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Any good places to chow in Seoul, Korea?

  • t

I am going to be on an extended assignment in Seoul, Korea and am crossing my fingers that someone has recommendations for places worthy of chowhounds in Seoul. As this will be a first-time trip, any tips in or near the Chong-Ku area of Seoul would be much appreciated.

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  1. What excellent job do you have that you can go to
    places like Seoul and Thailand for assignments?

    Anyway, I have a buddy who's also a foodlover who's in
    Seoul right now. You can e-mail him and ask him for
    places to go. You should probably be specific though
    as to what type of Korean food and what kind of
    atmosphere, etc. His e-mail address is
    Michaelhyu@hotmail.com. He checks e-mail once a week
    so don't be discouraged if you don't hear from him
    right away. I'll drop him a line so he knows you'll be
    e-mailing him, but it probably won't hurt if you let
    him know that I gave him your e-mail address and that
    this was related to chowhound. I told him about the
    site a couple weeks ago. Well, good luck, and if you
    want to know about korean places here in new york, you
    can ask me.

    Wonki Kim

    18 Replies
    1. re: WKim

      Hey, Wonki, thanks for pitching in. I hope Tida reports back with finds (Tida, what do you say?)

      Maybe we can even get your Michaelhyu friend to come post his finds here. Email helps a chowhound...message board posting helps chowhoundkind.

      ciao

      1. re: Jim Leff

        Jim,

        Honored to hear from the big dog. I've alerted Mike to
        the Chowhound web site and although he's slated to be
        in Korea for the next two years, I have no doubt that
        he will be a frequent contributor to the message boards
        once he comes up to speed, as I hope to be. Please
        feel free to check out my post on Korean spots on 32nd
        street here in Manhattan on the best of board.

        Wonki

        1. re: Wonki Kim

          Wonki, Tida, Jim:

          Greetings from Seoul, Korea. I have yet to hear from
          Tida. Please feel free to email me at the above
          address.

          One thing to note though. I think its hard to adjust
          or fit tastes when someone is visiting Korea. I have
          just transplanted myself a year ago from the culinary
          mish mash that is Manhattan and now I am in Seoul for
          a while. Its a change, and the cultural notion of
          cuisine is very different here. People take it as a
          given that you will eat Korean food for each meal, and
          maybe once in a while, when there is some special
          occasion you go eat "Western." Once you've decided to
          eat out, the variety lies in what kind of Korean
          dishes you want. Its the reverse of what happens in
          the US. You pick a dish, then the restaurant which
          specializes in it.

          There are some exceptions to the above. Chinese-
          Korean food is a genre on its own, and there are even
          some fine examples of this in Flushing and in K-Town.
          Koreans do eat a lot of Chinese food. Recently,
          Italian food has begun to catch on, but the upstarts
          in this field are franchises from Japan...bad omen.

          Incidentally, saw an article in the Korea Herald (this
          is an English language newspaper in Seoul, and they
          have a web site). Every Friday this couple (surname
          Salmon (?)) posts a review and they apparently went to
          a retaurant specializing in spit-roast pigs, where the
          smallest order is for 20 people for half a pig for
          approx. $400. Nifty, no? Wonder how it compares with
          Spike's BBQ in Oakland.

          The more I talk about all this the more I miss
          Manhattan and all my friends there. This is my first
          post, love the site. Feel like I have found this
          heretofore unknown link with fellow members of
          humanity.

          Happy dining everyone.

          Michael Yu

          1. re: Michael Yu

            "I have just transplanted myself a year ago from the culinary mish mash that is Manhattan and now I am in Seoul for a while. Its a change, and the cultural notion of cuisine is very different here."

            Let me see if I have this straight...you're an ethnically Chinese Korean from New York who's currently experiencing culture shock in Korea? Wow...pretty complicated.

            I'm VERY interested in the cuisine of ethnic Chinese Koreans...you know anything about it?

            Anyway, welcome to chowhound. It's great to have you, love your messages. We need more international correspondents.

            folks, check out some other cool postings by Michael on the Manhattan board in the monstrous "NY Noodletown" thread (which has nothing to do with NY Noodletown anymore) and in the equally misnomered "spam removal" thread on the "not about food" board.

