To kick off our list of 100 best, we give you these 20 picks from Joe McPherson, professional foodie and founder of ZenKimchi. These dishes represent the must-have tastes that everybody is talking about.
1 Kimchi Carnitas Fries Vatos Urban Tacos The founders of Vatos opened their Ko-Mexican joint not out of desire to follow any trends, but just to cook the foods they missed from home. The Kimchi Carnitas Fries represent what Vatos is all about. Perfectly crispy fries are topped with stir-fried kimchi, slow-braised pork, and spicy sauces. 2F of 181-8 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu. vatoskorea.com 02-797-8226
2 Jjim Dalk Chicken Alley, Andong Jjim dalk, chicken stewed in a sweet garlicky spicy sauce, got its start in the city of Andong. At the edge of Andong Gu Market, there is an alley known as Chicken Street (DalkGolMok 닭골목). Most every little restaurant there serves the most killer jjim dalk you’ve ever eaten. Make sure to chase it with some high-octane Andong soju.
3 Galmaegisal Mapo Jeong Daepo, Seoul The Mapo neighborhood of Seoul specializes in a special kind of barbecue. Galmaegisal, which can best be described as the tender lean skirt steak of pork, is grilled over charcoal on a domed pan. The gutters designated for collecting the pork fat are filled with egg and well-aged kimchi. It’s bacon and eggs, Korean style.183-8 Dohwa-dong, Mapo-gu. 02-3275-0122
4 Pho Diệu Hiền Quận, Ansan Ansan Asia Town is chock-full of authentic eateries catering to the area’s diverse immigrant population. Diệu Hiền Quận is a must-stop for pho lovers. There’s no English and hardly any Korean there. The trick is to close your eyes and point to the top left of the menu. This is real pho, where cilantro is not a backroom option.
This hidden hanok near Gyeongbokgung Palace is a great place to get together with a couple of friends for quiet drinks over kimchi jjim, or braised kimchi. Usually, kimchi jjim is served with pork and tofu. But Bap stews theirs with beef, creating a smooth-around-the-edges flavor combination. 95 Sogyeok-dong, Jongno-gu. 02-720-7010
6 Rice and Three Sunday Filipino Market, Seoul
Every Sunday, the Filipino community in Seoul runs an open market. Food tents sell steamy Filipino dishes and cooling halo-halo shaved ice. One of the most popular orders is a simple meal of rice with three sides that you choose yourself. You don’t have to know what each side dish is. It’s all good. Find it on the sidewalk outside Hyehwa Station, exit 1.
7 Clay Pot Duck Nolboo Yuhwang Ori, Seoul & other locations
This duck is stuffed with rice and medicinal ingredients. It’s then baked in a clay pot. You need to order this ahead of time, but it’s one of the greatest comfort foods in Seoul. Tip: there is no corkage fee, so bring a good bottle of pinot noir to pair perfectly with the duck. 118-3 Banpo-dong, Seocho-gu and other locations. nolboo.co.kr 02-6282-5292
8 Kimchi Jjigae Gwanghwamun Jip, Seoul
This non-descript hole-in-the-wall in a back alley is a dying breed. It’s the real Korea with no pretension, no apologies, and not much seating. They only serve kimchi jjigae, made from ripe kimchi and sweet chunks of fatty pork. Look for the door with the sky blue wooden sign.
