Since Hongdae is where I stayed in Seoul, this is where I had most of my meals. In this post I’ll spotlight 4 restaurants that stood out to me mostly because of the dishes that I had there. These include: Korean-style onigiri (rice balls), kimchi mandu (dumplings), vegetable and meat pancake, and gamjatang (potato soup) without the gamja (potato).
#1 Kong’s Riceball
It was my second day in Seoul and I was still very overwhelmed with being in South Korea. I had a pretty big lunch at the museum cafe in the War Memorial of Korea and on my way back to my hostel, I wanted dinner but just a small dinner. I remembered passing by this restaurant the day before when my friend was showing me around the area and figured today will be the perfect day to try it!
The interesting name, the brightly colored bowls, and the nice ahjumma who stuck her head out of the window to call out orders all drew my attention right away! Plus it was right next to Hongik University on the main road in Hongdae AND it offered take-out, so convenience and shyness made this the perfect stop (at this point I was still too scared to order or dine alone in a restaurant, but that was quickly overcome once I couldn’t resist the food).
An onigiri would be the perfect meal since I wasn’t too hungry. After looking, I decided to go with two of what looked the most delicious: spicy marinated chicken thighs (닭갈비, dalk kalbi) and stir-fried kimchi (김치볶음, kimchibokkeum).
Little did I know – these are giant-sized riceballs! They took up an entire cup each! They were so delicious though that I ate both of them in the comfort of my hostel room. I expected something hand-held, but I had to use a fork with this one – luckily my hostel had utensils because when I tried taking the rice ball out of the cup with my hands, I ended up making a mess. The flavors were delicious and so comforting: both the chicken and kimchi were really spicy but I loved it since the rice and seaweed balanced out the spice. If I were a college student at Hongik University, there would be no doubt about it, I would be eating these rice balls all day long. With the most expensive one costing 3,000 won (less than $3 US) and the stir-fried kimchi one costing 1,500 won (less than $1.50 US), these are great!
#2: 빚은 만두 뽑은 국수
I wish I knew the translation for this restaurant name, but I don’t…the only character I recognize is 만두 (mandu), which means dumplings. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the only word that I need to know! My friend and I met up here specifically for their kimchi dumplings…she’s on a quest to find the best kimchi dumplings in the area, so we came here to test out this restaurant. It’s on the main stretch of road bordering Hongik University (the same street as Kong’s Riceball and Cafe Berlin); if you keep on walking down this road, you will eventually end up in the popular Sinchon area, which also has a ton of universities.
I should probably admit something embarrassing at this point…I have never had fresh kimchi mandu before. I’ve only ever had the frozen packs that I buy at Koreana Plaza in Oakland. When I say that this is the best kimchi mandu I’ve ever had, it’s probably not saying much, but these were the best kimchi mandu I’ve ever had! The filling was extremely fresh (which stood out to me since I’ve only had the artificial tasting dumplings) and deceptively spicy – I found myself drinking more and more water as I ate! The steamer that comes with the dumpling is so cute too. I don’t remember the price right now, but I think it was around 3,000 won (less than $3). I loved how well I can eat in Seoul without spending a lot of money! The dumplings also come with banchan that included pickled yellow radish and a clear soup that tastes like the kind that are served in Japanese restaurants in the U.S. Overall I was super impressed with this place, but I don’t know how it stacks up with other kimchi mandu restaurants.
#3 The Pancake Restaurant
This actually isn’t the name of the restaurant, but I don’t remember what it was called. All I remembered was that it was a rainy day in Seoul and I had just finished touring the War and Women’s Human Rights Museum (commonly referred to as the “Comfort Women Museum”), which addresses the history of the women who were drafted into sexual slavery under the Japanese Imperial Army during WWII (an issue that many Japanese politicians and textbooks deny) as well as their ongoing legacy and attempts to fight for justice and reparations. Needless to say, it was a very difficult museum to walk through and combined with the rain, I was definitely looking for some comfort food. I happen to walk right past this restaurant on the way back to my hostel, and could not resist the smells. This is some perfect rainy day food.
This restaurant is pretty much the definition of a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. I think they probably serve more take-out than sit-in diners and I was the only one there that day. The prices looked pretty expensive compared to other food that I’ve eaten in Seoul so far, but that didn’t deter me from ordering the meat and kimchi pancake (김치고기전, kimchi gogi jeon) for 10,000 won (a little less than $10 USD).
The owner of the restaurant (the woman with the glasses) was super friendly and I think she felt a little bad for me when she asked if I was eating alone and I said “yes.” I didn’t mind though, particularly as she started to cook my pancake on the little electric stove and the smells came wafting towards me. This is definitely made-to-order food!
Pictured here is the pancake (I didn’t take a picture of it but I got some banchan as well). It was a little greasy, but it definitely hit the spot. The meat was a little flavorless on its own; I couldn’t tell if it was pork of beef – it tasted like burger meat to me. The kimchi though was full of flavor – this was the most pungent and sour kimchi I have ever eaten and I loved it. The overall flavor of this pancake rings “sour” more than anything else, but I love some fried kimchi pancake and even though after my first few slices I was wishing for a little more sweetness or spicyness to balance out the sourness, I definitely had my craving for kimchi pancake satisfied. I was able to end up eating half of it before I was full, but I took the rest of it back to my hostel.
The owner was so incredibly sweet also; she kept on talking to me and made sure that everything was to my liking. She also complimented me on my Korean, which was really affirming for me to hear since I am super unconfident with my Korean language skills. However, I was actually able to have a conversation with her (even if it was a little bit awkward and I didn’t quite use full sentences all the time), but it is definitely a good confidence boost to actually almost understand someone completely in Korean! Not only was the food excellent here, but the service is quite good as well!
#4 The Gamjatang Restaurant
This is another restaurant that I forget the name of; I think it is a chain restaurant since I saw one in Myeondong as well (the one that I ate at is in Hongdae). The logo consists of an animated potato head. Actually, here is a blog post on the restaurant; it is called Onedang Gamjatang. Fun fact: the hostel that I stayed at is right above the Plan B bar pictured in that post.
Actually, one of the first things that I did before leaving for Korea was to Google Maps (can I use this as a verb?) my hostel location. To my delight, I saw that it was right next door to a restaurant that read “gamjatang.” I was super excited because I love gamjatang and this place is literally two steps away from my residence.
What I failed to realize though is that the entire area surrounding my hostel is full of restaurants and shops, but I still made it to the gamjatang restaurant on this trip despite the numerous options.
One of the first things that I noticed about this gamjatang is that it did not include any gamja – or potatoes – in it. While I had read on Wikipedia that gamjatang actually commonly comes without potatoes, the logo of this restaurant features a potato head so that was a little weird. However, once I tasted the soup, I couldn’t care less about not having potatoes. For only 6,000 won (a little less than $6 USD), I got a massive amount of food – I fished out 3 giant pork bones. The soup was so rich and full of flavor and the pork just melted off the bone. I ended up eating all of the banchan as well – it included kimchi, raw onions, and some pickled carrots and spicy peppers. I also polished off an order of rice and all of the pork AND the soup. I love how for 6,000 won I could eat so well. And it was perfect that my hostel was just a step away – just in time for me to collapse in bed with a massive food coma!