In South Korea, food trends come and go faster than you can say, An-nyeong-ha-se-yo. But a few restaurants have managed to stand the test of time, serving consistently good food that keeps locals continuously coming back for more. Here’s a list of ten of these local favorites.
Myeongdong Kyoja (명동교자)
Restaurant, Korean, $$$
Feeling famished during your Myeongdong shopping spree? Then pull up a chair at Myeongdong Kyoja and tuck into a bowl of kalguksu, hand-cut wheat flour noodles served in a hot, savory broth. Serving this Korean classic dish as well as highly addictive dumplings for more than half a century now, the restaurant is popular with both tourists and Seoulites alike. If you’re particularly hungry, ask for a complimentary refill of rice or noodles, and slurp away like a local.
Established in 1986, this no-frills hole in the wall has been serving up hearty haejangguk to loyal patrons for three decades. To create the spicy broth of this popular “hangover soup,” pork bones are boiled for hours. Slabs of meat and steamed greens are added to the still-boiling concoction before being delivered to the table. Served with kimchi and rice, the meal makes for the perfect lunch after a long night out on the tow.
Jokbal – pig trotters braised in soy sauce and spices – is wildly popular in Korea, and there’s no better place to try this specialty than Pyeongando Jokbaljip. Situated on the famous Jokbal Street in Jangchoong-dong, the restaurant is owned and operated by Yi Gyeong-seon, who fled to Seoul from North Korea following the Korean War. Incorporating traditional Chinese five-spice into a pork trotter dish from her hometown, Yi began the jokbal craze; some five decades later, she is still attracting throngs of diners who crave the cuisine. Marinated for 24 hours, Yi’s pork trotters are tender and buttery, and are served up with a salted shrimp sauce, raw garlic, and lettuce leaves for wrapping. This is “pigging out” at its finest.
Particularly popular among older locals thanks to its traditional Korean ambiance, Gogung has specialized in bibimbap since its establishment some 40 years ago. With live performances of traditional Korean music every evening and a staff that dress exclusively in hanbok, Gogung truly lives up to its name, which translates to “old palace.” Although the restaurant offers a variety of Korean cuisines, they are most known for their bibimbap, which ranges from classics like Jeonju and dolsot bibimbap to twists on the original such as nakji (octopus) and yukhoe (beef tartare) bibimbap.
With enough seating to accommodate up to 1,200 guests, it’s safe to say that Samwon Garden – the biggest restaurant in Seoul – can draw a crowd. The restaurant owes its popularity to its traditional dining atmosphere as well as its expansive menu of delicious Korean entrees. The Bulgogi Table Set, which consists of perfectly sweet bulgogi and a spread of banchan that are equally as beautiful, is the restaurant’s signature dish and might just be one of the most memorable meals you’ll have in Seoul.
Sometimes, the most delicious dishes use the simplest ingredients, as is the case with seolleongtang, a milky soup that’s made by boiling down ox leg bones until the broth becomes rich and creamy white. To sample the best seolleongtang in the city, head to Imun Seolnongtang, which also happens to be one of the oldest restaurants in the city, having opened in 1907. Since its establishment, the restaurant has achieved a level of near-perfection with this favorite dish, simmering the broth for more than 15 hours to pack it with subtle but delicious flavor. To eat the dish as Koreans do, add the provided rice and minced green onions to the broth, and jal meokkesseumnida (bon appétit)!
Get a taste of North Korea at Koong, a family-owned restaurant operated by a halmeoni (grandmother) who fled the North during the Korean War. Serving Gaeseong-style mandu – dumplings stuffed with ground pork, Chinese cabbage and pumpkin – for more than 30 years, the restaurant is an Insadong institution, and is a great place to grab a bite during an afternoon of sightseeing. In addition to dumplings, Koong is also known for its bossam, tender boiled pork slices wrapped in lettuce, as well as its kimchi, which is made fresh in front of the restaurant throughout the week.
Tosokchon Samgyetang is without a doubt one of the most famous restaurants in Korea’s capital city. As a mainstay in guidebooks to Seoul, the place is continuously packed with tourists, but is also a favorite among locals, who agree that the hype has been rightfully earned. The dish that keeps diners coming back for more is samgyetang. The centerpiece of this soup, a young, spring chicken stuffed with jujube, garlic, ginger, chestnuts, and four-year-old ginseng, is slow-cooked for hours, giving the dish a nutty, sweet flavor as well as a number of medicinal benefits. The restaurant’s samgyetang is said to have revitalizing effects, and, as a result, is traditionally eaten during sambok, the time period encompassing the hottest three days of the year.
As is usually the case for most cuisine, food tastes best when its ingredients are fresh and flavors are simple. Unlike many of today’s bingsu spots, which tend to serve up rather pretentious versions of the dessert, Homilbat sticks to the basics and, as the queue out the entryway proves, has had great success in doing so. With just a couple menu items, Homilbat is most known for its deconstructed Milk Bingsu, which consists of powder-like ice drowned in condensed milk and is served with a sweet, homemade red bean paste made from beans grown in South Korea. Distinctively fresher than the canned beans most places use, Homilbat’s pat are both delicious and memorable.
It’s no secret that South Korea knows how to do a good barbecue, but locals would agree that no one does galbi (marinated ribs) better than Seo Seo Galbi. This hole-in-the-wall located in Sinchon dates back to the 1960s and has been one of the most popular gogi-jibs (barbecue joints) ever since, as illustrated by the long line that takes form outside its door on a daily basis. Here, gorgeously marinated ribs – the only item on the menu – are delivered raw with a dipping sauce and red pepper paste. Grill them up and wash them down with a bottle of soju, and enjoy the Korean dining experience you’ve been dreaming of. The restaurant has a strict standing-room-only (literally, there are no seats), first-come, first-served basis, and closes once it has sold out, which is usually fairly early. Nevertheless, Seo Seo Galbi is more than worth the visit.