I’ve been writing about Korean food in Seoul since 2004 at ZenKimchi. I’ve consulted Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern, Lonely Planet, Conde Nast Traveler, The Travel Channel, and other world media in finding the must eat Korean foods.
Here’s the ultimate list. These are foods you can find specific restaurants for. I’m not including foods that you’d find as side dishes, like Japchae and Kimchi.
This list is getting so hyuuuge that I’m dividing it into Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced. Beginner is if you’re new to Korean food, or if it’s your first time in Korea. These are also the foods that are crowd pleasers–the greatest hits. The Top-40 music of Korean food.
The first must-eat Korean food that springs to mind. Cooking meat at your table and wrapping it in lettuce. There’s something primal about that. Korean BBQ is all about community and fun. In Korea itself, pork is king. Beef costs so much it’s for special occasions.
Where to eat Korean BBQ
It’s hard to screw up Korean BBQ in Korea. The competition is so fierce that mediocre places don’t hang out long.
Mapo Jeong Daepo 마포정대포
My go-to place is still Jeong Daepo in the Mapo neighborhood, near Gongdeok Station. The whole area is full of BBQ aromas. Most all the restaurants in that area are great. We made sure Anthony Bourdain went there the last time he was in Seoul. It’s the main place we go to on The Ultimate Korean BBQ Night Out.
Hongik Sutbul Galbi Sogeum Gwi 홍익숯불갈비소금구
I don’t know how long this will hold out against the pressure of gentrification. It’s a packed, packed, packed place. They give your meat a pre-cook over strong fire before finishing it at your table.
Chicken & Beer
“Chimaek” (Chicken + Maekju | beer) got its start in the early 1970s. It’s now such a great must-eat Korean food institution that we have more chicken restaurants than there are McDonald’s in the entire world. There’s something about this combination. Strangely, it works well with watered down Korean beers–preferably Cass. I swear.
I’m more a fan of classic styles. Recent styles of fried chicken lean more to the American style–thick flour-based crust. I like the thin starch-based coating with the aromatic spicies.
Where to eat Chicken & Beer
I’d almost say it’s hard to go wrong, but it is. Chicken hofs are neighborhood haunts. There’s no exclusive I-gotta-try-this chicken pub with a line out the door. In fact, if there’s a line out the door stay far away from it. My rule of thumb is this. If it’s full of beautiful young women taking Insta-selfies, it’s not good chicken. If it’s grease stained and full of middle-aged men who look like life has kicked them in the teeth, great chicken.
Two-Two Chicken 둘둘치킨
You can’t go wrong with Two-Two (pictured above). You’ll likely be the youngest person in any of its locations. It’s a franchise, but each venue acts like a mom-and-pop shop. The basic recipe and yangnyeom (spicy sweet garlic sauce) are the same, but they put their own spins on the sauces. We include a stop at a Two-Two on our Authentic Korean Chicken & Beer Experience. They’re outside Gongdeok Station, and the couple who runs it is great and welcoming. I want them to get more love.
Chicken Baengi 치킨뱅이
They also do it classic style. Get their chicken 3-ways: fried, sauced, and garlic. Then go for the pa dalk, boneless chicken thighs on top of dressed ribbons of green onions. My favorite location is run by two ladies on the north of the main strip of Hongdae. Go out Hongik University Station, exit 7 (Holiday Inn) and head due south a couple of blocks. It’ll be on your right.
Nureungji Tongdalk 누릉지통닭
A new brand, they don’t do fried. Chicken is spit roasted over wood and served on sizzling platters of crispy rice. We also go to this on the new Authentic Korean Chicken & Beer Experience. The ones near Gongdeok and Sookmyung Women’s University kill.
Since these are franchises, your best bet is to copy and paste the Korean names above into Google Maps, Naver Map, or Kakao Map.
Okay, you fans of “Always Be My Maybe.” This stew sits on the pantheon of comfort foods, next to macaroni and cheese. It is so perfect on a chilly Seoul night. You want it chock full of tofu and pork. The canned tuna version is also quite good, though I like it better when it’s served at a drinking establishment in a beat-up tin pot.
Where to eat Kimchi Jjigae
Most Korean diners, like Kimbap Cheonguk, will have it on the menu. There are few places that make it the star of their menus, except…
Omori Jjigae 오모리찌개전문점
Go down to Jamsil, across the lake from Lotte World, for this. It’s a chain, but this is the flagship store. Go to the second floor. The first floor is for black bean noodles. Here, you can get 3-year-old Kimchi Jjigae. You’d be surprised at how subtle and smooth it tastes.
