Having only been properly introduced to Korean food (sans Seoul Garden Korean BBQ, which isn’t exactly Korean) in 2012 after I started learning the Korean Language, I would say that we’ve come a long way since. Many Singaporeans still associate Korean cuisine simply with Korean BBQ, ginseng chicken and everything hot and spicy, but really, Korean cuisine is much more than that. I always tell my own mum to give it a chance (went with her on a tour in 2004 and she left Korea without managing to change her opinion on their cuisine) but she never agreed to go to any more authentic Korean restaurants here in Singapore. Well… it’s not for lack of trying on my part.
So in any case, this post is largely inspired by the numerous requests I get from friends and friends of friends who know that I travel to South Korea pretty often. I am not saying that this list is the best out there or covers all the foods within the group that is Korean cuisine, but I would say it is fairly comprehensive for a first-timer to Seoul. I have to qualify though, that most of these restaurants are located conveniently near Myeongdong because that is where I always choose to put up at.
Before I start with the recommendations proper, I’ll say this first – go download the app Naver Maps onto your mobile phones. Don’t worry if you can’t read Korean, the app is now in English as well. Trust me on this… Google Maps doesn’t quite work in Korea.
For regulars to Seoul, Isaac Toast 이삭토스트 must sound familiar. I don’t drink coffee and none of us ordered their beverages during the numerous times we patronised the stall so I can’t comment on their drinks but I dare say it’s a darn good way to start your day, with their awesome toasts as breakfast. Now, Isaac Toast has landed on our shores (located at Level B2 of Plaza Singapura) and I have tried it once after returning from Seoul… but I have to say that they don’t taste the same although I ordered my usual Bacon Best.
In essence, Isaac Toast simply serves toasted bread with basic fillings but why is it so popular to the extent that it has a cult following? To start with, unlike sandwiches and toasts we buy from convenience stores and bakeries, these are made fresh, on the spot after you’ve placed your order. Not very unlike McDonald’s actually but the variety tops it anytime. Also, the winner likes in the special sweet sauce that is added to every toast, regardless of flavour chosen. I believe that is what seals the deal for most people. At least for me, it is.
While I recommended having this for breakfast, the stalls located all over Seoul are actually opened throughout the day, from as early as 0730hrs till late in the night. Don’t be daunted when you see a long queue, they clear fairly quickly and let me assure you that some of the people you see crowding around the kiosks are actually trying to finish their toasts before walking off; they aren’t actually part of the queue.
There are three locations where you can find Isaac Toast in Myeongdong itself (the blue long rectangle is Myeongdong Subway Station on Subway Line 4). Location A is located along the main road and is the one most people know about so there is a perpetual queue there. Personally I prefer Location B (it’s quite new and very near Myeongdong Cathedral) and have only been there. As for Location C, it’s located across the street from Myeongdong Shopping Street and requires walking up a steep slope so it’s not preferable for me lol. Could be a good stop, though if you are descending after a visit to Namsan Hill.
Isaac Toast 이삭토스트 명동성당점
서울특별시 중구 명동10길 17-1
Isaac Toast Myeongdong Cathedral Branch
17-1 Myeongdong 10-gil, Jung-gu,
Seoul, South Korea
Opening Hrs: 0700 – 2030hrs (Mon-Sat), Closed Sun
Most people recommend Myeongdong Kyoja 명동교자 for the famous steamed dumplings (which I agree are delicious) but more importantly, I think the handmade knife-cut wheat flour noodles (Kalguksu 갈국수) actually deserve special mention because that is essentially their specialty. In fact I searched up a bit and it seems that they used to be called Myeongdong Kalguksu but too many other shops starting using the same name (thus causing some confusion) so they radically changed their name.
