Chowon Sikdang (초원식당) is the name of a small, but popular Korean restaurant on Itaewon's food vendor alley. The name seems to translate into "Meadows Restaurant," though meadows and prairies are the farthest thing from my mind when I travel down this small, dirty alley. Nonetheless, the food at Chowon Sikdang is surprisingly good, though not necessarily the freshest.
We stopped in around 11pm on a Monday night, and the little place was full of Koreans eating fried foods and drinking soju. We ordered the manduguk, or dumpling soup, and jeon, Korean pancakes. The first to arrive were the side dishes: kimchi, bean sprouts, pickled cucumber and another green vegetable. Next, we got the mandu soup, which had small, tasty dumplings. Finally, the jeon arrived. It seemed like the ajuma took all of the leftover jeon in the kitchen and heated it up for us. I think I counted nine different varieties including plain egg, spinach, shrimp, and a meat that resembled spam.
It was a lot of food for just two of us, but very tasty. Our bill, including a giant Cass beer was less than 20,000 Won.
Dongdaemun's food vendor alley is not the biggest in Seoul, but it does offer some unique treats at great prices...for the adventurous traveler. The most famous streets in the food vendor area of Dongdaemun are Saengseon-gui Alley & Dakhanmari Alley, named after two of the local specialties: Saengseon-gui & Dakhanmari.
Saengseon-gui is mackerel, purchased at the local market, allowed to "mature" for a day, then salted and grilled over real charcoal, not natural gas or propane. This gives the fish a deep, rich, smoky flavor.
Dakhanmari is translated to English to mean "one chicken." This chicken is a dish in which a whole chicken is boiled in a pot, then cut up with scissors and tongs as it cooked. Dakhanmari can be cooked with broth, noodles, tteok (sliced rice cakes), potatoes, mushrooms, green onions and other ingredients.
Mow Mow is a new (as of 2013) restaurant and bar in Itaewon. It sits up a site alley near the entrance to Itaewon, not far from the colorful Itaewon arch. We fell in love with makgeolli during our last visit to Korea, so it was an easy choice to stop here, at a place billed as a makgeolli and wine bar. If you are not familiar, makgeolli (막걸리), a milky, sweet alcoholic beverage made from rice.
We arrived on a rainy evening and sat next to the second floor windows overlooking the quiet side alley. We began by ordering a strawberry makgeolli, but the Middle Eastern waiter refused to bring it, unless we ordered food as well. I was annoyed, but decided to order one of the cheapest things on the menu, Korean sausages for 12,000 Won. Korean sausage is called sundae, and it consists of cow or pig's intestines commonly stuffed with cellophane noodles (dangmyeon), barley, and pork blood.
When we paid the bill, we discovered they also charged us a 2,200 Won service charge of some sort.
The makgeolli was very good and drinkable, and the food was fantastic. I wasn't impressed by their insistence on making me eat a second dinner, nor by the hidden fees, but at least the food was outstanding!
Wonton and Noodle is the name of a small Chinese-style wonton soup restaurant tucked into a back alley near the arch at the entrance to Itaewon. The sign on the door, written in grease pencil said, "Yes, we speak English!! Or body language (if necessary)," so we knew we'd fit right in.
We sat at the small 4-seat counter immediately inside the front door. Immediately we had some small communication difficulties as the owner ajuma pointed us to the back of the restaurant. We thought she wanted us to wash our hands, but later we believed she wanted us to sit at one of the five or so tables in the back of the restaurant.
We ordered two bowls of wonton soup, one with rice noodles and one with egg noodles. The ajuma cooked the soup behind the counter where we sat, so we got to watch her boil noodles and prepare the dumplings. The soup was ready in about 15 minutes, and it was delicious, especially with a spoonful of the red pepper sauce that was on the counter.
After we finished, the ajuma asked if we wanted dumplings. We said no, but she something like "service, service" which apparently meant complimentary. Because she brought 10 fresh dumplings out to our table in less than 10 minutes. Very cool and great tasting!
Our total bill was just 15,000 Won for some outstanding food.
Gwangjang Market has a bit of everything, but it is best known for its food vendors. There are several hundred vendors along both sides and in the middle of a wide corridor with high glass ceilings. Here you can find traditional Korean snacks like red bean porridge, pig's feet, blood sausage, and crispy Korean pancakes. All can be had for less than $5 US.
During our visit, we had dozens of vendors invite us to try their food, and we even had a local businessman offer to buy us lunch.