            1. re: Jim Leff

              Jim,

              Urrrr, no. No I am not an ethnic Chinese-Korean or
              Korean-Chinese. I do love Chinese food, Cantonese
              especially, but I am not, alas, Chinese. I did live
              in Hong Kong when I was a kid for a year and grew up
              on super-greasy fare like the rice-flour "cannelloni"
              floating in super mild soy sauce and other dim sum
              fare on Sundays, and "Kow Yok" -- steamed thick slices
              of pork (seems like the same cut as bacon) served with
              tea greens or bok choi. Try finding the stuff in C-
              town, still pretty rare (unless fellow Chowhounds
              prove me wrong!). But still, I also grew up equally
              on wonderful sausage and bangers in England and those
              big slices of NY pizza and Kefta in Egypt.

              It is a stern rule that if you have pleasant
              experiences with any kind of food when you're young,
              they stay with you forever. (Refer to Spam posting).

              But I digress culinarily again. In any case, please
              feel free to ask questions on Korean restaurants (in
              Seoul, I've lost touch with New York), Korean food,
              food in general, etc.

              About ethnic Chinese-Koreans. Yes, there are lots of
              Koreans who grew up in China, and there are thriving
              communities in Hong Kong and in Manchuria (though both
              are very distinct from each other). Here's also a
              little known fact. There is a Chinatown in Seoul (the
              sub-city of Inchon actually). Inchon is a port town
              and apparently there is a C-town where mainland
              Chinese sailors like to stop off.

              There was a TV show recently, where the chef of one of
              the restaurants in C-town showed off a famous dish
              called Jjam-bong. This is a representative Korean-
              Chinese dish-- super fiery hot and hearty only begins
              to describe your first sip of the soup. You basically
              have flour-based noodles (about the same shape as
              linguine) sitting, swimming on a soup base of seafood,
              beef, and sometimes pork with a lot of veggies. In
              the case of this chef, he said 38 separate ingredients
              go into this noodle soup. There I go again...I start
              talking about people, and I am back to food.

              Ask more! I love talking about this stuff. Next time
              a little more on Korean Chinese food.

              Michael Yu

              1. re: Michael Yu

                (I know I'm coming in very late to this thread, but
                ever since I moved away from New York, I don't visit
                this site as often as I used to.) My family still
                lives in Seoul, and I visit as frequently as
                possible. What Michael said about dining out in Seoul
                is true--the restaurants are very specialized and you
                usually select what you want to eat before choosing a
                restaurant. One dish I always make a point of going
                out for when I'm in Seoul is naengmyon, one of my
                favorite Korean dishes. (and it's perfect for the
                warm weather ahead.) I grew up mostly with the
                milder, less chewy (and as my mom would tell it,
                superior) Pyongyang naengmyon, from a region in what
                is now North Korea. The original Woo-lae-oak in the
                Chung gae chun area of Seoul is still one of the best
                places for Pyongyang naengmyon. I haven't found a
                place that does a more authentic broth, although the
                quality of the toppings have decreased over the years
                (we've been going to Woo lae oak ever since I can
                remember). There is another naengmyon place near Jeil
                hospital (also downtown) that had great noodles with
                very high buckwheat content & a wonderful texture.
                Forgot the name, though. I didn't mean to ramble on
                so long--now I'm hungry!

                1. re: Aleece

                  Naengmyon is a pretty unique dish...how many other
                  dishes utilize cold meat broth as a soup base? It's
                  pretty tricky stuff. Nowadays, there are some
                  attempts at off-the-shelf Naengmyon in the stores in
                  Korea, but it just doesn't work, mostly because you
                  can't trust the soup base. Incidentally, a lot of
                  lower quality restaurants use the same store shelf
                  brands...

                  Aside from the Pyongyang Naengmyon style, the other
                  popular style is Hahmheung. My consultant experts on
                  this tell me both are places in the north. The
                  difference between the two is, well my consultants are
                  at a loss. In any case, when you go to a place in K-
                  town, your basic choice is between Mool-Naengmyun and
                  Bibim Naengmyun. The former is swimming in cold
                  beef/chicken/quail based broth, the latter is
                  smothered in a very spicy chili-paste based sauce.

                  Moms tend to prefer the latter for some reason.
                  Nothing like old remembrances of mom getting together
                  with her high school classmates over aluminum bowls of
                  Bibim Naengmyun and discussing the latest stock
                  quotes...essence of Korea.