Myeongdong Gyoja has a rather limited menu, just 3-4 items if I’m not wrong, depending on the season. This round when I visited in November, there were just 3 items to order from: Kalguksu, Bibimguksu (spicy noodles) and Steamed Mandu (dumplings). It pays to go dine in a group so you can order all the items on the menu to share so I have to say that I was really glad I travelled with two Korean Language classmates in the latest trip because it was the first time I got to try out Bibimguksu and I loved it. It wasn’t as spicy as I expected, in fact it was refreshing even when we ate it on a cool autumn night.
There are two branches of Myeongdong Kyoja in Myeongdong within comfortable walking distance from Myeongdong Subway Station on Subway Line 4, one of which being the main restaurant (probably Location A). Both branches serve the same food and are equally efficient, so I would recommend Location B since most people just want to go to the main restaurant. Again, don’t be daunted by the queue. The staff are very efficient and will direct you to the next available table (both restaurants are a few storeys high) so just listen to their instructions, or if you are unfamiliar with the language, follow their hand gestures. Don’t worry, they are rather used to ushering foreigners who looked lost. One point to note though, is that payment has to be made once you submit the order at the table. It’s either for efficiency or I suspect they have experienced many diners who just left without paying.
Myeongdong Kyoja 명동교자 본점
서울특별시 중구 명동10길29
Myeongdong Kyoja Main Branch
29 Myeongdong 10-gil, Jung-gu,
Seoul, South Korea
Opening Hrs: 1030-2130hrs daily
Budae Jjigae 부대찌개, a much-loved Korean dish borne out of food scarcity after the Korean War is a must-try in Seoul (and if you’re interested in how this dish came about, read this detailed post), especially in the winter months. I’ve to qualify that this restaurant I’m about to recommend doesn’t exactly offer the traditional type of Budae Jjigae, but if you love cheese like I do, you’ll probably take to it.
Shimsontang’s 심슨탕 rendition is quite a spin from the original in that they boast to use whole ox bones to prepare the stock for the stew, hence resulting in a much deeper taste than the usual stews that tend to use canned baked beans to flavour the stock. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this chain of restaurants is opened jointly by two celebrities, Korean singers Shim Taeyoon and Hwang Bo (I knew her from We Got Married 🙂 ). Alright, I’m too sure if she is the co-owner of all the outlets or just the one located in Hongdae, but anyhow the latest is that the Hongdae branch that I visited has closed down as of 2019.
If you’re a fan of junk food like spam, ham, luncheon meat, sausages and ramyeon, then Shimsontang’s version might just disappoint you a little because the stew is contained within a much smaller pot than usual. While I really love the typical Budae Jjigae, I quite like this version since I can sample other food as well. And given that Budae Jjigae comes in at least a portion for two, so it’s a great way to share food with friends and family.
Since the Hongdae Branch (which I visited) has closed down, I’m going to leave directions to the Myeongdong branch. Will probably check out this branch on my next trip to Seoul.
Shimsontang Myeongdong Branch is actually located midway between Myeongdong Subway Station (blue on the map) on Line 4 and Euljiro 1(il)-ga Station (green on the map) on Line 2. As with many restaurants in Seoul, it is located on Level 2 so remember to look up while searching for its exact location.
서울특별시 중구 명동2가 2-3
Shimsontang Myeongdong Branch (Level 2)
2-3 Myeongdong 2(i)-ga, Jung-gu,
Seoul, South Korea
Opening Hrs: 1130-2230hrs daily
Tosokchon Samgyetang 토속촌 삼계탕 is the only place I go to for Ginseng Chicken whenever I visit Seoul. For very good reason – this is the IT restaurant that serves the representative Korean food that everyone knows. Well, with the exception of kimchi. It is said that even the late Korean President Roh Moohyun used to frequent this restaurant so there is absolutely no question about the quality of food there. And for some reason, Koreans really like to eat Samgyetang on hot days because they believe eating it on those days promotes health. A little counter-intuitive to me, to be honest. I only make my way to the restaurant in autumn or winter. I find it simply too warm to eat it in summer. 😛
What would probably put people off is likely the perennial queue that never ceases. Again, I would like to reassure you that you shouldn’t be discouraged because of the queue because it moves fairly quickly because well… it may not look so from outside, but the interior of Tosokchon is really expansive and can accommodate many diners.
