and they developed a unique tea offering ritual as a practice to show their hospitality to important guests.
The tradition of serving tea spread widely between the 14th and early 20th centuries; While the practices were usually performed in ceremonies or events, the locals began to use tea for healing and health purposes. The recipes diversified from the common green tea, black tea, and barley tea, to beverage teas that include flowers, fruits, roots, and herbs. Ssanghwa-cha is a classic Korean tea that has a number of ingredients from Chinese medicines: cinnamon bark, angelica roots, Chinese licorice, lotus seeds, gooseberries, and sometimes with egg yolk.
Tourists can easily find a traditional house in Insa-dong, and a hot Ssanghwa-cha is a perfect drink to get warm during winter.
Ganjang Gejang 게장 (Marinated Raw Crabs)
Close to the Bukchon Hanok Village (or the North Village, a Korean traditional village), Anguk-dong is a relatively quiet neighborhood without tall buildings, carefully preserved traditional houses, and mindfully decorated shops and cafes. Walking uphill visitors could enjoy a nice view of the city’s skyline, and find homestays in traditional Korean houses.
After a 15-20 minute walk from the Anguk subway station, I was searching for Ganjang Gejang (Raw Crabs Marinated in Soy Sauce), and one of the best places to eat Ganjang Gejang, is in Anguk. It was an old-fashioned dining place where diners had to kneel by the table eating. But who cares?! The crab is simply amazing! Tomalley (crab fat) and roe are commonly nicknamed the “rice thief” as it arouses one’s appetite and one would consume a bowl of rice with the crab without noticing.
Another great place is the Ganjang Gejang Alley in Sinsa-dong, which is just a few minutes away from subway exit 4. There are a few places that are popular, and Wonjo Masan is one of the most crowded. The crabs are a bit salty but it tastes much better with a bowl of rice 😛
Places in Sinsa-dong’s Ganjang Gejang Alley:
- Masan Halmae Ganjang Gejang (마산할매간장게장)
- Bangbaksa Agwi Jjim (방박사아구찜)
- Wonjo Masan Agwi Jjim (원조마산아구찜)
- Mokpohang (목포항)
- Seobaekja Pro Ganjang Gejang (서백자프로간장게장)
- Ttungi-ne Pro Ganjang Gejang (뚱이네프로간장게장)
- Pro Ganjang Gejang (프로간장게장)
Yangjae (#342) and Hoehyeon (#425)
Jokbal 족발 (Pig Trotter)
Jokbal is a Korean dish of pig’s trotters cooked with soy sauce and spices. (Super yummy) It is usually braised in a combination of soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and rice wine. I love anything wrapped in lettuce and the trotters taste even better wrapped with miso sauce. It is kind of a “celebration” food for a group of people to enjoy (while drinking). I was brought to two different places for Jokbal and they are both great. One is in Yangjae, and a local friend told me the Young Dong Jokbal is actually famous among the locals.
For the other place, we ventured to the Namdaemun market, pretty close to Hoehyeon station), and I was told the Jokbal there is highly recommended. True, I did like the “delicacy” in some of the places there and I also enjoyed a lot the convenience of shopping for local groceries, snacks, and products in the market before on my way looking for the place!
Young Dong Jokbal 영동족발
Address: 1-8, Yangjae-dong, Seocho-gu, Seoul
Phone: +82 2-575-0250
Sinseol-dong (#126 / 211-4)
Gogigui 고기구이 (Korean Barbecue – Pork)
Love Korean Barbecue. For pork, you have to have visited a local joint – the Yukjeon Sikdang. This is the most popular among the locals, and a long waiting line could be seen in the evening as early as 5 pm. I had to wait for about 30 minutes for a table (luckily, they have a waiting room upstairs of the restaurant and you could chill before getting a table), and it was totally worth it. Choose 150g or 200g of 4 kinds of premium porks; the servers will handle the rest, I ordered 3 kinds of 150g pork so I could have a taste of everything.
The pork was so good (and I stayed nearby) that a local friend of mine brought me there again the other night. The restaurant closes at midnight and it’s still very crowded at 10 pm – so you know just how good it is 🙂
Click here to Explore the Lesser-known Neighborhoods in Seoul
Address: 16 Nangye-ro 30-gil, Yongsin-dong, Dongdaemun-gu, Seoul
Phone: +82 2-2253-6373
Gogigui (literally, the ‘roasting meat’) is grilling a table of marinated beef, pork, chicken, or other meats over charcoal (or nowadays, gas). There are many places doing that and it depends on your style: whether doing it freely with a big pile of meat at a very low price, or grilling meat in a perfectly clean environment with class and style.
For the former style, try Majang Meat Market at Majang-dong. The upside of shopping in Korean markets is that shoppers may not only shop for food there but there are a kitchen and restaurants for them to eat there. In this case, it makes the shopping and the cooking process much easier because the diners grill the meat themselves. More, it’s possible to order a large meat platter of Hanwoo (Korean beef) grade A++ beef at a very low price! Yummylicious!