When we were touring Dorosan Station near the DMZ, a colonel in the South Korean army was standing on the train platform and kindly posed for a photo with me. Just as hubby was about to snap the shot, the colonel directed me to “say kimchi,” which definitely left me smiling! I knew kimchi was a popular Korean staple, but I was struck by this colloquial usage. Anything that could replace my beloved cheese in someone’s heart must be something special. Sure enough, every meal we enjoyed in Korea began with the fermented treat.
The best kimchi of our trip was served at Myeongdong Gyoza, a restaurant recommended by nearly everyone we know with Seoul experience. After waiting in a considerable line, we took a seat in the bustling upstairs dining hall and ordered two of the four items on the menu. The massive, lemon-sized steamed dumplings filled with ground pork, leeks and herbs were a crowd favorite and we regretted getting just two baskets to share. We didn’t make the same mistake with the hand-cut noodle soup – everyone got their own bowl. The toothsome noodles swam alongside sauteed onions, zucchini strips and even more dumplings in a seasoned broth. The cold kimchi, here juicy cabbage leaves dripping with fiery chili puree, was served gratis and refilled as needed. It was a refreshing counterpoint to the steaming meal, though the chilies packed a punch! I would have loved to wash it all down with an ice cold beer, but the restaurant only serves water.
We stumbled on our second favorite restaurant exploring the alley behind our hotel. I can’t tell you the name, as it was written in Hangul, or even the address, but you probably can’t go wrong with any crowded mom-and-pop Korean restaurant in the city. We were the only foreigners there but the waitress didn’t blink an eye. Instead she presented an array of kimchi and an English menu for us to point at. We shared a delicious bowl of bibimbap, a traditional and hearty rice and vegetable dish usually topped with an egg and sometimes including sliced beef. We must have looked unsure of what to do with the small bowl of rice and large bowl of veggies as our waitress helpfully combined the ingredients and gave them a vigorous stirring.
Wanting to sample as much Korean food as possible, we also shared a boiling pot of bulgogi, arguably one of the best meat dishes around. Bulgogi is made from tender slices of beef that have been marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, pepper and sugar for a bit of sweetness. Sometimes the seasoned meat is grilled although pan-cooking is another popular preparation. At our local joint, we cooked the meat and vegetables in a pan on our table-side burner, then devoured every last delectable morsel.
Memilggot Pilmuryeop restaurant is conveniently located across the street from the west gate of Gyeongbokgung palace, though it can be tricky to identify the nondescript building. We slid open the door under the blue sign and walked straight into the restaurant’s tiny kitchen which was guarded by a small white dog. The proprietress showed us into the adjoining dining room after we’d kicked off our shoes, and we took a seat on the floor with the other diners. This time the menu was limited to five items and we ordered three of them. The pizza-sized buckwheat pancake filled with zucchini and chives was so delicious we ordered – and easily polished off – a second. We also shared a cauldron of hand-cut buckwheat noodles and dumplings in soup. While not as flavorful as that of Myeongdong Gyoza, it was still deeply satisfying. The acorn jelly salad, meanwhile, was coated with a wonderful sesame dressing, though could have gone without the bland slices of jelly, ostensibly the key ingredient. We were given two bowls of kimchi to round out the meal, but they smelled overly fermented so we only politely nibbled.
I was very pleasantly surprised by the abundance of cafes lining the streets of Seoul, even more so because nearly all of them sold waffles covered in ice cream. Apparently coffee and waffles is a popular combo in Korea and who am I to snub the local culture? I went with the chocolate indulgence waffle at Cafe Breezin near the Bukchon Hanok Village and it was the perfect way to end our visit. The nonsensical English on the coffee cup was just a bonus.