Here at Time Out Seoul, we love to eat well (obviously) and we love to eat out. But as much as we appreciate wining and dining, we’re beyond grateful for the vast array of cheap eats available in Seoul. From kimbaps that keep us satiated and satisfied when it’s been too long since our last paycheck to some of the best bánh mi and Moroccan in the country, these cheap eats keep us eating (while allowing us to pay our rent at the same time).
4,000 won & under
In the maze of alleyways behind Jongno 3-ga Station, there is a hidden and worn-down restaurant with Korean meal sets for just 3,500 won. You can choose either the pollock or kimchi jjigae, which are both served with a large bowl of rice and several banchan dishes on a dented metal tray. With the warm flavors and hearty portions, you might think you’re eating in an actual Korean home. The smiling ajummas that greet you and the profuse servings are testament to the fact that hospitality still exists in fast-paced Seoul.
University towns are known for their notoriously low prices, but Cochon Tonkatsu takes it to a whole new level with their 3,000 won tonkatsu, served alongside rice, miso soup and sesame seed tonkatsu sauce. Even at this shockingly low price Cochon Tonkatsu doesn’t sacrifice quality and uses Korean pork and homemade batter, which is the secret to its thick, juicy interior and crunchy exterior. You get a hearty portion of meat, but if you’re a big eater, get the double tonkatsu with two portions of meat (double the price) or another bowl of rice (at 500 won). Take a bite of the tonkatsu and you won’t believe it’s only 3,000 won.
Of the hundreds of cheap-eats in the Dongmyo area, the 3,500 won kalguksu at 해물원칼국수 (Seafood Kalguksu) tops the list. The noodles in this dish are fresh and made from the best flour, and the anchovy-based broth is clear and not too salty (you can add some seasoned red-pepper sauce for more acidity). Side dishes of unripe kimchi and yellow radish complement the noodles well, and you’ll be finished before you know it.
Taking cues from Utopia Bagel in Queens, New York City; the bagels at Queens Bagel shine at you from the moment that you walk into their small corner location across from Ewha Woman’s University. The shop’s popular multi-grain bagel with honey walnut cream cheese and even if you’re not a fan of sweet flavors, this just might make you a convert.
Bangbae 24 Udon Jajang is, just as it name suggests, a restaurant in Bangbae-dong open 24 hours serving udon and jjajjangmyeon. You can choose between the udon, jjajjangmyeon and jjajjangbap. The udon, while a far cry from its original Japanese flavor, is topped with seaweed, fried bean curds and leeks making it more special than other cheap udons in the city. The noodles are thinner than udon noodles normally are, but they’re fresh and chewy.
5,000 won & under
What could be wrong with a whole roasted chicken for 4,000 won? There must be a catch, right? Put on your plastic gloves, tear apart the hot and crispy on the outside but tender on the inside chicken and you’re in for a treat. The chicken, which could maybe feed two, is delicious and a great bite to have with some beer or soju, which are also available on the premises if you dare to eat here. Assuming you are not a Korean man below the age of 50, chances are you will stick out like a sore thumb at any one of their three locations (one in Jongno-3ga and two in Dongmyo). The franchise, whose name directly translates as “roasted chicken,”(한국통닭) has a take-out line down the block right before dinnertime, but it may be a bit intimidating to dine in. Put on a vintage outfit, make a night of it and tag us on Instagram (@timeoutseoul) and the whole chicken’s on us!
Dying for a slice of authentic, cheese pizza? While Maddux may be more famous for their slightly more expensive Spinach and Artichoke or more recently, their Mac n’ Cheese, the original cheese slice here hits the spot when you’ve only got 4,200 won in your pocket. One of the few pizza-by-the-slice houses that does it right, we’re crazy about the cheese, sauce and crust combo at Maddux.
Although the name of this restaurant is “Tokyo Udon,” the dish to get here is actually the curry-rice. This meatless Japanese-style curry (with a Korean twist) is made with large pieces of vegetables and potatoes and comes served on top of a bowl of white rice and a refreshing hot bowl of udon soup on the side. Equally popular is the chunky fishcake udon noodles, made less greasy thanks to the white radish in it. The kitchen is easily visible from the seating area in the restaurant and you’ll get a first-hand look at how much preparation goes into each meal. One of the best curries of its kind, it’s also one of the most reasonably priced.
Located in a four person-space on the main Kyungridan street, Headlock serves 5-inch sandwiches that spill over with fillings. Every sandwich is filled with small cooked shrimp and is served in your choice between four different styles: original, cheese, beef chili or wasabi mayo. While the restaurant’s owner might be quick to warn you that the beef chili is a bit on the spicier end, we genuinely enjoyed its extra kick and preferred it over the also-popular wasabi mayo (very heavy on the mayo).
