Overwhelmed in Seoul
I'm in Seoul for two weeks, and even though I thought I was moderately knowledgeable about Korean food I'm having a somewhat tough time of it.
Street food is no problem, because for the most part you can see what you're getting. Ditto for the big markets (Gwangjang!). But restaurants are trickier - I'm finding it hard to figure out what each specializes in (even though I studied up on Hangul before my arrival).
I'm mostly eating solo. I get the impression that makes kalbi difficult (I went into one place, they pretty much refused to serve me). Had some excellent pig's feet (near Dongguk University), but the smallest sized serving was enormous, clearly meant for more than one. What's the strategy here for eating alone?
I'm staying near Hyehwa, near Sungkyunkwan University, so it's a neighborhood that doesn't seem accustomed to many Western diners - which is fine, but it seems to raise the barriers to entry. Suggested strategies would be appreciated!
I know exactly how you feel: I've been (politely) "thrown out" of dozens of restaurants in Seoul. Either because they don't feel comfortable dealing with a foreigner, or because they specialize in some dish that really can only be served for a group. Even then, I sometimes can't help going in and saying I'm just one person, and occasionally, after many rejections, a place is willing to prepare something for me with the ingredients on hand, and it's great.
On the other hand, I sometimes have to order something that a group of friends usually shares as a snack, like a whole pajeon, and eating it all by yourself as a meal makes you want to cry…
Most restaurants should actually be able to accommodate you. Most Korean dishes are or can be made for individual servings. It's summertime, so you might look out for places that specialize in samgyetang or naengmyeon. Or boshintang…
One place I distinctly remember seeing several other solo diners: Budnamujip, for the morning/lunchtime kalbitang. It will be painful not to be able to have their amazing-looking and crazy-expensive barbecue, but the soup is pretty great.
If all else fails, try Seoul Station.
You are discovering that Koreans NEVER do anything alone, especially in food matters. Definitely a herd mentality (I should know - I'm part of that tribe but I do many things alone, which makes me a black sheep). I don't have experience eating in Seoul, but I agree with DD's recommendation for naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodle soup). Also, if you like sashimi, hwe du bap would be a nice dish for summertime solo dining (sashimi scattered on rice - Korean-style chirashi). I saw on "Kimchee Chronicles" a fast-food bibimbap place called "Bibigo." (Perhaps that might be icky to you?) Good luck! I am curious to hear more!
My wife and I are just back from 10 days of vacation in Seoul and Jeonju, and I can definitely sympathize about being overwhelmed. We researched the heck out of Seoul's restaurants and still had a tough time.
The most helpful research source that we found was the "Visit Seoul" website, which has a really helpful "Soul Food of Seoul" booklet online here (and free in hard copy in most hotels):
The site also has really useful videos in English on specific sites, led by "Gaechi," Seoul's newly created mascot:
These videos are really helpful and fun.
Specific places you might try that we really enjoyed and that could probably serve a solo diner:
- Goksi (?) (곡시) in Insadong, right across the alley from the Hotel Sunbee. Mandu and hotpot, probably the best meal we had in Korea, although it was not particularly exotic. There was at least one single diner there.
- Mr. Necktie (or something like that). This is on Galchi Jorim alley (Spicy Braised Hairfish and Radish Stew) in the huge Namdaemun market. These are sitdown restaurants, not stalls. Mr. Necktie can be identified by its large red bowtie. The barker standing outside was really friendly and spoke English and there were single diners there. Delicious soup too. See photo below.
- Tosokchon - For Gingseng chicken soup (samgyetang), this is one of the most famous places. It's huge, but you'll still need to go on off hours to avoid having to wait in line. There were several single diners here. Our waitress spoke no English, but there are only two things on the menu so it was hard to go wrong.
You might also want to look for cheaper places, where they have things like budae jjigae (Army base stew, which is something you definitely want to try if you can). They'll probably be less worried about a single diner taking up a table.
But for some of the really good stuff (like the steakhouses on Majang-Gong's Gogi Alley and the steamed pork with raw oysters on Gul Bossam Alley), I think you're probably going to need at least two people. Time to chat up some ESL teachers?
re: Mississippi Snopes
Thanks for these suggestions! I've tried the Tosokchone already, good (though subtle). Today I did Naengmyeon in Ojang-dong. I will definitely be trying the galchi jorim and the place in Insadong. Off hours eating may be a good solo strategy - at least then they won't feel like I'm taking up space.
I was not solo, so I didn't have your experience. Quel bummer. Also, maybe there is a different protocol for dinner vs lunch? I saw plenty of place that were deserted for lunch and would be glad - I think- to have your business.
I'm not sure I fully understand your 'markets vs restaurants' slant, because some markets and food alleys really are their own series of mini-restaurants.