                  The mark of good NM in my humble opinion, aside from
                  the broth, is the quality of the noodles. They cannot
                  be overdone, and they should be cold enough so that
                  the cooking process stops once they are taken out of
                  the boiling water. They should be mildly resistant to
                  cutting with your teeth. The other great debate is
                  what people do with that one-half boild egg you get
                  with the Mool Naengmyun. Some people save it for the
                  end of the meal, or they can't deal with the dilemma
                  and start off by eating it right away. Still others,
                  yours truly included, take out the yolk and flavor the
                  soup with it by swishing it around the broth...ahhhh!
                  Extra egg s'il vous plait! Another issue here is the
                  requisite slice of cold meat (I think its brisket)
                  that should come with every bowl, but which has become
                  more scarce in Korea. Darn shame.

                  Lastly, don't be surprised if you see a slice of pear
                  in your naengmyun. The chef didn't drop in there by
                  accident. Enjoy.

                  Michael Yu

                  1. re: Michael Yu

                    The main difference between Pyongyang & Hamheung
                    naengmyon is the noodles: PY style should be made with
                    buckwheat and a bit of flour, and HH style is made with
                    sweet potato startch, which makes it *extremely* chewy.
                    I believe the broth is similar. Also, HH style is
                    traditionally served with a fish garnish, while PY is
                    garnished with meat that was used to make some of the
                    broth. One thing my mom always insisted on was the
                    correct preparation for the cucumber garnish, not the
                    plain julienned cucumbers you usually get in
                    restaurants nowadays. (BTW, I'm something of a purist
                    when it comes to naengmyon--I don't think egg yolk
                    should flavor a good broth!)

                    1. re: Aleece

                      Aleece,

                      So let me get this straight. PY is made with
                      buckwheat, so the noodles should be brown; whereas HH
                      is made iwth Sweet Potato, which means the noodles
                      should be gray? Any recommendations for good
                      naengmyun places in the Kangnam area? Have you been
                      to any of the chain s strated by those entrepreneurial
                      former N.Korean defectors?

                      I think purism is fine, as long as restaurants give
                      you options. The trouble is, restaurants are cutting
                      down and skimping on all the extras, as well as on
                      portions. Or is it that I am just still a growing
                      boy? In any case, with the recent weather, it is
                      truly Naengmyun season. Hope its an enjoyable one.

                      Also, what do you think of the non-Korean places to
                      eat? There must be times when you miss food from New
                      York. I've been to most of the fairly well-known
                      places-- Kung, Wasabi, Tastevin, La Volpaia and most
                      of these have been disappointing. Any recommendations
                      on your list?

                      Michael Yu

                      1. re: Michael Yu

                        Hmm... I can't say with certainty that the color is
                        that different. I haven't had HH in ages, &, as you
                        know, naengmyon noodles are a slightly nondescript,
                        transluscent brownish-grey color anyway.
                        I can't help you with Kangnam places, as my family
                        lives on the other side of town. They did mention a
                        great new place called Jindallae opened by a N. Korean
                        defector, but it went downhill rapidly before my last
                        visit to Korea.
                        I agree with you that it's hard to find places that
                        consistently maintain the quality of ingredients as the
                        years pass (my "purist" comment applied just to the
                        egg-yolk practice you mentioned). Do you find that
                        portions are decreasing in general? I didn't notice
                        that on my last visit (in case it wasn't clear from my
                        earlier post, I don't live in Korea--just visit
                        regularly. Unfortunately, I moved from NY to LA.). As
                        for non-Korean places, Wil in the Gana Art Center is
                        pretty decent (despite the name, it has an Italian
                        bent). Bison near the Hyatt was quite good a year
                        ago...

                        1. re: Aleece

                          Aleece,

                          You are accurate regarding portions. Maybe I am not a
                          growing boy after all! This is most noticeable when
                          you order Seolnongtang. Even in K-town in NYC, at
                          places like Gham Mee Ok, the bowls got smaller,
                          definitely. One realizes this when one is sprinkling
                          on Spring Onions on top of the soup and the
                          realization comes once you've hit the bottom of the
                          bowl with your mere sprinkling, and bam, it hits you,
                          they've not only changed to smaller bowls, but its no
                          longer the brown ceramic, but cheap plastic bowls
                          instead. It is a profound downer. Part of the
                          pleasure of eating seolnongtang is the sound of
                          scraping your metal spoon against the bottom of the
                          ceramic bowl. It makes a very distinct sound. And
                          now that is gone.