Seolleongtang is a beloved Korean broth, made by stewing ox bones, brisket and other cuts of beef. Many chains serve this dish these days, but to get one that tastes homemade, head over to Yoojin Sikdang. The seolleongtang is served with the rice already in the soup with slices of leek on top. Season your soup with a bit of salt and dive into the deep, meaty flavors of the soup—the kind you can only get with lots of love and time.
6,000 won & under
Himeji Curry is a Japanese style curry restaurant located at the start of the alley leading to Dongjin Market. The exterior resembles one of those small, old restaurants located in a remote alley in Japan. Inside the curry house, the owners fashioned a tatami seating area by elevating the steps. The tableware, the atmosphere, each and every knicknack around the shop gives you the illusion that you just might actually be in Japan. The menu is simple and neatly presented with a total of five dishes, including curry rice, curry udon, fried bean curd udon, soy-sauce noodles, and soft soybean curd. Their best dishes are, naturally, their curry dishes. Smooth and flavorful, the rich curry sauce is absolutely delectable. The portions are big, and the prices are surprisingly inexpensive. Also, you can enjoy as much carefully brewed barley tea as you want. Throughout the restaurant, from the menu to the decor, Himeji Curry displays the owner's thoughtful touches, resulting in a delightfully warm and cozy restaurant.
While it may not be completely authentic, Greek on the Grill offers quality Greek dishes for those on a budget. (Other Greek restaurants in the city might charge you three or four times more for a Greek salad only slightly larger). Although the portions are small, Greek on the Grill is our go-to place for a souvlaki pita. The meat, cooked on the grill, is juicy and tender; the tomatoes and lettuce are consistently fresh; and there’s a generous helping of yogurt-rich tzatziki sauce. Souvlakis range between 5,500 to 6,000 won and there’s not a single item that goes over 8,000 won. Really broke and craving some Greek? The souvlaki stick with a side of tzatziki sauce, though it may make you hungrier than when you started, is only 3,000 won. There’s space enough for four people to sit inside, and during the summer, a few plastic tables are set up outside. Service is always friendly and they offer several kinds of beer if you can afford it, too.
Moon Gi-duk, owner of Lie Lie Lie in Yeonnam-dong, fell in love with this dish on one of his many visits to see his younger brother, who works in Saigon. He gets to the shop at 7am and starts baking the baguettes himself. “These baguettes are lighter and airier than regular baguettes, so they take more time to rise,” he explains. Inside each loaf he layers Vietnamese ham, pickled vegetables, cilantro, Maggi sauce and mayo, to which you can also add either spicy pork or chicken (or forego meat altogether in the vegetarian version). One of the best bánh mi options in the city, it’s also one of the few places to get pâté with your sandwich as well.
As the name “Chanyang-jip” (meaning “house of praise”) suggests, a taste of the food at this establishment will have you singing its praises. Chanyang-jip has been serving seafood kalguksu (knife-cut noodles) since 1965. The refreshing broth, made with sea squirt, shrimp, mussel, short-necked clam, dashima (edible kelp), dried anchovy and leek, is a work of art. Some have called the broth “bland,” but the loyal patrons of this eatery, who come because they miss the taste of their mother’s kalguksu, would beg to differ. The secret is in the fresh ingredients. The stock is made with seafood purchased fresh every morning at the seafood market. When a customer sits down and orders, the plump noodles are cooked and put into the broth, then generously topped with crushed gim (dried seaweed) and zucchini. The kalguksu comes with a plastic orange bowl; by the time the diner has finished eating the bowl will be filled to the brim with clam shells and mussel shells. There are also two types of kimchi available to suit different tastes: sour, over-fermented kimchi and freshly-made kimchi. The motherly proprietor is humble about the restaurant’s popularity, claiming that it’s because of the affordable prices (5,000 a bowl, with free refills on noodles), but as the diners pay and get ready to leave, all without exception are sincere in their expressions of satisfaction at the delicious food.
Owner Marco Kwon serves you the pies, often fresh out of the oven, in a venue surrounded by a decadence of plants. Previously an architect (hence, the interest in the venue’s design), Marco fell in love with pies during his stay in Australia and tried his best to recreate that taste here. With a golden, flaky crust on the outside, the chicken pot pie is filled with a simple combination of cream, chicken, onions and lots of mushrooms. The meat pie was our favorite option with chunks of beef and onions, and a slight peppery kick. Some (myself included) might prefer chicken pot pies to be heavier on the chicken stock and cream, and richer in vegetables (carrots and peas, please) and others might like their meat pies minced, rather than chunky. However, at 4,500 won a pie with refillable soda at an extra 1,000 won, it’s really hard to complain.