Established in 1905, Gwangjang is Seoul's oldest market. It has 5,000 shops, including an upper level dedicated to high quality silk, satin and linen.
GaeSong Dumplings is perhaps my favorite restaurant in Seoul. Located in Insadong, hidden down a side alley near Kyung-In Museum of Fine Arts. If you look in the window you will see an old lady or two making mandu -- or Korean dumplings. Their specialty is manduguk, dumpling soup, and it is amazing. Throughout the restaurant you will see many newspaper and magazine articles about this great restaurant with handmade mandu.
In the evening the place will often be packed and the mandu goes almost as fast as the little ladies can fold up the perfect little pieces. Meals here are downright cheap (under 5000 won) and delicious!
Bukchon Bajilak Kalguksu (북촌 바지락 칼국수 or Bukchon Short-Neck Clam and Noodles) is a wonderful little restaurant tucked into a tiny alley near Anguk Station in the Bukchon area. We arrived, took off our shoes and sat at a table in the corner of the large dining room. I ordered tteok manduguk, a soup with giant dumplings and slices of rice cake called tteok. It was served with simple sides including kimchi and pickled radishes.
The soup was gigantic, with probably 8 to 10 dumplings almost as big as a fist. They were tender and packed full of pork and pieces of vegetables. The rice cakes were also plentiful and tender. We also had a bottle of tasty makgeolli rice wine, which we drunk from bowls in the traditional style. As we finished our dinner, the owner gave us a complimentary bottle of makgeolli.
The service was great, the staff very friendly, even to foreigners. When we left, the bill was only about 17,000 Won, and the owner asked us to come back!
Jeju Black Pork is the name of a new restaurant located a half block from Gangnam Station in the Gangnam-Gu area of Seoul. We were wandering through the area looking for a good, casual restaurant, and this was one of the first Korean barbecue restaurants on the side street called Teheran-ro.
The sign out front advertised a special of 600 grams of a variety of Jeju black beef and pork cuts for 38,000 Won. We decided to get this special with soju, which we knew would be plenty of food for two. We started with several side dishes including a unique egg dish cooked in a hot ceramic pot and a spicy tofu soup. The pile of meat we had for our meal was impressive: five or six different cuts including tender beer and strips of pork with the skin still on. The meat was probably enough for three or four people, but the two of us ate the entire serving.
The service was great. When they saw two Westerners walk in, they staff immediately called over the English-speaking waiter to take our orders. He was friendly and helpful.
Jeju black beef is native to Jeju Island and is traditionally a rare ingredient in Seoul. The black cattle have ten percent less saturated fat and more unsaturated fats, such as linoleic acid and oleic acid, compared to other Korean beef.
Jeju black pork is from the famed black pig from Jejudo. It is known for its chewiness because it is cooked and served with the skin.
Namdaemun has a few small food vendor alleys with a variety of Korean foods. We stopped at a small place called Sam Yeon Kalbi. Their menu was entirely in Korean, so they offered us bebimbap--which is always a great option--and we gladly accepted.
I was surprised when the meal started with a giant bowl of spicy tofu soup cooked over a propane stove. Next came side dishes like bean sprouts, kimchi, rice and cooked fish. We began eating the sides, when the owner came over to our table and prepared our bebimbap with the ingredients on the table. He sprinkled some of each ingredient over the rice, took a few spoonfuls of broth from the soup, and included a healthy dose of spicy sauce to complete the dish.
The food was excellent, and the staff very, very helpful! Our bill was around 15,000 or 20,000 Won including a big bottle of Cass beer.
I took a video of the experience, so you now know how to make your own bebimbap! http://members.virtualtourist.com/m/vv/6fa2/
Dora Restaurant is a cafeteria at the Dorasan Transit Center, the last stop in South Korea before the border with North Korea. The food is nothing special, but it's as close to a potential combat zone as most civilians are likely to ever eat.
We stopped here during a DMZ tour sponsored by Koridoor. They had a special menu just for our tour group (in fact, the restaurant would have been closed if we didn't have reservations). The food is cheap, but nothing special: 8,000 Won for bebimbap, 10,000 Won for bulgogi, and 3,000 Won for Cass Beer. We had bulgogi, which was nothing special, along with rice, kimchi, fried egg, dried salted seaweed, and a fried dessert bread.
The best thing about this restaurant was the North Korean beer they sell for 10,000 Won. For some reason, you can't drink it during dinner, but you can take it with you when you leave.
