South Korea food scene: Tasty, elaborate, competitive

DELIVERY. We tried ordering food from a delivery app in Seoul. We asked helped from the kind receptionist at Hostel Kpop in Myeongdong.
DELIVERY. We tried ordering food from a delivery app in Seoul. We asked helped from the kind receptionist at Hostel Kpop in Myeongdong.

I’ve had the opportunity to visit Seoul, South Korea three times in the last 10 years, and while I don’t have hard data to support my observations, I’d like to share my experiences and insights from my journeys.

Having worked in the lifestyle field for the past 15 years, I’ve come to appreciate the rich tapestry of South Korean cuisine and its ever-evolving food scene.

My first visit to Seoul was part of a familiarization trip, commonly known as a “fam trip.” These trips are typically sponsored for individuals from the media and travel industries, involving a whirlwind itinerary spanning about four days. Most of the time, I found myself on a bus, transitioning between hotels, dining at restaurants we passed along the way and exploring tourist attractions.

During that initial trip, I delved into the world of “ban chan,” discovered the deliciousness of pollock and enjoyed foot-long ice cream cones. One thing became abundantly clear: South Korea’s pork dishes were truly exceptional.

My second visit was for a honeymoon trip with my wife. This time, we were the architects of our own adventure, relying on maps and the efficient metropolitan railway system. As we planned our itinerary, I noticed a challenge in finding “recommended food spots.” While a few places gained popularity on TikTok, we couldn’t be certain if these were genuinely reputable or merely riding the wave of virality. Nonetheless, the food we tried was consistently outstanding. Seoul’s café culture particularly impressed us, seamlessly blending French influences with expert coffee preparation techniques.

On our most recent visit, this time with family in tow, I still faced the challenge of pinpointing the best restaurants or cafes to explore. TikTok remained my primary source for recommendations. However, my brother Paolo made a valuable suggestion: ordering food through delivery apps. We consulted the friendly receptionist at our hostel, who offered to place the orders on our behalf, payable in cash.

As I tried to explain to our receptionist which restaurant we wanted to order from, I mentioned the importance of reviews. She smiled and conveyed that reviews held little significance in Seoul because, in her experience, most, if not all, restaurants in the city incentivize people to leave positive feedback.

My mind raced back to previous eateries where we encountered posters advertising “events” or promotions. Leave a favorable review and receive a complimentary dish. It wasn’t just up to critics or influencers (“key opinion leaders”) to critique the food; every customer became part of this game. Only a handful of venues stood out among the multitude of advertisements and promotions, often due to global media attention.

Despite not knowing the restaurant, we sought the best deals on tangsuyuk (sweet and sour pork) and jajangmyeon (black noodles). The food arrived in a few minutes, and we ate to our heart’s content at the hostel, sheltered from Seoul’s autumn chill.

Upon returning from our trip and writing this column, I recalled a conversation with a chef who operates a Korean restaurant in Cebu City. She shared an intriguing observation: “Some Koreans tell us they enjoy the Korean food here in Cebu even more than in Seoul.” Initially, I thought she might be joking, but her statement lingered in my mind.

So in a nutshell when dining in Seoul: You can’t go wrong with grilled pork and sides. You can’t go wrong with iced coffees and pastries. And you certainly can’t go wrong with street food (just be smart about which ones to try out).

In my upcoming entries, I’ll delve further into the places we explored in Seoul and provide insights into what I believe is worth trying.

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