It’s not easy to tell people about what I ate during my stays in Korea. This is mostly because I can’t read Hangul and I don’t speak Korean beyond a few words that I picked up, which I’m sure I don’t pronounce well. But the Korean food I ate was delicious.
On my second trip to Seoul, I was with my parents and staying in a more tourist-friendly neighborhood. Because I was with my parents, I wasn’t eating street food or using the point and pray method of ordering off a menu that I couldn’t read. In fact, I was able to dine in Korean restaurants with menus that were usually translated, sometimes with accurate translations.
Of course, there were a few meals I ate without my parents. Most of the restaurants I found had no Romanized names, so I can’t recommend them because I have no idea where exactly they were.
Introducing Traditional Korean Food
I had to introduce my parents to a few foods that I enjoyed on my first trip.
I wanted to try the best ginseng chicken soup (samgyetang) in Seoul, and I figured my parents would enjoy it as well. A little searching brought me to Tosokchon near Gyeongbokgung Palace. This traditional-style restaurant came highly recommended, and fortunately it was included in Maps.Me offline maps, so I could find my way through the neighborhood without getting lost when hungry and tired (also I wouldn’t have recognized the restaurant from just looking at it).
The specialty at Tosokchon is ginseng black chicken soup. It’s the same as the regular soup but with black chicken. It tastes the same and I have no idea if it’s healthier in any way.
I had tried ginseng chicken soup my first time in Seoul, but it definitely wasn’t at a restaurant as good as Tosokchon. For one thing, there was more in the bowl this time, and I don’t just mean the chicken. It’s stuffed with rice, ginseng, garlic, and jujube.
The chicken is boiled to the point of falling apart and the skin practically melts. It has a texture like silk as it falls off the meat. This is a delicious meal at any time of year, but it is served still boiling in a stone pot, so it took a while before I could start eating.
Much of our meals were in the Bukchon and Insa-dong areas of Seoul, which were near our hotel. These areas are touristy, but there are still some impressive restaurants down the alleys.
One of the more interesting restaurants we found was a Jeju establishment that served makgeolli in buckets with a ladle (it was much more to drink than I expected). It was a quiet rustic-style restaurant with friendly staff that tried to help us order despite the language barrier.
The best dish we had at the Jeju restaurant was buldak, a huge plate of spicy chicken and kimchi covered in melted cheese. The spicy sauce is thick and blends wonderfully with the cheese. I know it’s not a traditional Korean dish, but it is amazing.
The most impressive restaurant we tried was 두대문집 (no Romanized name) in Insa-dong. The ambiance of this restaurant is wonderful — it’s a blend of modern and traditional styles and looks amazing. This is one of the restaurants in the touristy area worth going to. This is where I tried ssambap — bean paste grilled pork with rice balls wrapped in lettuce. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I ordered it, but I was definitely happy with my choice.
Of course, I also had to show my parents the open market near the apartment I rented for two months a couple years before. We dined on fried flounder and the best fried chicken in the world. My parents weren’t fans of the dirty stools at the counter though.
Too food much for two
One of the most interesting meals I had this time around was again with my former coworker who found enough time in her busy schedule to meet up for dinner. She had found a restaurant in the touristy Bukchon neighborhood that she was willing to eat at — she claimed that the food in the area wasn’t good enough for Koreans.
It was a pleasant, quiet restaurant with a traditional setup. We sat on cushions on a platform with a low table. This was not something my parents would have done. And then we ordered the set meal for two.
As the dishes began arriving at our table, I wondered if anyone was going to be joining us. Or perhaps my friend had an abnormally large stomach, which was unlikely. Or maybe the staff got the order wrong and gave us a meal for twelve. There were the usual little appetizers, bulgogi, noodles, soup, and who-could-remember-so-many-foods-because-there-were-twenty-plates-on-the-table. It got to the point that I just stopped asking, “What is this?” I think we ate about a third of what was served and I was beyond stuffed.
I probably should’ve brought some of the leftovers back to my hotel room — there was a kitchen in the room. As it was, I encouraged my former coworker to take some home, but she didn’t want to.
All the other food in Seoul
There were other meals that were great, but I didn’t take photos of everything. Sometimes it was just too tempting to dive right into the meal.
Most of the meals were some form of spicy squid because it’s difficult to pass up spicy squid on the menu, especially when Korea makes it so well. There was so much I wanted to order, but my stomach was just drawn to these delicious dishes. There was, however, the occasional meal of pork and kimchi to change things up.
There are a lot of great reasons to visit Seoul, but I’m convinced that the best reason is the food.