Seoulites love their meat. Galbi, bulgogi, SPAM, chicken in a cup — they’re as common a sight around here as an ajumma in a floppy visor. The boss always wants to take you to that place around the corner with the pig portrait in the window. You’ve been blowing him off since he tried feeding you ox intestine that was “good for stamina.”
With so much meat around, vegetarians in Seoul walk a culinary path paved with bibimbap and pickled radish, kimchi and bean sprouts, rice and more rice. And when your proficiency in Hangeul determines whether a visit to a Korean restaurant will result in catastrophe, it’s easy to start feeling a little shipwrecked.
Don’t despair. Our fair city is teeming with veggie-friendly eateries waiting for you to discover. You simply have to know where to look. Heading toward one of the ever-expanding buffet options like VIPS is usually a fine choice, and you cfvegan oftentimes find things there you haven’t had in a while like grapefruit salad with kale and chunky potato soup — and really cheap wine. You can also do the swap-out trick with ingredients, with varying results. Dos Tacos will make an excellent veggie burrito to your specifications, and OYori in Hongdae can vegetarianize anything on their menu (try the dwenjang ramen).
But despite your fortitude, all that bargaining with a Korean chef can be daunting and buffets are, well, a little low on the ambience factor (among other things). These five restaurants will steer you clear of those tiresome encounters, away from those humdrum boiled carrots, and from the carry-your-dinner-on-a-plastic-tray thing.
They turn up the heat on the average, employ the best of ingredients, and wrap the whole experience up in a better package than your typical veg-only place may offer.
You and your omnivore friends will be happy at any one of them for a rapid lunchtime grab-n-go or a fancy party with cocktails, and you won’t even have to eat iceberg lettuce. Promise.
Buddha’s Belly in Itaewon is a great place for a date. The interior is swank and lavish, featuring squishy red chairs that will send your overworked mind on vacation. The food is a slice of Thai, with veggie and non-veggie options galore, and the English-speaking staff is able to help you negotiate with any needed substitutions (vegans should ask for no fish sauce). There are spring rolls, noodles and rice dishes ready to be loved, along with fiery curries awash in sumptuous coconut milk and kick-your-teeth-in spicy sauces you can add or subtract to your liking. The Thai Red Curry presents a myriad of vegetables including bamboo shoots, baby corn, scallions, zucchini and carrots, and is rounded out with a nice bowl of mouth-cooling rice. Add a couple of gin and tonics.
Directions: New location near Noksapyeong Station, just around the corner from Petra, close to Botton.
With so much attention being paid to the meat platter and the lamb kebabs at Santorini, it’s easy for their delicious vegetarian-friendly dishes to drop under the radar. The Greek salad has a perfect combination of crunchy cucumbers, green peppers, tomatoes and vinegary onions, topped with capers and oh-so-wonderful kalamata olives. The skordalia, hummus and eggplant spreads are all nice with pita bread, and the complimentary rustic wheat rolls are just begging for a dip into fruity olive oil. If you’re still hungry, order the spinach pies and enjoy the blue and white island atmosphere over a beer or three.
Directions: Itaewon Station, Exit 1. Walk straight out of the exit and take an immediate right, past KFC. Go up the hill and take the next left. Santorini is located one block down on the left-hand side, on the second floor. Look for the blue and white circular sign.
At Petra in Noksapyeong, you can relish in vegetarian fare with an Arabian twist. Crunchy fried falafel, baba ghanoush and fattoush are scrumptious — even better when wrapped up in warm flatbread and smothered with super spicy pepper sauce. The em’nazala (eggplant with tomatoes), tabouli, hummus and olive salad are yummy, too, especially as you enjoy the view out the gigantic windows. Go on a warm day to linger and relax on the breezy terrace.
Directions: Noksapyeong Station, Exit 1. When you arrive at street level, look up and to the left for a pedestrian overpass. Head up the stairs and over the road. When you reach the other side, turn right. You’ll see Petra on the left, near the top of the hill.
The ubiquitous franchise Kraze Burger may seem like the last place you could go, but in fact they have an excellent tofu burger with fried onions and several salads that won’t leave you wanting. Even better, you can easily customize any of their menu items by substituting the meat with a tofu patty, and even go totally vegan by subtracting mayo and cheese (the Darren Burger is notably delicious made vegan — ask for extra hot sauce). If you’re looking for a place to have lunch with friends or for a quick solo meal, head to any one of their locations to eat your fill for less than 10,000 won.
So True is an undiscovered jewel in the Cheongdam neighborhood. Among the extensive menu of coffees, smoothies and desserts, there are delicious vegetable pastas, a huge grilled mushroom salad and a really special pesto panini on toasted brown bread. But the bona fide showstopper here is the Garden Pizza, piled high with kabocha squash and pumpkin, sunflower seeds, walnuts, mushrooms, garlic and herbs on a thin, crispy crust. This luscious chow will set you back 29,000 won, but it’s more than enough food for two people and, paired with another entrée, will leave you with ample leftovers for tomorrow. Finish up with a slice of citron cake and hot clementine tea, then chill out and soak up the zen.
Directions: Cheongdam Station (Line 7, Exit 2). Once you step outside, follow the curving road to your immediate right. So True is on the right-hand side, a one-minute walk from the station