The king of rice bowls. There are many kinds of bibimbap. There’s the dolsot sizzling kind. There’s the fancy Jeonju bibimbap. There’s your basic Korean diner bibimbap served in a plastic bowl with a fried egg.
Contrary to what you may have had outside Korea, it doesn’t always come sizzling, and it doesn’t always come with an egg. There are infinite combinations.
Where to eat Bibimbap
Like Kimchi Jjigae, it’s available in most diners. There is a chain called Bon Bibimbap, the same as Bon Juk. It’s just fine and dandy. But if you want to go for something more serious…
Namsan Mokmyeok Sanbang 남산 목멱산방
Usually bibimbap has each ingredient artfully placed on top of the rice. At Namsan Mokmyeok Sanbang, it’s artfully placed on a separate plate, where you can put it together yourself. There are many varieties of rice bowls there, so go at it.
Jeonju Yuhalmeoni Bibimbap 전주유할머니비빔밥
Respect, respect, respect. Grandmother knows how to make good bibimbap. This place has been around for over 50 years. Simple menu. Get the bibimbap and the Kongnamul Gukbap (Bean Sprout Soup).
I love Gogung (pictured above). The original location is in Jeonju. It’s a case of franchising out and collapsing. It’s hard to find a Gogung in Seoul anymore. Thankfully, there is one in touristy Myeong-dong. This is classic refined royal Jeonju bibimbap served in brass bowls.
Chilled. Buckwheat. Noodles. It’s in my top ten of favorite Korean foods. All the chilled buckwheat noodle dishes are. Naengmyeon itself comes from North Korea. The classic Pyongyang style is light with a clean sophisticated broth. Can you believe that before the 20th century, northern Korea was known for more fancy artistocratic cuisine than the south?
Naengmyeon always hits the spot at the end of a barbecue meal, with a few squirts of vinegar and hot mustard from the bottles sitting next to you. That may be why places like Woo Lae Oak are famous for the naengmyeon. Fancy BBQ must follow with refined naengmyeon.
There are usually two types available, noodles in soup (mul naengmyeon), and noodles mixed with a spicy gochujang sauce (bibim naengmyeon). Of course, there are many more varieties, like there are of bibimbap. Baby steps.
Where to eat Naengmyeon
If you’re in Korea for a short while, just order a bowl at the end of your BBQ dinner. The one pictured above was just a W5,000 (~$4.25 USD) lunch special at a little BBQ joint near my regular jogging route. Otherwise, try these places.
Woo Lae Oak 우래옥
Famous, famous place. Almost too famous for being too famous. I like it, but it feels a bit stodgy. It’s where you take your grandma after church. The prices are premium, but it’s worth it for the naengmyeon.
Dongmu Bapsang (Comrade’s Table) 둥무밥상
He used to cook for officers in the North Korean army before defecting to the South. Now his cozy shop serves dishes that he misses from home. Yes, definitely eat the naengmyeon here. Also try the soondae sausages.
Jeongin Myeonok 정인면옥
Watch out for the lunch lines here. It gets crowded. The naengmyeon is great, but it may also be because it’s one of the few good restaurants in Yeouido.
When in Asia, tourists want street food. Seoul has good street food, but don’t expect what you’d find in Southeast Asia. Street food in Korea primarily acts as a snack and late night starch filler for an alcohol-laden stomach. Most carts serve the same exact thing. There are variations, but those are in areas that cater to tourists and college students.
Don’t call it “topoki!” That was some hare-brained scheme concocted by a government agency ten years ago. They’re chewy rice cakes in a spicy sauce. I personally think the stuff on the street is sweeter because it’s more suited for kids. Tteokbokki in bricks-and-mortars, like Jaws Food and Mimine (pictured above), tend to be better. Spicier and more savory.
A word about Mimine (MEE-mee-nay). They’re the big yellow building on the main drag in Hongdae. Go to the second floor and order two items: Gukmul Tteokbokki (Soupy Tteokbokki) and Se-u Twigim (Fried Shrimp). They have patents in three countries for their shrimp frying technique. It’s served with three flavored sea salts. What I like to do is dip the shrimp in the spicy soup and then in the salt, chased with a beer.