43 Dangju-dong, Jongno-gu. 02-739-7737
9 Salted Mackerel and Doenjang Jjigae Need Photo Gam Namu Minbak, Hahoe Village, Andong
The peaceful medieval Hahoe Village is something you must do for pure sanity’s sake. One of the guesthouses, Gam Namu Minbak, serves authentic rural Korean food. This includes Andong’s famous charcoal-grilled salted mackerel (gan godeung-eo) and the most rustic and satisfying doenjang jjigae you ever will taste. 626 Hahoe-ri, Pungcheonmyeon, Andong. hahoeminbak.com 054-853-2975
10 Veggie and Fruit Chips Baru Gongyang, Seoul
This Buddhist temple cuisine restaurant serves strict Buddhist vegan cuisine that even carnivores enjoy. The menu rotates seasonally, but they always serve these crispy vegetable and fruit chips. They’re delicate, thin, and light. You won’t believe you’re eating an orange in chip form. 71 Gyeonji-dong, Jongno-gu. baru.or.kr 02-2031-2081
11 Mul Makguksu Bongpyeong Memil Makguksu, Seoul
This restaurant is a shrine to Gangwon Province and its buckwheat dishes. The chilled buckwheat noodle soup (Mul Makguksu) tastes very different from the more well-known naengmyeon it resembles. The broth itself is rich and deep, like beef consomme. It’s best drunk straight out of the stainless steel bowl. 345-1 Dohwa-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul. 02-718-9249
12 Seafood Plate OK2, Seoul
Also known as O Kitchen 2, OK2 serves whimsical yet flavorful takes on Italian, Korean and Japanese fare. The seafood plate is a selection of sashimi, each prepared in a unique way—with pickled green peppercorns, powdered soy sauce, and cilantro pesto. This dish changes constantly depending on how the wind blows in Chef Susumu’s imagination. 168-14 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu. 02-797-6420
13 Gorgonzola Burger Burger B, Seoul
Burger B was on the cusp of the “burger renaissance” in Korea. Thick charcoal-grilled patties topped with shaved onions, fresh veggies, and premium cheeses put it on the map. This Gorgonzola Burger was intended to be an experimental special, with the sharpness of the blue cheese marrying the sweet smokiness of the beef. But it proved so popular that it was made a permanent menu item. 363-28 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu. 070-8870-9220
14 Italian Sausage JFK Bistro, Bundang
The menu at this Jersey Italian bistro is seasonal, but the signature housemade sausages are always there, with the most popular being the Italian fennel sausage. It’s so beloved that JFK runs regular sausage parties—and that’s not a euphemism for anything. 591-9 Baekhyeon-dong, Bundang-gu, Seongnam-si, Gyeonggi-do. facebook.com/JFKBistro 031-706-7474
Where the founder of Burger B fell in love with burgers, the owner of BONY became obsessed with New York style pizza. He imported an oven and most of the ingredients, which does make it a bit more expensive. But so what? The pies are huge, the crusts are perfect, and there’s nothing like a simple pizza with crisped pepperoni on top of the cheese. 2F of 617-4 Yeoksam-dong, Gangnam-gu. facebook.com/BrickOvenPizzaSeoul 02-508-1325
16 BBQ Sandwich Linus’ Bama Style BBQ
This is the only dish that doesn’t come from a brick-and-mortar restaurant. A native of Birmingham, Alabama, Linus Kim spends his days perfecting his home state’s barbecue. He then sells it at different locations on specific days he announces on his Facebook page. He does regional Alabama styles, but his most popular is the pulled pork sandwich with a spicy tangy sauce that’ll make you wanna slap yo’ mamma! facebook.com/LinusBbq.
17 Gukmul Tteokbokki and Fried Shrimp Mimi-ne, Seoul
Mimi-ne doesn’t serve fancy food. It satisfies cravings. Dark cravings. Cravings for junky chewy rice cakes floating in a soupy spicy sweet sauce with whole deep fried shrimp dipped in flavored salts. The shrimp is so good that the founder, Mimi, has a Korean patent for her frying technique. Located in the heart of Hongdae, it’s the perfect food for pacifying your late night hunger demons. 367-1 Seogyo-dong Mapo-gu. 02-3143-7245
18 ChizBeef (Lamb Covered French Fries) Samarkand Kafe in Seoul, Ansan, Incheon and other locations
Lamb. On. Fries. This is one of many comfort foodables at this Uzbek restaurant that has become a popular chain. 100-411 #162, Guanghui-dong 1-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul. 02-2277-4261
19 Fresh Sashimi Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul
How can we do a list of best dishes without mentioning Noryangjin Fish Market in Seoul? One of the largest fish markets in the world, it’s a place where you can get a decently priced live fish and have it turned into food on the spot. The restaurants will take your fishies and prepare them for an extra fee, making it one of the finest freshest fish finds for your funds. Outside Noryangjin Station, exit 1.
20 Chicken Barbecue San Maul Boribap
Tucked up at the southern foot of Gwanak Mountain in Anyang, this restaurant serves amazing rustic Korean dishes, like crispy seafood and green onion pancakes, doenjang jjigae made from three-year-old soybean paste, and a rich makgeolli served in a ceramic pot. But the reason people keep returning is for the chicken barbecue. It’s chicken salted and smoked so well that it tastes like bacon. It’s a perfect reward after a long hike. 38-1 Bisan-3dong, Dongan-gu, Anyang-si, Gyeonggi-do. 031-388-8816