I just spent two weeks eating very purposefully in South Korea, including a 7-day road trip, and wanted to share some of what we ate outside of Seoul, since I know there’s not that much information in English out there. (There is a TON of information in Korean—books, websites, etc. This is a very food-oriented country.) Directions are hard because as most of Korea doesn’t use street addresses, so I’ve included phone numbers. We drove around with a GPS, and were really impressed how many of the restaurants we were looking for could be found. It would be pretty hard to do this trip without someone who speaks basic Korean, but if you tried, you would be rewarded with amazing food. A lot of these dishes can be found in Seoul, but a lot of them can’t.
Jeonju, Jeollabuk-do (North Jeolla Province):
Gwajok Hoegwan, www.jeonjubibimbap.com, serves only one dish, the famous Jeonju bibimbap, which is a special version of bibimbap, the mixed rice-vegetables-meat dish everyone knows. I can’t begin to describe how amazing and particular this restaurant is in a short Chowhound post, what a labor of love it’s been for the owner for the past 30 years. Basically, imagine your basic bibimbap elevated to the highest level. Also fantastic banchan, even though bibimbap normally doesn’t even need to be served with banchan. If you drive into the city, pretty much anyone should be able to tell you how to find it. 063-284-0982.
Jeolla Hoegwan, a restaurant that’s now run by the third-generation of the same family, serving hanjeongsik, a set menu of 30 different dishes on one traditional, low table. I told my mom they served a mountain trout, and she said the fish is so rare there are many Koreans who have never tried that fish in their lives. The restaurant itself only serves it when it’s available. I think the smallest group you can go with is four, since the 120,000 won menu serves four, which is an incredible value, about $20 per person at the current exchange rate. A showcase of the incredible culinary care and skill that Jeolla-do, the province, is famous for throughout Korea. 063-228-3033.
Jeonju Whoengi Kongnamulgukbap, a 24-hour joint that serves one and only one dish, kongnamulgukbap, which is beansprouts and rice in a soup of anchovy broth. Not so unusual, but a dish that came out of this area, which grows a lot of bean sprouts. Very comforting, a great dish for a cool night. 063-287-6979.
Busan, Gyeongsannam-do (South Gyeongsan Province):
Tongrae Halmae Pajun, famous for its green onion pancake, though what I was really impressed by was a seafood dish, tiny sea squirt-like seafood mixed with beansprouts, fiddlehead ferns, bellflower roots, and other vegetables in a nutty, sesame-based porridge, called godongjjim. Incredibly flavorful and delicious. Also a good place to try chueotang, a stew made from the loach fish, a tiny eel-like fish. 051-552-0791.
Gyeongsanbuk-do (North Gyeongsan Province
)Samgwanghoe, the best steamed crabs of my life! These are king crabs caught off the eastern coast of Korea, and even hard to find in Seoul, especially for the prices you can pay there. Incredibly sweet and succulent, a joy to eat even for someone like me who normally finds crab more trouble than it’s worth. Gyeongbok, Youngdukgun, Chuksanmyeon, Chuksan-1. 054-733-2121. The coast is also just worth a drive.
Unyang Traditional Bulgogi, serving, you guessed it, Unyang-style bulgogi. The sirloin (I think) is chopped fine, seasoned and shaped into a flat patty, like a giant hamburger, and grilled between two grills over wood charcoals. I don’t really love bulgogi, but a very superior version. Also serves a tasty non-seasoned galbi, or short ribs for grilling as well. In the town of Unyang, 052-262-0940.
Gyeongju Whunjo Kongguk, www.gjsoybeansoup.com, serving soybean soup and noodles in soybean soup. Sort of an unusual taste, maybe, for someone who’s not Korean. Soybean soup is light, creamy, and faintly nutty. You usually add a little salt to make the sweetness bloom. This place serves 3 kinds of warm soybean soup that are outrageously good, at least to me, filled with sticky rice cakes, sesame or perilla seeds, and a bit of honey or brown sugar. 054-743-9644.
Gangwon-do (Gangwon Province
)Bongpyeong, a little town devoted to buckwheat—buckwheat noodles (makguksu), buckwheat crepes (memil bongpyeon), and buckwheat jelly tossed with buckwheat sprouts (memilmuk-ssak-muchim). We ate at a restaurant called Migayoun (www.migayoun.com), and the food was had a very clean, wholesome, and completely delicious flavor. But you have to like sesame seeds and sesame oil. 033-335-8805/6.
Chuncheon is famous for dakgalbi, spicy chicken with sweet potatoes cooked on a giant griddle on your table. They’re all over the city, but we ate at Oosung Dakgalbi, 033-262-0043. A lot of fun, the kind of food to eat with a crowd and bottles of booze.
Chodang Sundubu, Gangneung, a city by the sea. There’s a little row of restaurants that all serve this dish, and I think they’re more or less the same. The sundubu is made with the local seawater, so it has a wonderfully slight but salty flavor. A very clean, straightforward dish, well-worth trying. 033-644-3516.