                          I went to Bison in Kangnam about three months ago, not
                          too impressive. Just like a typical meal in Seoul at
                          a western restaurant-- overpriced and not near worth
                          the (dis)service, etc. One comes out vehemently
                          insulted by the chef's implicit suggestion that small
                          portions mean refinement...

                          So, on to bigger and better things. Where is the Gana
                          Art Center?

                          There used to be a restaurant in "LA somewhere"
                          serving Cuban food and with the word "Banana" in it.
                          Know it?

                          Michael Yu

                          1. re: Michael Yu

                            I agree with you that plastic bowls are a sacrilege--
                            unthinkable! As for portions, don't you find the
                            portions in Korea smaller overall than in the US, K-
                            town included?
                            It's too bad about Bison; the one at Namsan was quite
                            good about a year ago. Gana Art Center is in
                            Pyongchang Dong, near Bukhansan. It's a bit of a trek
                            if you live in Kangnam, but there's a nice little
                            gallery and restaurant. (& I'm afraid I don't know of
                            the Cuban restaurant that you mentioned. Maybe with
                            more clues...)

                            1. re: Aleece

                              Any place that switches from ceramic to plastic bowls
                              is needlessly demoting itself, I think. I do agree
                              with you that portions are getting smaller here
                              especially in light of the tough economic times
                              recently. The thing is that restaurants serving one
                              type of dish are all clustered somewhere, and as soon
                              as one place cuts down on portions to fatten its
                              margins, the other places follow. Its sort of sad to
                              see.

                              In other news, the big trend this last year or so
                              seems to be Asian fusion cuisine (all clustered around
                              the Apkujung/Chungdam area). Kung is one place, Xian
                              is another, and there are some others I haven't been
                              to...an Asian/French grill somewhere, Japanese Italian
                              fusion seems to be another big area, and last night I
                              talked with someone who just started a fusion Chinese
                              place called Canton. I happen to be not too into this
                              area. Mainly because I still enojoy the down to earth
                              basics, and do not yearn for a "new approach" to an
                              old standby. Kalbi with mango chutney...that just
                              ain't my thang...Thoughts?

                              The Cuban place wasn't that great...Can't remember the
                              name for the life of me.

                              Michael Yu

                              1. re: Michael Yu

                                Hmm, fusion arrives in Seoul. It was inevitable, I
                                suppose, with all the people going back & forth. I
                                too am extremely wary when people start fiddling
                                around with good old-fashioned basics. Fusion is so
                                hit-or-miss, I can't imagine that they would do it
                                very well in Korea. I'm not surprised to hear that
                                fusion places have popped up in Kangnam, trend central
                                (not a big fan of the area). Have you tried the
                                blowfish place in Samchung Dong (near Chunghwadae)?
                                It's been there forever, & I'd be sad if that has gone
                                downhill as well.

                                1. re: Aleece

                                  I haven't written in ac couple of days and I already
                                  feel remiss! In any case, a recent birthday was
                                  celebrated and I went to Xian (Asian fusion place in
                                  Chungdamdong) with family for a nice quiet dinner. I
                                  think after I went and having talked with my friends
                                  about it, I am convinced Xian is a definite one-
                                  timer. Everyone has gone there at one time or another
                                  because of the food, but across the board, I've not
                                  found one person who has returned of their own
                                  volition. And for good reason.

                                  We had the raw deep-fried tuna as an appetizer, big
                                  shrimp with thin noodles, sliced duck, and tenderloin
                                  with garlic noodles and mashed potatoes, with a side
                                  order of duck fried rice. For dessert chestnut pound
                                  cake, crepes with banana ice cream, and I had deep
                                  fried wonton ("fortune cookies") filled with chocolate.

                                  (Can any meal at a fushion place be
                                  called "typical"?) I've always found that a
                                  restaurant should have an anchor upon which they stake
                                  the livelihood of the restaurant. For Italian places,
                                  it should be the linuini in garlic and oil, for a
                                  local deli restaurant it should be something plain
                                  like boiled beef and cabbage. What is the equivalent
                                  for fushion places?)

                                  In any case, the description sounds better than it
                                  tasted. The way most people ate at their tables was
                                  like at the China Grill in NY. You order entrees and
                                  share family style.

