Foodie Date Course: Seochon
It’s springtime. Time for cherry blossoms, warmer winds, and longer walks. In other words, time for that foodie date you’ve been thinking about all winter but didn’t have the cold weather gumption to attempt. You’ve spent the frostier months holed-up, ordering delivery pizza and Chinese, and not straying too far out of your comfort zone for fear of hypothermia. More importantly, you’ve resolved to finally “swipe right” on that certain someone who professes that Anthony Bourdain is a god.
Seochon, a scenic neighborhood nestled between Gyeongbokgung and Inwangsan, is the absolute perfect place for such a foodie date. Traditionally, Seochon has been the dwelling area for the middle class dating back several hundred years but was neglected for much of the second half of the 20th century. These days the area is seeing a revival much in the way of Yeonnam-dong near Hongdae. Artisans of all kinds are populating its hanok-dotted corridors with fetching, idiosyncratic shops and restaurants. Spending a whole day perusing isn’t just possible, it’s necessary.
At least amongst most foreigners, the word on Seochon is far from out, a fact that will likely score you points with your date as an intrepid urban explorer. Even though it’s well-known amongst most Koreans, Seochon is a relatively quiet neighborhood and offers a nice counterpoint to the tourist hubbub of Bukchon. No massive tourist groups or congesting selfie queues. What you will find in Seochon is a rapidly changing area that still holds confidently to its past. Decades old traditional bakeries and sikdangs nest next to forward-thinking cafes and bistros. Make sure your smartphone battery is fully charged and your stomach is determined to stretch but not pop: Seochon is an optimal place for a food-centric date of inhaling and imbibing.
Memil Kkot Pil Mulyeop- 메밀꽃 필 무렵
Perfect to show off how well you know Seoul and your love for authentic Korean food, you should start your date at this time-worn restaurant called 메밀꽃 필 무렵 which sits amidst the high quality cafes that line the street next to Gyeongbokgung. Despite its battered exterior, the place fills up with old-time patrons lining up for its simple and modest buckwheat dishes cooked in a tiny kitchen. The menu, changing bi-annually to accommodate warmer and cooler weather, consists of only 4-5 buckwheat different buckwheat dishes. For a well-rounded experience, order to share the buckwheat noodle and the crispy buckwheat pancake. The hand-pulled buckwheat noodles have much more flavor and the slight nuttiness goes perfectly with the mild broth topped with spicy chilies. The pancake is also delightfully light and crisp but also chewy and should definitely be eaten with the slightly sour soy-sauce pickled onions which bring the whole package together. My personal favorite is the buckwheat pork and kimchi mandu, which, like the restaurant, is full of genuine flavor and authenticity despite their slightly dinged-up looks. Personally, I’d recommend a bottle of makkeolli to go with the meals, and don’t worry, you’ll definitely not be the only one drinking one for lunch! –YJO
Jongro-gu, Hyoja-ro 31-1
MILL (Bakery) – 밀
Considering the possibility that your date might go really, really well, you should snag some baked goods for the next morning. MILL, an alluringly charming bakery, will more than do the trick. Opened in 2013 by an aunt-nephew team who fell in love with bread during their 20 plus years in the U.S., the bakery only serves about ten different kinds of breads and is quickly becoming a beloved favorite frequented by the locals. You’ll want to grab their incredibly soft brioche, especially the chocolate one, and also the hearty cranberry and walnut campagne. Using only organic flour and natural yeast, the breads served by MILL are ample, wholesome, nutty and most of all affordable. The bakery, on a cute sign outside the door, posts the time the bread comes out so make sure to stop by the bakery before your favorite is sold out! Most breads are in between 3,000 won – 6,000 won and so won’t break your date budget. –YJO
Jongro-gu, Jahamun-ro, 9-gil, 6
I AM BAGEL – 아이엠 베이글
Needing a spot to grab a coffee and a bite after exploring the cute niche shops deeper into Seochon, I AM BAGEL is your place. Opened in Seochon following the success of their shop in Yeouido, I AM BAGEL serves freshly baked New York-style bagels with various cream cheese spreads all made every day on site. Their bagels include everything from savory bagels like the illusive-in-Seoul “everything” and onion varieties to sweeter cinnamon-raisin and cranberry discs. The same variety goes for the cream cheeses with numerous varieties ranging from salmon-jalapeno to chocolate chip and maple-walnut raisins.
