This series originally appeared on the now-defunct blog, Black In Korea in 2015. The story recaps a foreigner’s first trip to South Korea prior to becoming a resident alien in 2017.
Welcome! Take a seat at Jinju’s Cafe. No, this isn’t a real place, albeit there’s at least 4 to 5 thousand coffee shops and quaint cafes in metro-Seoul. Rough estimate. All that aside, this is my special place for you to curl up and listen to the sounds of premium cut meats on an indoor grill. This is the place for you to smell the aroma of well-prepared kimchi from last winter.
This, my friend, is the place where your taste buds will cause you to wonder just how coffee, chocolate, and hops can create an unforgettable beer. This is about food. Sweet, emotion invoking food, from the memories of a young woman who has been in love with the mere thought of South Korea for several years. Poetic, isn’t it?
There are so many sayings about food already that I won’t offer anything new. I know how a fresh batch of oatmeal raisin cookies can conjure up memories of deceased loved ones. I know the power of how certain songs can take you back to your family’s last cookout or gathering, making you chuckle to yourself in public. And you know these things just the same. No one can make that one thing like Grandma, huh? No one can make that crazy punch like that one cousin or childhood friend who’s basically family, either? So it is in South Korea.
If the eyes are the window to the soul and music is the universal language, then food is the nourishment in the balance. Just as often as you hear “annyeonghaseyo,” you’ll hear, “Have you eaten yet?” Well, when it came to my first visit to Seoul this past April, the answer was no. *Clears throat* Naw, and baby, I was ready to feast.
From the Financial District to the steps of a Buddhist temple, here are some of my most memorable South Korean dining experiences.
#1 Pork Belly the Way Ajumma Intended
Tucked in between multiple restaurants a few blocks away from the Korea Press Foundation is a two-story gem of stereotypical K-drama fashion. I’m not even certain of the name–obviously, it has one–but I do recall the prominent images of black pigs on the outside, letting potential diners know that the place has infamous Jeju Black Pork. Downstairs, there were multiple tables and chairs but upstairs? Oh yes, that’s where tabletop grilling is.
Plop a squat at a traditional low-sitting table, fold those limbs one on top of the other in your lap, and prepare for good eatin’. The banchan selection (various side dishes) here was all about the lettuce wrap–grill an onion, a slice of potato, garlic and bits of kimchi and BAM! You’ve got a wallop of a taste. There are plenty restaurants with this aesthetic but I cannot stress to you the importance of finding one with Jeju Black Pork. I also cannot share a photo of what it looked like once grilled, though, what with the rapid chewing and tears of joy…
#2 The Breakfast Buffet at New Kukje Hotel
For 18.00 USD per person, you can dine at New Kukje Hotel on what I’d like to call the Gentle Buffet Experience. Situated adjacent to a rooftop garden on the 15th floor of the hotel, the contemporary restaurant overlooks Seoul and makes you feel like a fancy pants. A real, pretty-plate-making fancy pants. I enjoyed the breakfast buffet and realized that with every plate, the colors conveyed the passion for great food that Seoulites have. Who knew that arugula, a few bites of crab meat and kimchi could be the ingredients of a deconstructed salad? The selection is healthy and also vegetarian and vegan-friendly.
#3 The Great Wall of Beer
JS Texas Western Bar is about as Texan as any non-Texan could be but a longtime resident of Seoul said that the franchise was once the spot for a wide selection of beer and spirits from around the world. My friends and I each tried something a bit different but what sold me here was a great glass of Guinness. Traveling with someone who’s been to the home of the dry stout was a huge perk because she was able to tell me that this bar “gets it.” The pour was as close to the way a Guinness in Ireland taste as she’s had since returning to the States. Nice!
We’ve gone from pigs to beer swigs, all in one post! Stop by later this week for Part II of my food recap. I promise I’ll leave a seat for you at my cafe table.