As Mississippi Snopes has already pointed out, the Seoul Food Tour with Haechi is a good place to start. 20 different 'alleys' are highlighted. Shlepping across Seoul may not be of interest to you, so I'll leave it to you to decide what's worth it. One of the places I ate is in the Manuel Garlic Chicken 'Alley', in this case four restaurants in a row along the street specializing in the same dish. The place I chose, wonjo daelim, looked to be set up to accommodate the individual diner. I had the main dish plus I added the pot of chrysalis that is on the menu (English translation provided), which proved to be a terrific vessel for that mountain of shredded garlic they give you.
Besides the social aspect, I'd like to suggest a practical reason why most grill places don't serve solo diners - considering the hassle / cost for them to clean the grill, do the set up & provide the usual (large!) spread of banchan (side dishes) that go along with your meat order, it may not seem worth their while if you're only ordering a one-person serving. I've seen solo diners at kalbi and samgyeopsal places before, but they usually order a decent amount, so I don't think the social aspect is necessarily always the primary factor for the restaurant owners. If you're still keen on trying some grilled meats & have the appetite to eat more than one serving, you could tell the restaurant when you enter that although you're by yourself you'll order enough for 2 people or more. Do you speak Korean? If not, you could have it written down in Korean to show the restaurant when you enter. Another strategy is to go at lunchtime when the grill places usually offer a different lunch menu that caters more to the solo diner (e.g. kalbi-tang, like at Budnamujib, or bibimbab which comes with the house grilled meat, like at Chamsutgol).
Jokbal (pig's feet) is definitely for groups! Things that would be easily served in single portions are noodle dishes like cold noodles (naengmyeon), guksu (soup noodles), bibimbab (mixed rice), jjigae (stews), juk (porridge). Korean food has a wide variety of soups, stews, and noodles so it isn't as restrictive as that might initially sound. Do you need specific recommendations, or are you looking more for general ideas on what type of places are friendly to solo diners?
Besides the above general suggestions, a few places near Hyehwa / 대학로 that would probably serve solo diners:
The Bab (더밥) - http://blog.naver.com/PostView.nhn?blogId=ben1224&logNo=120148208368
Sollamugil Doenjang yesul (솔나무길 된장예술) - http://www.foodncafe.com/blog/?mb_id=...
Thanks for these thoughts. Total coincidence: I ate at Sollamugil Doenjang Yesul today for lunch (not solo though) - excellent meal.
I agree that the single portion palate still offers quite a lot of variety (even a tremendous amount). Yesterday for example I had the tartare-like yuckhoe at Gwangchang market - terrific!
I just feel like I'm missing something if I go home without once having eaten barbeque.
I don't speak Korean (though I have studied up on Hangul). Can you suggest a short phrase that would get across the idea of "I'll order enough for two"?
Hm, offhand I can't think of any simple English phrase that would be reliably understood. Maybe when they turn you down after finding out you're eating solo, you can show them a simple sentence like this:
고기 2 인분 주문하면 괜찮습니까?
(go-gi ee-in-bun ju-moon ha myeon gwen-chan-sum-ni-kka?)
Literally, "if I order two servings of meat, would it be okay?"
Summertime is a great time to try kongguksu. Noodles in cold soy milk broth. Can be addictively delicious, albeit simple. Very difficult to find in the US.
Here is a link:
Also, I strongly urge you try marinated duck bulgogi 오리 불고기, also hard to find in the US, and mostly found in places that specialize in duck. A Korean friend told me that duck dishes in Korea are always a rare treat, and after having tried it twice, I have to agree.
I didn't have it in Seoul, but I know this place serves it. Just put the address into Google Maps:
6-12 Hoehyeondong 3(sam)-ga
Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea
I see from their sign in Street View they also have duck soup. 오리 탕
I have no personal rec on this score, but here is a list from Seoulistic. Woo Sung looks like my kind of place:
However, I have to say that I would first go to a place for great galbi jim (braised ribs), something you can't always find easily back home.
Since no else has commented, my brief thoughts on the grilled kalbi places you mentioned:
Samwon Garden - Probably the most touristy of the lot.
Byeokje - Actually a chain, standard is decent but probably won't wow you. Prices vary widely depending on which outlet you go, principally due to ambience. If I were to choose one of the Byeokje outlets to go, I'd likely pick one of the Bong Pi Yang ones.
Chamsutgol - Casual, not touristy. Side dishes a bit more interesting than Byeokje.
Mapo Sutbul - There are a lot of similarly named eating places with 'Mapo' in the name, so I'm not 100% sure if we're thinking of the same one, but this is a pork kalbi place. I've never been though, I don't get to Mapo much.
Sad to say I don't have any knock your socks off recommendations for grilled kalbi in Seoul (as yet). To be honest, I've had much more memorable experiences with other Korean foods. And particularly so if compared to the US where it's much easier to find decent grilled kalbi in my opinion than good kalbi jjim as Steve says (I recommended Gangnam Myeon Ok in another thread on this board) or grilled black pork belly (samgyeobsal).