Like Myeongdong Gyoja, Tosokchon doesn’t have an extensive menu. They have the signature Tosokchon Samgyetang (aka Ginseng Chicken Soup) which, according to their website, is ‘made with a special recipe by adding luxurious ginseng and glutinous rice, pumpkin seeds, black sesame, walnut, pine, native chestnut, medicinal jujube, gingko, garlic, sunflower seeds and special ingredients‘ so on and so forth. Suffice it to say that this bowl of goodness packs a punch and boasts numerous health benefits. You can never go wrong with ordering this dish.
The other popular item on the menu is the Ogolgye Samgyetang 오골계 삼계탕 (aka Ginseng Korean Black Chicken Soup) using Silky Fowl which is ‘a chicken with black-toned flesh, skin and bones and a rare chicken which has been handed down as a healthy chicken for the food of only royal families, which the public couldn’t taste in the past‘. To Singaporeans, it’s simply ‘black chicken‘. Not too sure if it was just as rare here in past though. 😀
To compare the two ginseng chicken soups, the original has a sweeter and milder taste while the black chicken soup has a deeper, more intense taste. I personally prefer the latter but half of our company of four preferred the original rendition.
A word of caution: don’t over-order. Between the four of us with hearty appetites, we ordered two soups and a seafood pancake. It was sufficient because don’t forget the chickens in the soup will also be stuffed with glutinous rice.
We started queuing at 12 noon, and the queue was twice as long by the time we left the restaurant, around 1300hrs. At a glance, you could tell that most were foreigners in the queue since the Koreans know when to visit in order to avoid the crowd. Likewise we did, too. If you are not keen on queueing for too long, try going a little before or after the peak meal times. That always worked for us.
Tosokchon Samgyetang (marked Location A on the map) can be reach by alighting at Gyeongbokgung Station along Line 3. Take Exit 2, walk straight ahead along the main road and make a left turn when you see a GS25 supermarket. Otherwise, ask around and anyone familiar with the area should be able to point you in the correct direction.
Tosokchon Samgyetang 토속촌 삼계탕
서울특별시 종로구 자하문로5길 5 (체부동)
5 Jahamun-ro 5-gil, Chebu-dong, Jongno-gu,
Seoul, South Korea
Opening Hrs: 1000-2200hrs daily
You know how we always see characters in Korean dramas eating Jjajangmyeon 짜장면 deliciously and end up craving for the noodles even though you’re thousand of miles away from South Korea? I am most certainly guilty of that.
Unfortunately, apart from craving for a food I cannot easily find in Singapore (there are a couple of restaurants who do it rather well but I digress), I also made the mistake of assuming that Jjajangmyeon could easily be found in any Korean restaurant we came across. Not true. And this has got to do with the origin of Jjajangmyeon. If you don’t already know, Jjajangmyeon isn’t exactly traditional Korean cuisine. To be exact, it is a Chinese-Korean dish. On top of that, it’s seen as ‘quick food’, not unlike ramyeon hence not that frequently found in areas travellers to Seoul frequent.
Some years back, I was on a mission to find good Jjajangmyeon in Seoul. And I found Andongjang 안동장, purported to be the oldest Korean-Chinese restaurant in Seoul. I’ve been there 3-4 times, at different hours in the night, and I always managed to find a table within 10 minutes so the wait is manageable, if any. Every single time, I order the signature Jjajangmyeon to satiate my craving for this addictive dish and I have to say that I have not eaten Jjangmyeon more delicious anywhere else. Is it the noodles? Or the black bean sauce? I’m not sure but I just love the way this restaurant does it so well.
The Koreans like to eat their Jjajangmyeon together with Tangsuyuk 탕수육 aka Sweet and Sour Pork but it’s really nothing like the Singaporean local Sweet and Sour Pork that we are familiar with. Their rendition is obviously not so red because they don’t use tomato ketchup to flavour the dish. It ends up being more tangy and less sweet? But I’m not complaining, I really love sour stuff. Their meat though… are cut into much smaller slices. The emphasis seems to be on frying the meat while our localised version are more substantial in meat quantity.