The bagels, served freshly toasted, are moist, chewy and soft and beautifully compliment the cream cheese. Have fun trying out various combinations of spreads with bagels or you can even go for one of their bagel sandwiches. Strongly recommended is their smoked salmon with cream cheese at a very reasonable price. You and your date will share groans of approval while biting into the fresh smoked salmon on top of a crisp bagel and will discover they even snuck in a few capers. With a warm brick interior and Frankie Blue Eyes on the speakers, the two of you will feel like you’ve been whisked away to NYC. –YJO
Jongro-gu, Okin 3-gil, 2-1
Juban- 주반 (first round)
Set down an alley in a refurbished hanok, Juban is one of Seochon’s, if not Seoul’s, best kept dining secrets. Having opened just last year, this small plates restaurant is an off-shoot of the lauded 7PM and similarly focuses on marrying top-notch Korean ingredients with international spices and preparations. Think elevated anju or drinking food. And drink you should.
The alcohol menu dives deep into more obscure Korean traditional liquors. Go for the sampler which delivers four types of almost certainly unknown-to-you shots. Especially remarkable is the heobeok-sool, a Jeju spirit made with rye which imparts a curious whiskey twang. As for food, the musts are the Tongyeong-Marrakesh, marrying raw Tongyeong oysters with a light coriander-cumin salsa, and the Yeonggwang-Nice, a stunning and playful take on brandade but using dried and salted yellow corvina from Jeolla-do instead of the usual cod. Round things off with the Night Bazaar which is a Singapore-style fry-up of succulent squid with sweet chili sauce. Best of all, Juban is an incredible value, almost unbelievably so. You and your date will leave with silly smiles. Just watch your head on the way out. For anyone over 180cm, the old hanok door frames can harsh your mellow. –JR
Jongro-gu, Sajik-ro 9-ga-gil, 12
Gyedan-jib – 계단집 (second round)
From the refined and relaxed to the red-faced and rowdy, get ready for Gyedan-jib, a Seochon staple that serves up incredibly fresh, some still squirming, seafood from Korea’s shores. It can be a hard seat to get but put in your name and number with the properly gruff ajumma and wait for your reward. This place is entirely about local seafood and no-fuss preparations. Your options are raw and possibly steamed and as such will showcase the true essence of the thing you’re consuming. Locations of the catch are even listed, a Portlandian’s dream scenario. Gyedan-jib is known for its steamed giant cockles and raw baby octopus but save those for another jaunt. Give your date a wily look and order the “flower shrimp” or kkot sae-u. Ask for them raw or “hwei” and watch the previously skeptical ajumma coo with delight. Also, she will ask you, “Ssul?” and you should abide with a bottle of clean, charcoal-filtered Hallasan soju. What you will receive may be shocking at first: a lovely pink spiral of just-dead crustaceans. Drag them lightly through the provided chojang and marvel at their incredible natural sweetness. And for a real foodie crescendo, suck the head of the shrimp. No, really. It is truly divine and will score you maximum points with your date. -JR
Jongro-gu, Sajik-ro, 115
Killibanban – 킬리뱅뱅 (third round)
By now, your date has likely tapped out and wants to grab a taxi home. You’ve likely thought the same thing but still have to show off just one more spot. Stick or move? Stick and forge ahead to Killibanban, a debaucherous Western-style bar just a few doors down from Gyedan-jib, just enough real estate in-between to suck down a cigarette or test your balance.
The atmosphere here is typically rocking. Loud music, from James Brown to Jefferson Airplane, pounds out of the speakers and a disco ball whirls above the dimly-lit shoebox-sized space. This place appears to be a dive bar but serves quality scotch (Laphroaig 10 or Quarter Cask and Lagavulin 16) and some hip liquors like Ole Smokey Tennessee Moonshine and The Botanist Gin. Platinum-brewed beers are also available under creative names like “California Love” and “White Rabbit”. In addition, bar snacks like cheese or jamon plates are there for the taking. By now, you and your date should be brimming with, well, a lot of feelings, both emotional and physical. Don’t feel too bad about leaving that beer half-finished. Say a quiet “Hail, Bacchus” and finally get that cab. -JR
Jongro-gu, Jahamun-ro 1-gil, 23