                                  My poor mom kept asking what country these dishes were
                                  from. In any case, the shrimp was meagre, the noodles
                                  too sour, the beef was commonplace and too thinkly
                                  sliced, and my fortune cookies were just too weird.
                                  Felt like badly conceived out-of-the-box cookies.

                                  On top of the fare, the atmosphere was poor. Mostly
                                  younger people (early 20s) with all of their cell
                                  phone on their table keeping a sharp eye on who comes
                                  in. Another big minus was no table-cloths. I could
                                  go on, but well, let's not dwell on the negatives.

                                  I happen to live in the Kangnam area, Apkujung area,
                                  but I completely understand your remarks. But there
                                  are real pluses about being around here, though it
                                  comes with getting used to the environs more than
                                  anything...

                                  I have a favorite blowfish soup (Bokuhtang) place near
                                  Samgakji station 4000 won and the best hang-over
                                  killer everd evised. Move over bean sprout soup,
                                  honey tea, gatorade, jjambong, seolnongtang, bloody
                                  marys, chicken soup, orange juice, menudo, and
                                  tylenol. This is the stuff. Blowfish soup.

                                  Michael Yu

                                  1. re: Michael Yu

                                    I'm going to be in Seoul this fall, and I'm looking
                                    forward to exploring all the new restaurants. (let
                                    me know if you have any finds that are not to
                                    be missed) I'll know to avoid Xian, except perhaps for
                                    the novelty factor.
                                    Jjambong on a hangover? You must have been a
                                    masochist!

                                    1. re: Aleece

                                      It's taken a while, but I think I have some finds for
                                      you.

                                      There is a place near Yoksam station (again, south of
                                      the river) called Shinjung. It's a very old
                                      establishment and it doesn't have any particular cozy
                                      feel (what Korean restaurant does?). In fact, the
                                      parking lot, the three stories of dining space all
                                      suggest that there is one purpose for the building: to
                                      feed. There is an on-going debate as to what the
                                      specialty of this place is. Some say that the Ori Gui
                                      (roasted duck) is it. Indeed upon entering the
                                      restaurant you are morosely greeted by already
                                      roasted, sorry to use the expression, dead ducks
                                      hanging from the kitchen (a la Cantonese BBQ
                                      Restaurant style). We ordered a plate of this as a
                                      sort of appetizer. Eating light was never a forte for
                                      me. The duck was really good, but it could never be
                                      the centerpiece for the meal. In other places in
                                      Korea you can eat the smoked meat as the first course
                                      and then replete your stomach with the duck soup made
                                      from the bones (never mind the Marx movie, this is
                                      really a good dish). For some reason they did not
                                      allow you to do this here. My hunch is that the staff
                                      saved the leftovers for themselves. For the main
                                      course we had gopchang (beef intestines) jungol
                                      (stew), which was hearty, filling and tasty. When you
                                      realize that there are differences in the levels if
                                      ingredients that you did not notice before, I think
                                      that is the mark of finding a good place. The
                                      intestines were actually of better quality than where
                                      I had it elsewhere. I may gross out some people, but
                                      there really were differences. The coup for the
                                      evening though was my friend, who suggested that the
                                      waiter bring some measure of sukiyaki type beef to
                                      drop into the jungol stew. While the intestines took
                                      longer to cook, we were able to pick on the beef while
                                      we waited. It was a great idea. Not cheap, but great
                                      meals are made of such improvisations...

                                      More restaurants later.

                                      Michael Yu

              2. re: Jim Leff

                Jim,

                that's my boyee! i told you it was only a matter of
                time before he started posting. by the way, just in
                case you're a little confused, he's 100% korean,
                although he has travelled around a lot. he also
                happens to be my former roommate. can you guess from
                our posts which one of us is the more conservative
                intellectual and which is the nonconformist slacker?
                :-) anyways, i know of only two korean-chinese
                restaurants in the city, sang choon won on 32nd (which
                i mentioned in my early post in the best of board) and
                horng bin won on 35th, which is next to han bat. they
                both have jjam bbong (which mikey mentions in great
                detail in his post). i believe the best korean-chinese
                places are in flushing, though i couldn't tell you
                which. oh well, until we post again . . .

                hey mikey, what up? i'll email you. glad you like
                this place. knew you'd love my spam post.

                wonki