Wherever you go in Seoul, you’re never far from a restaurant. But amid the capital’s high concentration of eateries offering increasingly diverse cuisine, several areas have become known for specializing in one particular kind of food. Often known as meokja golmok—literally “let’s eat alleys”—these areas have atmospheres all of their own and are an unmissable part of any foodie’s itinerary when visiting the capital. If the winter weather is numbing your ears, fingers and toes, try defrosting them at one of the following meokja golmok.
Gongdeok-dong Jeon Alley
Part of a traditional market outside Gongdeok Station, this alleyway is lined with eateries selling jeon, metal plate-fried pancakes containing various ingredients such as green onions, kimchi, seafood, abalone and more. Some of the establishments here have been featured on TV, and proudly display printed stills from the programs that featured them. Like the bindaetteok at Gwangjang Market (see below), the jeon here goes will with a bowl of makgeolli (rice beer). Deep-fried prawns, chilies, mushrooms, and other morsels are also available in abundance. Perhaps because of its reputation, this alley is not cheap compared to many isolated street vendors of fried fare, but it won’t break the bank either.
Adjacent alleyways specialize in jokbal (pig’s trotter—see below).
Getting there: Gongdeok Station, Lines 5 & 6, Exit 5. Head straight on for about 150 meters, then head left into an alleyway of your choice.
Gwangjang MarketAlso known as Kwangjang Market, this huge complex occupies a considerable area of land between Jongno 5-ga and Cheonggyecheon Stream. While its shops sell a variety of goods, its culinary appeal lies in the many food stalls that line its internal alleyways. Bindaetteok, a fried mung bean pancake, is the best-known food here: on a cold day, it makes the ideal snack and is even better when drunk with makgeolli, the fresh sourness of which makes a good contrast with the bindaetteok. Chungmu gimbap, a bite-size, thin version of the well-known snack, is also a specialty here.
TIP: Search the second floor of the market for some great vintage clothing stores.
Getting there: Jongno 5-ga Station, Line 1, Exit 7.
PimatgolIn the old days, when Jongno, one of Seoul’s main thoroughfares, was a motorway heavy with the traffic of upper class yangban, commoners instead used Pimatgol, or “horse-avoiding alley,” a narrow street running parallel with and a few meters to the north of Jongno. Despite recent redevelopment of the area, restaurant-lined alleyways remain between Jongno Tower and Insa-dong’s popular main street. Head into the narrow alleyway between A-Shin and Gallery Sin-Sang near the bottom of Insa-dong to find “Ssarypmoon,” a place specializing in traditional Korean alcohols and teas, where you may just catch the owner giving a performance on the daegeum, a large bamboo flute. Alternatively, enter from the alley just to the east of Jongno Tower, by Pizza Hut, and enjoy exploring.
Getting there: Jonggak Station, Line 1, Exit 3.
Bukchang-dongThis small neighborhood of eateries occupies a triangle of land that spread out southward from the back of the Plaza Hotel. Though there’s no clear specialty here, the large number and variety of restaurants on and around the pedestrianized street to the west of the area makes it worth visiting for anyone hungry but undecided. Tuna sashimi, barbecued meat, Chinese, gulgukbap (oyster stew with rice), octopus, and abalone restaurants are prevalent here. Sinchang Sanghoe, a Chinese grocery store on a corner, is a great place to stock up on sauces, tinned lychee and rambutan, jasmine tea, woks and plenty more.
Getting there: City Hall Station, Lines 1 & 2, Exit 8. Cross over the main road toward the SK telecom shop and Outback Steakhouse. Head straight on, then take a right to enter the Bukchang-dong restaurant area.
Jayang-dong Lamb Kebab StreetThough lamb is still generally a rarity in Korea, this long street in northeastern Seoul, near Konkuk University, is lined with Chinese-style lamb kebab restaurants. Grill the slender skewers of lamb meat over red-hot charcoal at your table, dip them in the addictive mixture of dry spices provided, then enjoy them with Tsingtao beer or, if you want something with more kick, a bottle or two of super-strong erguotou liquor. When it comes to choosing a place to eat, stroll along the street at night and wait to see who calls you in most insistently.
Getting there: Konkuk University Station, Lines 2 & 7, Exit 5. Turn right at the corner, pass the SK gas station, then take the next right.
Jangchung-dong Jokbal StreetPigs get eaten a lot in Korea, and that includes their trotters. Cooked for a long time in a mixture of water, soy sauce, sugar, leeks, garlic, ginger and rice wine, these trotters are then thinly sliced and served in the form of a dish known as jokbal. Head to this street near Jangchung Gymnasium to find a collection of jokbal restaurants, many of which compete with each other with claims of long histories and of being the “original real deal.” Dipped in fermented shrimp sauce and wrapped in lettuce leaf with raw garlic and ssamjang bean sauce, the jokbal delivers a pig-kick that seems to cry out for a soju chaser.
TIP: The southern part of Seoul’s fortress wall passes the back of nearby Jangchung Gymnasium., offering a pleasant post-jokbal stroll up to N Seoul Tower on Mt. Namsan.
Getting there: Dongguk University Station, Line 3, Exit 3. Head straight down the road for half a minute.
Sindang-dongMany Koreans go wild for tteokbokki, the bland, chewy rice cakes that float in a sweet-and-spicy red sauce at roadside stalls across the country. The undisputed tteokbokki capital of Korea is Sindang Tteokbokki Town, where a wide dish at the center of your table comes filled with ingredients such as tteokbokki, mandu (dumplings), noodles, onion, green onion, odeng (fish cake) and more. The atmosphere is upbeat, because, as mentioned previously, there’s something about tteokbokki that tends to make Koreans very happy—see if it has the same effect on you.
TIP: While you’re in the area, it’s worth checking out traditional Jungang Market, and Seoul Art Space Sindang, a collection of artists’ studios located directly beneath the market.
Getting there: Sindang Station, Lines 2 & 6, Exit 8. Turn left immediately and follow this road for a couple of hundred meters to reach a blue archway: the entrance to Tteokbokki Town. For Jungang Market and Seoul Art Space Sindang, come out of Exit 1, turn left at the top of the stairs and head along the sidewalk for 150 meters.