According to the Koreans, there are two ways to eat Tangsuyuk and these two camps can never see eye to eye – the first group like to dip their meat into the bowl of sauce while the second group like to pour the sauce over the whole dish. A good thing I’ve never had such problems with fellow dining companions since we are all Singaporeans and are used to having the sauce poured over the whole dish, but I can see how it could lead to some unhappiness. 😛
Two other dishes we ordered on the latest visit: fried dumplings and Jjamppong 짬뽕 aka Korean-Chinese Spicy Seafood Noodle Soup, although that night, one of my companions was having stomach trouble so we asked for the non-spicy version of the soup. No kick at all, so go for the spicy version if you have the opportunity to.
Andongjang is convenient located close by one subway station located along two lines: Euljiro Sam(3)-ga on lines 2 and 3. Take Exit 10 or 11 depending on which line you were on, and walk straight ahead. It’s located along the main road; you can’t miss it.
서울특별시 중구 을지로3가 315-18
315-18 Euljiro 3(sam)-ga, Jung-gu,
Seoul, South Korea
Opening Hrs: 1130-2130hrs (Mon-Fri); 1130-2100hrs (Sat); 1130-2000hrs (Sun)
There are numerous Korean BBQ restaurants in Seoul. Over the years we have also visited several: Maple Tree House (upmarket and rather pricey, but good cuts), Baekjeong chain owned by Kang Hodong (cheap and used to be good but we have noticed a decline in meat quality over the years) and random ones we just walked into when we passed by.
This particular restaurant Yuktongryong 육통령 was recommended by our Korean Language teacher, for the one fact that it is the only restaurant in Seoul that serves the famous Jirisan Mountain Black Pork from Jeju Island. Extremely convenient since it is located in Myeongdong. I’m personally not such a big fan of pork or pork belly, but I did find the pork from Yuktongryong to be tasty without the usual gamey smell.
For some reason or another, this restaurant was particularly popular with Japanese tourists, we noticed. To cater to them, they even have special menus in Japanese. And for that matter, English too. I went a second time on the same trip with the mister, and he wanted to English menu, which I didn’t get to see on my first visit because I read Korean and took the usual menu. What I’ve noticed is, the English menu is very much simplified and rather different from the Korean menu. I guess it’s to make things less complicated for restaurant staff themselves. In any case, if you can read Korean, I recommend that you take the Korean menu for a wider selection of meat cuts.
If there is any dish on the menu that I personally recommend, it is the Aged Kimchi Stew. As a person who loves stews especially Korean Soft Tofu Stew, I’ll take every opportunity to order one if it is available on the menu. This stew didn’t disappoint at all. I’ve mentioned earlier in this post that I like things sour… and that’s what aged kimchi is – Sour. 🙂
Yuktongryong (Location A on map) is a short 5-minute walk from Myeongdong Station along Line 4 but if you walk into Myeongdong district, I figure you’ll probably take 30 minutes or more before you reach the restaurant simply because there are too many distractions within Myeongdong. I truly understand that lol. Another point to note, there is a clipboard on the wall to the left of the entrance of the restaurant. Write your name and number of pax dining there before taking a seat on one of the stools or simply stand around. The paper is the official queue, not the stools.
서울특별시 중구 명동8나길 37-2
Yuktongryong Myeongdong Main Branch
37-2 Myeongdong 8na-gil, Chungmuro 1(il)-ga, Jung-gu,
Seoul, South Korea
Opening Hrs: 1100-2400hrs daily
There is tteokbokki 떡볶이 aka spicy rice cakes and there is Hongdae Jopok Tteokbokki. Anyone who tells you that tteokbokki everywhere tastes equally good has clearly never been to the eatery in Hongdae because their tteokbokki is the bomb! I have brought (and also recommended) many people to this eatery, and they in turn have revisited on their own or went on to recommend their own friends as well. I guess the food speaks for itself.
