Seoul Food: Flavors for the Soul

The following is a documentary of where and what, we ate during our four days vacation in Seoul. This is by no means an account of the best places to eat in the city, but rather just a narrative of our own dining experiences.

WESTERN CHAINS.

Seoul, like any contemporary city, has been invaded by multinational chains, and McDonalds, KFC and Burger King are as ubiquitous there as everywhere else. They also have local a McDonalds competitor called Lotteria (so apparently, Jollibee is not alone in trying to beat Ronald, but Lotteria doesn’t have a cute mascot). As usual, we always try McDonalds in every country we go to, and apart from having the “Bulgogi Burger”, the McDonalds experience in Seoul is not that much different from what you’ll see in Manila. Just don’t expect “Pinoy spaghetti” and Fried Chicken with Rice meals, since those are unique to Philippine stores. Seoul is big on cafes as well, and you can find quite a lot of Starbucks there too, along with local chains.

Starbucks in Seoul has rice chips, something I haven't found anywhere else, not even in China.

GOGUNGDDURAK.

Our first full meal on day 1 was at the cafe of the National Palace Museum inside the Gyeongbokgung complex. Though the weather was fine and cool, staying under the sun still takes its toll on you, and after going around the palace complex, we just went for the nearest place to get nourishment.

Kimchi and pickles, at Gogungddurak

The place is called Gogungddurak, and they offered traditional Korean food with a slight touch of “fusion”, similar to how 5-star chefs would alter dishes to suit their style, but without the 5-star prices. Dishes go for less than 20,000 KRW (20 USD), and most are even in the less than 15,000 range – not bad for proper, sit down dining matched with a quiet museum ambiance. This was also my first taste of Kimchi on Korean soil.

Gungjung Bibimbap, a "vegetarian" twist to the familiar Bibimbap.
Seogogi Deopbap - stir fried beef with lots of bean sprouts and other vegies.

MEI WEI

The following day, we had lunch inside the Lotte World Mall, at a Chinese place called Mei Wei. One thing I learned in my travels is that there is no such thing as a singular “Chinese cuisine”. In the Philippines, our impression of Chinese food may be that of “Siomai”, “Mami” and “Pancit Canton”, while in Malaysia, it might be “Hokkien Mee”, and in the U.S., they might think of “Lo Mein”. Truth is, while those are indeed derived from Cantonese and Hokkien cuisine, they do not come to represent the whole of China. Chinese food in Beijing is different from Chinese food in Hong Kong, and the Chinese food we got here at Mei Wei, in the middle of Seoul, was something totally strange to me again.

I got the Spicy Noodles with Rice, which looked too similar to the Korean Japchae Bap, it got me wondering if it was really Chinese. My wife got the Seafood Fried Rice with a siding of mushrooms and onions in some kind of sauce (maybe oyster sauce and then something else). Fried rice is fried rice where ever you go, so it wasn’t anything new, but the siding looked (and tasted) quite peculiar to us. The restaurant was packed though and lots of people ordered the same thing, so people in this part of the world must be familiar with this kind of Chinese food.

Korean dining requires the use of both a pair of chopsticks and a long spoon. I never got the hang of it, and only used one or the other at any time.
Spicy Noodles on Rice
Seafood Fried Rice with Mushrooms and Onions in "some kind of sauce".

LOTTE WORLD

All theme parks, regardless of location, are big when it comes to food. After all, the parks visitors are a captive market, and Lotte World was no different. Like most theme parks, Lotte World has various restaurants serving various cuisines; however, also like most theme parks, each restaurant has a limited menu.

We chose a restaurant that served a Korean menu, which was actually composed of just two main dishes – Beef Curry Rice, and something else I no longer recall. So what is Beef Curry doing in a Korean food outlet? We all know that “curry” is Indian in origin, however through the ancient world’s trade routes, “curry” found its way to other asian states, even as far as Korea and Japan, and today curry still manifests itself in East Asian cuisine from time to time.

Beef Curry Rice
The beef Bulgogi "kiddie meal" for our toddler.

ORIENTAL ROO

Dinner time caught us while we were at the Seoul Tower on the third day, and we just headed straight to one of the restaurants at the base. It was the only one serving oriental cuisine, and it was called Oriental Roo (I don’t know what Roo meant. We normally associate “roo” with “kangaroo”, but that’s Australian, not oriental).

Oriental Roo was a decent restaurant that looked more expensive than it actually was. It’s directly below the open air observation terrace, and the restaurant gives a good “overlooking” view of the city as well. Ask for a window-side table, and you’ll have a perfect setting for a date, or an engagement proposal, especially at night when the city lights kick up the romantic mood by a notch or two. The food is pretty good as well for such a commercial environment, and relatively inexpensive.

A "mini-banchan" from Oriental Roo, composed of marinated radish, Kimchi and some kind of hot sauce.
Pork strips in sweet and sour sauce
A generous serving of Crab Meat Soup, perfect for the cool evening atop the mountain.

BUSAN GALBI.

On the last day of our stay, we chose a restaurant serving traditional Korean food, close to the Metro station at Itaewon. It’s called the Busan Galbi, and as the name implies, their specialty is Galbi – raw marinated beef cooked at a tableside grill.

We were in quite a rush though, and didn’t have time for an intricate Galbi preparation, so we went for their other dishes instead. I had the Dubu Jjigae – a spicy tofu stew, while my wife had the Bulgogi Jungol – a noodle stew with grilled marinated beef (bulgogi). This was our best full meal throughout our short stay, and also our last. “Save the best for last” as they say, though this time its purely coincidental.

A banchan of bean sprouts, kimchi, some green vegetables and tofu.

The soft tofu tasted a lot like the Filipino “taho”, minus the syrup, and the spicy stew that went with it had just the right amount of “hotness” – it could get you sweating, but won’t leave that burning feeling in your mouth. The taste might take a bit of getting used too, for some, but I found the mixture of the soft tofu’s “blandness”, and the stews spiciness interesting, and enjoyable.

Dubu Jjigae

The Bulgogi Jungol meanwhile was hands-down the best dish we ordered throughout our stay. The beef carried the wonderful sweet-salty taste of the bulgogi marinade, and the flavor permeated to the soup, giving each sip a wonderful “beefy” taste that no “Knorr cube” could replicate. The soup also had the trademark Korean sweet potato glass noodles, to add more weight to the dish. Needless to say, it was a very satisfying meal, and all that for less than 15 USD (15,000 KRW)…real bang for the buck.

Bulgogi Jungol
A real Korean set meal
* We visited Seoul last September 2011. All photos taken with Olympus E-420 and Zuiko 14-54mm f2.8-3.5
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