Trust us, this is not your chain kimbap store. From hot bubbling stews served with steaming, sticky rice to the best cold noodles to more traditional Korean dishes like samgaetyang (Korean-style chicken soup), these Korean restaurants are the ones that make ahjusshis confess their mothers aren't the best cooks in town. Bring your Korean friends and their parents, even!
Where to find the best Korean food
Gung is the top Seoul eatery for Gaeseong mandu (Gaeseong-style dumplings). The sight of the cooks shaping the dumplings by hand in the restaurant recalls the studio of a master craftsman. The restaurant began as a small business in the house of the founder, and as news of the dumplings spread, so too did the business. The current proprietor follows in the footsteps of the mother and grandmother, who was the original founder. It’s frequently the case that the original taste changes as the business is handed down, but not so with Gung—the taste of their dumplings remains exactly as it was years ago. Supposedly we have the many loyal patrons to thank for this consistency, as they’re not shy about voicing their opinions at the slightest change in the taste of the broth or the dumplings. The soft dumpling skins—rolled out in-house—are generously stuffed with pork, green bean sprouts, tofu, Napa cabbage, and leek. The main attraction is the uniquely gentle and lightly seasoned flavor of the Gaesong-style dumpling. In appearance, too, these dumplings are so prettily and elegantly shaped that it’s almost enough to make you feel bad as you bite into them. Yet there’s no special recipe. If you were to single out some trick in their method it’s that they mix the dumpling filling by hand. A machine just can't compete with the taste of a hand-mixed filling. You can’t skip the ddeokmanduguk (soup with rice cakes and dumplings), with dumplings, hand-shaped joraengiddeok (rice cakes shaped
This is the sort of place you seek out when you’re in need of some comforting, or when you want to reward yourself after some tough struggle. “To share the happiness felt when cooking” is the idea behind Moomyung Sikdang, which serves healthy and basic Korean food. The dishes, just like the soul of the proprietor, are all neat and wholesome. They’re dishes that you don’t easily tire of, dishes that won’t sit unpleasantly heavy in the gut: low-sodium jeotgal (salted, fermented seafood) from Sokcho, gim (dried seaweed) from Jangheung that doesn’t use acid in its cultivation process, dried persimmons from Cheongdo, pickled gim from Wando, and a pickled wild vegetable called chamnamul from Jeongseon. At this restaurant, the ingredients take the lead. With the rice and side dishes changing every day, learning about and selecting the seasonal ingredients ahead of time is necessary to bring the food to table. Their makgeolli (rice ale) list is also one of the most original in Seoul. The makgeolli varieties are carefully selected according to their malts and fermenting techniques (which differ from region to region), diligently hunted down and scrupulously considered before they appear on the menu. Clean meals made with quality ingredients and a lot of heart—this is the sort of place that makes you feel as though you might easily live to be 100 if only you could have their food three times a day.
Busan Sikdang is a long-time favorite of Insadong locals, and has a well-known history for having supported struggling artists back in the day by taking works of art as payment as well as providing meals on credit. But it’s not just their warm-heartedness; it’s also hard to find a restaurant with such refreshing and spicy pollock maeuntang (peppery fish soup) or Pacific cod maeuntang. The bracing, refreshing flavor of the soup also makes it an excellent companion to rice. It also makes an excellent companion to alcohol; it’s not uncommon for a customer to order the soup as a hangover cure, then feel inspired to drink again after tasting the soup. The restaurant is also famed for only serving freshly-cooked rice. They begin to cook the rice after receiving the order, so there’s a wait of about 20 minutes, and then five minutes more for the pollock maeuntang to finish cooking. But 20 minutes is no long wait for such fresh rice, cooked with such care!
Seocho is lucky to have its very own branch of Saembat Makguksu, one of the three best loved makguksu (buckwheat noodles in icy broth) restaurants in Chuncheon, where the dish originates. Makguksu is often seen as a side dish to Chuncheon's other famous food, dakgalbi (spicy stirfried chicken). But here at Saembat, makguksu is the star of the menu, drawing lines of buckwheat noodle aficionados. Makguksu's supporting cast on the menu includes bossam (steamed meat), savory pancakes, rice wine and more. After getting your bowl of makguksu, add a dash of mustard and soy sauce according to your preferences, or even some dongchimi (radish water kimchi) juice for a saltier, more sour taste. Once you've mixed it all up, it's time to move: Makguksu has a high percentage of buckwheat, meaning the noodles will become soggy if not eaten quickly. A side dish of nokdu-jeon, mung bean pancakes, complements the meal very nicely.
Bogio originally started as a branch of the famous Haeundae Geumsubokguk in Sinsa-dong, but it later parted ways with Geumsubokguk and reopened under its own name, Bogio. They may no longer be related to the original restaurant, but it is still frequented by drinkers looking to soothe their stomachs after a hangover. Most of the dishes and service are also still the same—the oldest entrée of Geumsuboguk, hot pot boiled bokguk (boiled puffer fish soup) is as good as ever. Bogio handles various subspecies of puffer fish, including brown-backed toadfish, yellowfin puffer fish, and live puffer fish; both farmed and wild puffer fish are used and the menu comprises a wide price range. As it is open 24 hours, many young people from nearby clubs, bars, and street cart bars visit to soothe their stomachs after a long night of drinking.
A combination of two dishes—deep red nakji bokkeum (stir-fried octopus) and “bacon sausage” grilled on an iron plate—is what launched Seorin Nakji to the top in a street of similar octopus-themed restaurants in the neighborhood of Mugyo-dong. If it’s your first time, you should know that orders are best made by following this formula: one plate of nakji bokkeum, bacon sausage, shellfish stew, and a bottle of soju. The first step is to grill the sausage and bacon, onion, potato, mushroom and kimchi. Eat your fill of these foods, dipped in a ketchup and mustard sauce. The nakji bokkeum dish will be out by the time you start to feel that maybe it’s all a bit too greasy for you. It will be spicy enough to make your hair stand on end. Bite into the chewy octopus, suction cups filled with peppery seasoning, and you’ll find that the more you chew, the spicier it gets. It’s crazy hot, but you won’t be able to stop eating. At the end, the leftover octopus and sauce, the bean sprouts that come out as a side dish, and rice are all mixed together for a stir-fried rice finale. Anyone that wants to experience a food culture similar to that of budae jjigae (a spicy stew made out of ham, sausage and a variety of ingredients) will find a trip to Seorin Nakji well worth it.