If you love to eat, Seoul is the city for you. The city is teeming with restaurants, markets and street food stalls- a meal or a snack can be found around every corner.
Seoul’s food scene can be a bit daunting to navigate if you don’t speak Korean and it can be tempting to limit yourself to eating at restaurants with English menus. These spots are rarely where the locals gather and we all know that if you want to eat well- you eat where the locals eat.
Enter Seoul’s hidden food alleys- entire streets filled with restaurants dedicated to serving one particular Korean dish. It makes ordering a heck of a lot easier and when an establishment is focused on one dish and one dish only- they tend to knock it out of the park. Here are three Korean dishes to hunt down in the city’s secret food streets…
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1. Pajeon (green onion pancake) in Pajeon Alley
You’ll see pajeon- a green onion pancake- on menus all around Seoul. It’s a popular street food, you can order it in restaurants and it’s a mainstay on bar menus to accompany shots of soju (rice liquor). More often than not, pajeon is served thin- vast handfuls of sliced green onion bound by a barely there batter and served with a soy and vinegar dipping sauce. To be honest, it’s not a dish that we’ve ever rhapsodised about, that is until we visited Pajeon Alley.
Pajeon Alley, more of a street really, made up of around 10 restaurants where the green onion pancake is served golden and crunchy. Eat at Nakseo Pajeon, a poky restaurant of over twenty years, whose walls are covered in the scribbles of diners (Nakseo means scribble).
Nakseo is known for their haemul pajeon- seafood pancake- which is loaded with fragrant green onion and pieces of tender octopus. The chunky mixture is fried until the edges of the pancake are thick and crispy. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, the smell of the golden pajeon wafting up from the giant wooden board on which it’s served, this might just be the only pajeon you’ll ever want to eat again in Seoul. Wash down the oily goodness with bowls of bubbly Makgeolli (Korean rice wine).
Nakseo Pajeon, 서울특별시 동대문구 휘경동 319-40. Open from 2:00pm until late (we suggest visiting in the evening).
2. Jokbal (braised pig’s trotters) in Jokbal Alley
The delicious smells emanating from Jokbal (braised pig’s trotters) Alley will make you want to set up camp and never leave. The aroma of star anise, soy, cinnamon and ginger hovers in a pleasant cloud that hits you the moment you step into this crowded alley. Pig’s trotters wallow in a braising liquid of these aromatics together with ingredients like doenjang- Korean fermented soybean paste- and cooking wine. Cooked low and slow they emerge tender and glossy hours later. Jokbal are considered as anju- drinking food- and if you’re about to embark on a jokbal feast- we suggest you arrive both hungry and thirsty.
In Jokbal Alley the restaurants are packed to the gunnels- hungry, rowdy diners knock back makgeolli and soju and tuck into giant platters of sliced jokbal. Jokbal is eaten as ssam- wrapped in lettuce leaves with ssamjang, an addictive sauce of fermented soybean paste and chilli paste, sliced raw garlic and saeujeot- salted fermented shrimp. The lettuce is fresh and vibrant, the perfect accompaniment to the collagen rich meat.
But it doesn’t stop there, jokbal, like all meals in Korea is served with an array of banchan or side dishes- offal soup, slices of sundae- Korean blood sausage and tangy kimchi. Wrap, eat, drink. You’ll soon get the hang of the rhythm.
Jokbal Alley, 256-44 Gongdeok-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea. Restaurant on the right hand side, about two doors down with the open kitchen.
3. Korean barbecue in Korean Barbecue Town
Koreans love to barbecue- beef and pork are the proteins of choice accompanied by a staggering collection of banchan ranging from soybean soup and radish pickles to slices of raw beef liver and stomach. Korean barbecue town is a narrow alley located smack bang in the middle of Majang meat market so you can guarantee the meat is super fresh. Choose select cuts of meat by weight or simply order one of the set combinations.
It’s all go once your order is placed-hot coals are popped under the grill which is set into your table. Slices of meat are whacked onto the hot plate and soon every surface of your table is covered in banchan.
The meat, which you grill yourself is eaten wrapped in lettuce leaves together with raw garlic, dipping sauces and a variety of kimchi. Smoky grilled meat washed down with bottles of ice-cold beer- this is one Korean dining experience you’ll definitely repeat.
Restaurant in Korean BBQ town, 761-8, Majang-dong, Seongdong-gu, Seoul. Open in the evening.
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We hope this Seoul food guide has helped you eat and explore like a traveller, not a tourist!
Spending more time in Seoul? Check out our ‘Gwangjang Market Street Food Guide‘ and ‘Namdaemun Market Street Food Guide‘
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