Fish cakes on sticks soaking in MSG-saturated broth. Just go and grab a stick, brush on a few happy dabs of sauce with the brush Bob Ross style, eat, and pay. The proprietor counts the number of sticks you have left over.
Or Hot Bar? It’s fish dough shaped into logs on sticks and deep fried like a corn dog. In fact, they come with hot dogs and other ingredients in them. That’s one of my favorite street foods.
Fried stuff. Usually sweet potatoes, shrimp, sesame leaves. It’s like tempura but heavier.
The proper romanization is sundae, but I don’t want you to confuse this with ice cream. They’re blood and glass noodle sausages. The traditional version uses rice instead of noodles, but the street version uses the glass ones, giving them a bouncy texture. It’s served with pig liver and offal. What I like to do is make Kim-Tteok-Soon. Mix the Twigim and Soondae together with Tteokbokki sauce. It’s what Harold and Kumar would crave if they lived in Korea.
Fried dough stuffed with brown sugar, nuts, and other goodies. They are delicious and make great hand warmers. They emerge in high numbers during winter.
Sweet cakes stuffed with sweet red bean or custard. Another great hand warmer and quite good.
Literally, “egg bread.” Sweet pancake batter cooked in a cup like a muffin with an egg cracked inside. Sweet and savory. Protein and carbs. It’s the breakfast you never knew you needed.
Where to eat Seoul Street Food
You can get it most anywhere. Here are some areas that have a unique touch.
It’s one of the few times I’ll say Myeong-dong has better food. The street food scene there is competitive. But Myeong-dong is like Times Square in New York. There are more tourists than locals. It’s here that you’ll find the Frankenstein creations, like lobster with cheese. The Tornado Potato was born here, as well as many street food staples and flashes in the pans.
It’s another touristy area. Here you’ll find the famous Insa-dong Hotteok, which puts a bit of cornmeal in its dough, giving it a super crunchy texture. Other highlights are the fire-grilled chicken on a stick, my beloved egg breads, and Cocktail Guy. We tend to give Cocktail Guy a visit during the Dark Side of Seoul Ghost Walks. He makes them cheap and strong. Adult Capri-Suns.
Carts with the basics camp outside Hongik University Station, exit 9. Further down, past the buskers, you can find what I call Crazy Street Food Alley. It’s a series of stalls that are always rotating with new street food ideas. It’s like a market research lab throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks.
Noryangjin Cup Rice Road 컵밥거리
Now this is food that is meant to be eaten like a meal. These stands cater to young adults studying for professional exams. The cram schools to help them prepare for these career tests congregate here. Cup Rice Road sprouted as a bunch of carts to feed these poor hungry young professionals-to-be.
Here’s a map of all the places I’ve mentioned.
Dessert! We don’t really have desserts in the Western sense in Korea. We do have this shaved ice treat. The competition each summer with Bingsu makers gets more intense each year.
It’s a war!
The goal is to shave ice so perfect it’s fluffy fresh fallen snow. The ice itself usually comes from frozen milk, but I’ve seen other ice sources, including coffee and makgeolli (Korean rice ale).
Where to eat Patbingsu
The margins make this lucrative, so everyone is trying to get into the game. Most all bakery chains, like Paris Baguette and Tous Les Jours, get all into this. Most coffee shops do this. There are some places that specialize in it.
Sulbing is a franchise that popped up a few years ago. I wondered how risky such a venture would be–as in, who would order bingsu in winter? But they’ve done well. They’re crowded in the summer. Sulbing specializes in Instagrammy bingsu, and that’s a good thing. They’re showstoppers. Don’t worry about how large they are. Remember they’re just shaved ice. When melted the liquid would fit into a grande Starbucks cup. If you’re traveling with kids this is the treat they’ll remember.
Since it’s a franchise, just copy and paste 설빙 into your map app of choice to find your closest location.
Odd name. Odd location. It’s hidden on the 5th floor of Hyundai Department Store in Apgujeong. Well, not really hidden. It takes up a lot of space. But you have to go up a bunch of escalators to get there. They have a big variety of bingsu. What I like is that the portions or smaller, so you can try different flavors in one go.
But wait… there’s more!
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Seoul food veterans: please leave more restaurant suggestions in the comments. I’m going to tackle more hardcore foods in the next two posts.