Seoul Food Diary

November 06, 2016

I spent the second half of my recent trip to Northeast Asia in Seoul. These photos are largely grouped by where they were taken.

Namdaemun/Jung-Gu
I stayed at the Courtyard Seoul Namdaemun, which is across the street from the Namdaemun Market and a 10-minute walk away from Myeong-dong, for the duration of my Seoul visit. The Hoehyeon (Subway Line 4) and City Hall (Subway Lines 1 and 2) stations are about 7 minutes away by foot.
Namdaemun Market is one of South Korea's largest traditional market. You won't find any trendy food stands here, but steamed and fried dumplings, fried bread, and tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes) stands are aplenty. I wasn't personally drawn to any of the wares sold here—the clothes found here are generally matronly (or for children), and I wasn't in the market for chopsticks, dinnerware, or imported goods.

Myeong-dong 
My first meal in Seoul was at one of two Yoogane Chicken Galbi outlets on the same street in Myeong-dong. I ordered the Marinated Chicken Galbi (₩9000/person), which is moderately spicy but delicious. After you've consumed about 2/3 of the chicken, you can then stir side dishes (mostly starches) in with it. The extra ₩2000 I paid for rice was worth every penny.
Because of where I stayed, I ended up visiting Myeong-dong every night to people watch. (And eat Tornado Potato—the best ₩3000 one can spend in Seoul.) Another street food I enjoyed (perhaps to excess) was the 32cm soft serve (₩2000).
A memorable meal I had in Seoul was (large bowls of) porridge at Migabon. This is really a breakfast joint, but I went at around 8PM when the crowds thinned at this second-floor establishment. After several days of hearty meals—fried foods and meat drenched in Gochujang—this comparatively lighter fare was a much-needed palate cleanser. Most bowls of porridge cost between ₩7000 and ₩8000.
Tourists don't visit Myeong-dong just for the street food; they go to shop. There are duplicates of large South Korean cosmetics retailers in every direction (Etude House, Tony Moly, Missha, the Face Shop, and Innisfree all have three or four stores each in the area). I didn't end up buying any skincare or cosmetics products, but did browse quite a few. My impression was that the selection and deals are better at the shopping area of Ewha Womans University.
There are also countless clothing boutiques that line the streets, but styles worth buying are few and far between—they are also not cheap.

Seoul Station

The Lotte Mart near Seoul Station is a fairly impressive things emporium—I went there in search of snacks, and was not disappointed by the selection. Many items are sold in Costco-sized packages; thankfully free samples are handed out at every aisle, eliminating some of the anxiety involved in making hefty snack investments. There were hordes of tourists there, complete with real-time VAT tax refund at checkout and a self-service packing station to mail home your haul.
Despite my initial excitement, I bought only a few things there (in single-count quantities). I wasn't crazy about most of what I tried, and as much as I enjoyed the chocolate covered shrimp crackers, I wasn't ready to commit to a wholesale-sized portion of it. And I wanted so badly to buy all of the Oreo O's in South Korea (discontinued in the US since 2007), but couldn't find room for it.