We searched out Dongdaemun's food vendor alley on our last day in Seoul. We hungry for any local specialty. After passing numerous grilled fish (Saengseon-gui), we spotting what looked to be haemultang (seafood soup). I asked the owner if this was haemultang, and he said no, it was haemul jjigae, seafood soup. Close enough for me. We ducked inside for lunch.
As the ajuma prepared our meal, we snacked on kimchi, potatoes, beans, and soju. The owner seemed surprised that us crazy Westerners liked soju. In fact, he seemed surprised that we wanted to try his stew... I'm guessing few Westerners ever stop here.
After a few minutes, he lit our table's gas burner, and he placed a massive bowl of stew on the fire. He told us it would be about 10 minutes until the food was ready. In the meantime, we continued to eat our side dishes and watch the steady stream of local workers and businessmen come in for stew.
Finally our stew arrived, and the first things we noticed were the fish head and the fish guts in the stew. We decided to dive in and L got a pile of guts, and I got the head. The flavor was delicious, even the fish eyes, cheeks, brains, and guts. The stew also contained shrimp, a variety of vegetables, and a few other odds and ends that I was unable to determine.
Excellent food, friendly service, and only 20,000 Won, ,including the soju.
Many westerners are leery of eating at the street vendors located throughout the city. I have had no problems, and the food is often quite enjoyable at a low price. One of my personal favorites is what the Korean woman calls "Toast." Yes, toast is one ingredient, but it also contains scrambled eggs, vegetables, and hot sauce inside two pieces of toast.
Also try chicken on a stick, mandu, hot dogs, corn on the cob, sweet potato french fries, various candies, donut-type pastries with cinnamon (& without a hole), roasted chestnuts, dried squid, streamed crabs, and many others... don't try silk worm larvae unless you just want to tell people back home you ate them--they really aren't that good.
These will always be the cheapest meals and often the most entertaining as not too many foreigners eat at these stands (except in Itaewon and other touristy areas). They often love to see foreigners and will treat you very well.
Though chain convenience stores (like Family Mart and 7-Eleven) are easy to find, if you can track down a grocery store, you will enjoy better food at lower prices. The grocery stores usually have fresh fruit, a good variety of Ramen, and even fresh meats and vegetables. They also have canned goods and many traditional Korean foods - if you are lucky enough to have a kitchen.
In Itaewon, there is a large grocery store called CoreMart under Gecko's Terrace, with the entrance on the alley behind the bar. I also shop at "Lucky High Mart" in Itaewon-2-dong, 150 meters up the hill from the Noksapyeong Station walking bridge.
Itaewon is also full of tiny family-owned stores that are often as small as 100 square feet. they sell mostly drinks, ramen, and some basic vegetables and frozen items. Often you will walk in late at night to find ajuma sleeping in the corner. she will wake up just to take your money, then back to sleep.
As an example, a .333 liter bottle of beer at most western bars ranges from 3,500 to 6,000 won. At CoreMart you can get the giant .75 liter (I think?) bottle of OB for around 1500 won.
Itaewon has more than its share of American fast food joints including Burger King, McDonalds, KFC, Dunkin Donuts, Subway, and others. Avoid at all costs (unless you are drunk, then KFC is OK). If you really NEED American food at least go to Bennigan's for a real meal!
If you have not tried kimbab, you are missing out on a real Korean treat. Kimbab is made from a layer of dried seaweed, covered with a thin layer of rice, with a few strips of ham, veggies, and cooked egg in the middle. This is rolled into a log about 1 1/2" thick and 9" long, then sliced.
One of the cheapest places for kimbab is the Korean restaurant called Kimbab Heaven (or 김밥천국 -- pronounced Kimbap Cheonguk). It is the equivalent of McDonald's in Korea--located on every street corner with good quality food at great prices. Kimbab is only 1,500 won here. I have often gone to Kimbab Heaven and spent more on the taxi ride than on dinner... They are open 24/7!
There is a competing chain called Kimbab Nara. Kind of like McDonald's and Burger King in America. One group of Koreans swears Kimbab Heaven is better while the others swear by Kimbab Nara. Personally, my choice is Kimbab Heaven, maybe because it is open 24/7 and located everywhere. It's sign is in Hangul, but look for the funky orange, black and white logo with a clean, brightly lit restaurant (though some new stores have a more subdued green facade as of 2013). Also, the menu is entirely in Hangul, so order something simple you know like kimbab or bibimbab, or learn to read a little.