7,000 won & under
Casablanca, a small, modest eatery on the main strip of Haebangchon, has quite the reputation. Just mention the restaurant's name to any of the HBC residents and they will assure you that no other place cooks up a sandwich as well as owners Wahid and Karim Naciri. These Moroccan brothers have put a great deal of effort into bringing a taste of their homeland to Korea and have done so with great success. Not only is their bread, sourced from a nearby Syrian bakery, a big player here, but their homemade preserved lemon marinade and spices brought all the way from North Africa make these sandwiches seemingly inimitable. You can't go wrong with any of the sandwiches but our favorite is the Lamb Chili which has just the right amount of kick and a generous helping of makooda, deep-fried mashed potatoes, which make for a perfect texture.
Perhaps because Jeonju is known for its delicious food, there are many restaurants named “Jeonju Jip” (Jeonju house) in Seoul. The surprising thing is that most of these restaurants turn out to be quite good, much like this one in Insa-dong. Here, you’ll find a menu for meals and another for dishes to go with drinks. For meals, you can order grilled fish and jjigae or a bowl of Korean-style gyūdon (beef bowl) for 5,000 to 6,000 won. Our recommendation is the 6,000 won grilled mackerel set. The mackerel is grilled right outside the restaurant on top of a charcoal brazier, its white insides soft and juicy. The five kinds of banchan that come out are equally delicious and the white rice is cooked with millet. Jeonju Jip is hidden in an alleyway and it may be difficult to find if you’re not familiar with the neighborhood. If you go outside meal times, you may end up sitting next to an old man grabbing an early nightcap.
In 2010, this Japanese ramen place called Kuidoraku (쿠이도라쿠) opened up as a small restaurant with an open kitchen, a bar and two tables. Now, thanks to its popularity with students from nearby universities, it has expanded and has long lines during meal times. The tonkatsu ramen is served with chashu, bean sprouts, jelly ear mushrooms, a soft-boiled egg and leeks. The soup isn’t oily and remains just thick enough without losing that clean aftertaste. You can also get complimentary rice and soft drinks with your ramen. If you pay with cash, you’ll get a 500 won discount
Talk about chicken and rice to any New Yorker and they can whip up stories of the famous Halal Guys cart on 53rd and 6th. I, myself, can tell you how after four years of living in Seoul, the first place I visited as soon as I dropped off my bags was 53rd and 6th. The cart is not just food, but a legend amongst the millions of people who visit there – including Woosik John Kim, who once studied in upstate New York. “When people go abroad, they talk about how they want this and that in Korea. Chicken and rice was one of those infamous dishes.” After having scoured every corner of the city for even close knock-offs, I didn’t let myself get my hopes up when headed to Jil’hal Bros in Chungdam-dong. At the small yellow-colored restaurant, my combination platter equated to slices of grilled cuts of spiced chicken and lamb over turmeric yellow rice and a bed of lettuce and tomatoes topped with its signature white sauce and red sauce. The white sauce is normally concocted with variations of Greek yogurt, miracle whip and mayo while the red sauce has variations of chili peppers, garlic, vinegar, cumin and olive oil – with Woosik’s particular recipe being secret. Unlike its New York muse, the dish isn’t Halal certified, doesn’t drip with oil and the spices (cumin and chili pepper) are nowhere as strong. Yet, dinnertime fills with expats and Koreans (lots of Korean-Americans) alike wolfing down one plate, and taking one to go. One preppy looking twentys-something (possibly former study-a
When longtime Seoulites crave a cheap eat, it’s often the famously well-priced Korean-Chinese dish of jjajjangmyun(black bean noodles) or its spicy, seafood partner in crime jjamppong (an onion and chili-oil based noodle soup). At 만리성 (Manrisong), you can dig into some jjamppong that comes served with a generous heap of mussels on top and a broth that’s much less greasy than most. The walls of the restaurant are filled with pictures of celebrities who’ve visited previously and the story of the restaurant’s history: Unsuccessful for 15 years, the restaurant became popular after three minutes of fame on a SBS morning program when suddenly it saw lines at lunch and dinner for its mussels jjamppong. Although prices have gone up over the years, the restaurant donates 100 won to a local charity for every bowl of food ordered. Eat cheap and do a little good as well.