Dongdaemun
If you love traditional South Korean fare, Gwangjang Market is probably one stop you shouldn't miss. Bindaetteok (mung bean pancakes), gimbap, tteokbokki, odeng (fishcake), and twigim (Korean tempura) can be found at every turn.
I am not exaggerating when I say Bindaetteok can be found at every turn. I also don't think it matters too much from which stand you buy it.
The Dongdaemun "fashion town," 10 minutes away by foot from Gwangjang Market, is maybe the eighth wonder of the world. The shopping complexes are crammed with stalls of wholesalers who don't give tourists more than a passing glance. For those looking to shop at retail volume, prices are comparable to ones you might find at Myeong-dong.
Predictably, I bought nothing here (because analysis paralysis). I also found the quality of items sold here mostly lacking, but it is fun (if exhausting) to walk through and look at the staggering amount of stuff. There are four multi-story behemoths here stocking what must have been billions of things. Pictured above are two stalls among tens of thousands.
Next to the wholesale areas of Dongdaemun are several buildings populated by smaller retailers (the above image was taken at Maxtyle; across the street are Doota, Migliore, Hello apM, and Lotte FITIN, all of which are department store-like establishments, with department store-level prices). Friends who know the area well told me that there are more wholesalers to the east and northeast of Yulgok-ro and Jangchungdan-ro (roads that take you south from Dongdaemun station), but I didn't have the wherewithal to browse further.
If you are still in this area at mealtime, check out 진옥화할매원조닭한마리, which serves a whole chicken cooked in broth (₩20000). The menu is in Korean, but several servers speak fluent Chinese, though not much communication is required—as soon as you are seated, a server will bring over the above pot with a chicken in it without prompt. After they cut up the chicken, you likely won't get their attention again until you are close to the bottom of the pot, at which point you are asked if you want to add rice or noodles to the remaining broth. There's no need to make a trip for this chicken (there are innumerable well-known chicken soup places in Seoul), but if you are already in the area and there's no line, this is a good dining option.
Gangnam
I was generally unimpressed with the quality of clothes found in Seoul with under $70 price tags, and styles that are exceptional in quality and design typically cost in excess of $500. There were only two stores that I felt were worth visiting—one is CherryKoko in Sinsa-dong, Gangnam (pictured above) and the other is Lize and Milkcocoa in Hongdae (discussed later in this post). Both have online presences that ship internationally, but it's still nice to see their designs in person.
The barbecue place I wanted to eat lunch at (투뿔등심) hadn't opened by the time I finished touring Sinsa, so I killed time at Sulbing, a Korean dessert cafe which overlooks the streets of Sinsa. The "Mango Cheese Snowflakes Sherbet" (₩10000) pictured above is substantial in size, but honestly not very good (they use frozen mango chunks that were still icy when served). The setting is ideal, the desserts less so.
Gyeongbokgung
I wandered over to Sejongno primarily in search of fried chicken at 미락치킨호프, but found it closed at lunch time (still unsure why). Coincidentally, one of the top attractions in Seoul, Gyeongbokgung, was in the area so I went over there to tourist-watch. I especially enjoyed gawking at people in hanbok casually strolling around the sites as though they were characters in a period piece.


Hongdae
Milkcocoa is one South Korean retailer that I've been really interested in, but couldn't commit to ordering from. I serendipitously stumbled across its physical store in Hongdae, and proceeded to spend an hour looking through and touching everything. I ended up purchasing this festive red wool dress with bows on its sleeves for ₩49000 (net; cash payments yield an immediate 10% discount, but no receipt is provided so you cannot claim additional tax refunds. Another shopper who purchased a dozen or so items got a 15% discount on her purchase, so if you are someone who has mastered haggling, you might do well here.)
I worked up an appetite shopping and made a beeline for KyoChon, the real reason why I was in the area. I like American KyoChon outposts, but think the Korean locations make even better chicken. A whole fried chicken served in soy garlic and red sauce costs ₩16000 and is best shared among two to three people. They also deliver, so ideally you would order fried chicken and eat it in your hotel room late at night, as nature intended.
Opinions might diverge on this, but I personally think odds are favorable that you'd find a good meal by walking into any barbecue place in Seoul. I found 구우소 a few steps outside the Hongik University station, and while this was far from "the best Korean barbecue meal" I've had, it was still pretty delicious and affordable (I ordered the "Olive Pork Belly" and "What Straw Pork Belly," each order of meat cost ₩12000). Similar types of restaurants can be found all around the city, so if you aren't sure what to eat and don't want to consult a crowd-sourced review site, you can't go wrong with barbecue.
There are also tons of trendy street food around Hongdae; it's easy to fill up your stomach snacking.