An anecdote about this eatery: ‘Jopok’ means gangster in English, and it is said that the eatery was set up by an ex-gangster some twenty years back after his tteokbokki truck’s business flourished. Interesting. I never knew that until I started researching to write this post.
Tteokbokki is most certainly the #1 must-order item at this eatery. In addition, many like to top up hard boiled eggs to the dish, at extra cost. And another hot favourite is the fried food, or Twigim 튀김 to be dipped in the tteokbokki sauce. If you are adventurous, you can also order Sundae 순대, a kind of blood sausage that Koreans like to eat. Personally I’ll keep away from sundae, having tried it once and not being able to accept its taste.
Two other popular dishes: Eomuk 어묵 (Korean Fish Cake) and Cheese Ramyeon. It was raining the night I visited with two of my travel companions and these two dishes in particular were comforting on the cold autumn night.
I’ve always visited the eatery at Location A on the map above (which is quite a distance away from Hongdae Station, on Line 2 indicated in green) and only just realised that they have open a branch much closer to the station, at Location B. Never been to the new branch so I’ll make sure to check it out during my next trip. 🙂
The main branch is much nearer to Sangsu Station (in brown) along Line 6 but walking from this direction upwards is much less interesting than walking through Hongdae shopping district since it’s mostly restaurants, cafes and eateries closer to Sangsu side. So, pick your poison lol.
Hongdae Jopok Tteokbokki 홍대 조폭 떡볶이본점
서울특별시 마포구 어울마당로 60
Hongdae Jopok Tteokbokki Main Branch
60, Eoulmadang-ro, Mapo-gu,
Seoul, South Korea
Opening Hrs: 1100-0600hrs daily
Chimaek 치맥 is the unique pairing of fried chicken and beer, and an abbreviated term coined by the Koreans from the full name of Chicken + Beer in Korean language – 치킨맥주. While I’m not certain the Koreans were the ones who discovered this fabulous pairing, they most certainly popularised it primarily through Korean dramas.
There are no lack of restaurant chains selling fried chicken in Seoul, many have claimed that Kyochon Chicken 교촌치킨 is the best. Honestly I’m no connoisseur of fried chicken, and I was one of the loudest skeptics when everyone seemed to be raving about Korea’s rendition of fried chicken. I remember thinking, ‘Fried chicken? Like KFC, Popeye’s or Arnold’s? How different can fried chicken get?’
Very different is the answer.
I personally have no preference (because the mister and I ever walked into a random non-chain restaurant in Ewha University area and had the best fried chicken, ever), but a travelling companion requested for Kyochon and so we went Kyochon. It was simple as that.
Together with the mister, there were four of us when we had Kyochon for lunch on a Saturday afternoon. Because the mister doesn’t take spicy food, we ordered more of the signature Soy Garlic flavour, and another basket of half-half signature and spicy. To borrow KFC’s slogan… it was so finger lickin’ good! Upon further research, Kyochon apparently boasts to use only canola oil to fry their non-growth-hormones non-drugs-injected chicken. I mean… good if it’s true (and more importantly, continues to be true as operating costs increase) but I always take such claims with a pinch of salt. I’m pragmatic like that. It’s not like I eat Kyochon chicken frequently. For that matter, I don’t even consume fried chicken much. In any case, anything taken in moderation will never kill you. That’s my personal mantra.
Kyochon Chicken Dongdaemun Branch is apparently the main branch, and is located a very short walk from Dongdaemum Station along both lines 1 and 4. If you are coming from Line 4, take Exit 7 and from Line 1, take either exits 5 or 6.
Kyochon Chicken 교촌치킨
서울시 종로구 창신동 464-6 2층
Kyochon Dongdaemun Main Branch (Level 2)
464-6 Changsin-dong, Jongno-gu,
Seoul, South Korea
Opening Hrs: 24hrs daily