Ewha Womans University + Sinchon
If you are already in Hongdae, you may want to visit Sinchon and Ewha Womans University on the same day as they are consecutive stops on the same subway line. If you get off at Hongdae and walk east on Sinchon-ro, you'll end up in Sinchon within 15 minutes, and Ewha in another 15. All three areas have vibrant streets with lots of shops and restaurants.
I am not much of a planner so didn't do much research before my trip, but something that shoppers visiting Seoul seem very excited about are ubiquitous shops that sell ₩1000 socks or ₩10000 bags. The socks were pretty cute, but the ₩10000 bags are F21 quality. I passed on both, because I didn't feel like lugging home more than what is necessary.



National Assembly
I had set aside a whole day to bike along the Hangang, but all of the bike rental shops were closed that day. No one I approached seemed to know why they were closed, or when they might open. One person told me flatly, "they closed some time ago, and haven't been open since. I don't know why." My timing may have been bad, but this park was beautiful. Biking would've been fun, but the long stroll I took was still a highlight of my trip. 
Namsan
At the foot of YTN Seoul Tower (aka the Namsan Tower) is 목멱산방; this quaint little restaurant (slightly difficult to find; it may be easier to ask for directions after you've taken the elevator to the observatory) serves decent bulgogi bibimbap, but its real appeal is the great wooded location. 

Fast Food
I realize this may be an unpopular opinion, but Western fast food in Seoul was not good. The fried chicken sandwiches were all served lukewarm (most of the Popeyes chicken sandwiches were described on the website as having "chilled" chicken), and the burgers were at best mediocre. I visited each establishment at least twice to try different menu items, but couldn't find anything that I would return for.
I did finally get to try Lotteria, a subsidiary of Lotte (the conglomerate and maker of Koala's March). It is by far South Korea's largest fast food chain, with about half the market share. Their menu blends Western staples and local flavors, selling Korean fried chicken alongside Bulgogi burger. I can appreciate the ingenuity, but the food was just okay.

Trip notes

• Google Maps works more or less like an offline map in South Korea. If you are even slightly Korean-literate and dislike ambiguous direction, use Naver Maps instead. Traffic intersections in Seoul use a combination of crosswalks and underground passages, so it takes some adjusting to for first-time visitors.
• I arrived in Seoul late at night, was lazy, so elected to forgo renting a Wifi egg at the airport. I would immediately regret this, as T-mobile's free international data is slow at best (and unusable at worst) in Seoul. Rent a portable Wifi device or buy a local SIM card, you can thank me later.
• My Korean is limited to ordering at restaurants and counting (in thousands), but thanks to the shopping power of the Chinese middle class who flooded the streets of Seoul, most shops have at least one salesperson who speaks conversational Chinese. Since English isn't a lingua franca in this part of the world, expect to struggle a little with communication. Many of the restaurants I mentioned in this post have menus in three or four languages (Korean, Chinese, English, and occasionally Japanese), so dining is a little more accessible than taking public transit or shopping.
• The exchange rate when I visited was ~1 USD to 1100 Won.

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6 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your detailed version of your trip as I'm planning to go to Korea next year if all works out well :) Shall keep this in the back of my mind :)

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    1. I'm so glad this was helpful! :)

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  2. Hi Elle - Thanks for sharing your travel story! I'm planning on visiting Korea next year and will def keep all your suggestions in mind! Take care

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    1. Have a good visit--Seoul has a lot to offer! :)

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  3. I passed by the ice cream vendor in myeongdong on the day I didn't eat anything yet and I planned to go back after eating some street food but couldn't find it. It was the saddest moment of my life. Thanks for sharing this Elle! I actually just went to Korea this past April too. I'll be saving this post for future trips ;)

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    1. Oh man. I had a similar experience--I keep passing by the ice cream vendor at inopportune times, and then as I retrace my steps I suddenly can't find it anywhere. It was very weird. I eventually made it a personal challenge to eat soft serve every time I find a vendor...

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