All you have to do is turn on the TV to see that Koreans are obsessed with food and have high standards and loud opinions about the best way to cook or season a dish. International chefs have taken notice and started to take up shop in Seoul, adding to its already teeming and dynamic food scene. Now is the time to explore Seoul’s food, but forget barbecue and fried chicken–there’s so much more to discover in this sprawling, food—loving city. Mina Park is the founder of Sook, a project that breathes new life into Korean food traditions through workshops, collaborations and storytelling.

This story was originally published on July 3, 2018, and updated on October 12, 2021. Additional reporting by Dudi Aureus.

Most of us have survived the last two years binge-watching Korean dramas to escape our reality of being not being able to travel. It was during this period when we fell in love with Korean fried chicken, learned how to drink soju the Somaek way (mixed with beer), and even dabbled in the kitchen to create our own version of Dalgona coffee.

With the recent announcement that travel to South Korea will be possible from November 15 through the Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL), it was no surprise that the demand for South Korean flights surged as many of us hope to spend our holidays there. 

If you are one of the lucky few to get your hands on those precious plane tickets, it is time to start planning your travel itinerary. While you're at it, do include this list of dining places recommended by Sook founder Mina Park for a real taste of Seoul.

1. Tartine

Cult favourite Tartine Bakery of San Francisco chose Seoul for its first expansion outside of the U.S. and, in January 2018, its first Seoul location in the quietly chic neighbourhood of Hannam-dong opened to endless queues. In the lofty Hannam-dong space, you’ll find Tartine classics such as their morning buns and country bread as well as locally-inspired items such as Jeju tangerine juice and the Hannam multigrain loaf made with Korean fermented rice wine, makgeolli. Recently, the design-orientated Ryse Hotel in Hongdae opened with a Tartine Coffee Bar serving Coffee Manufactory beans and a Toast Bar featuring their oozing hot-pressed sandwiches. With one or two more locations planned for Seoul this year alone, Tartine’s taking over the world—one avocado-topped slice of sourdough bread at a time.

Tartine Seoul, 263-2, Hannam-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, South Korea

2. Ojangdong Hamheung Naengmyeon

Pyongyang-style cold buckwheat noodles (naengmyeon) have a loyal and opinionated following amongst Korean food lovers. Ask where the best naengmyeon is served and a heated debate likely will ensue. Always included among the best though is Ojangdong Hamheung Naengmyeon, which has been satisfying noodle cravings since 1953. This place is no-frills; their décor may not have changed much since the '50s, and the elderly couple sitting next to you likely has been coming here for decades. The signature bowl of noodles is slathered in spicy red pepper paste with a splash of chilled beef broth and topped with chewy raw skate, cucumber, pickled daikon radish and a boiled egg—the time-honoured antidote to a sweltering Korean summer.

108, Mareunnae-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea

3. Tea Collective 

When soju-fuelled nights start to lose their appeal, take refuge and restore your balance at the Tea Collective. Art director Mijae Kim has created a warm, sun-drenched oasis in the heart of Chungdam-dong featuring their own line of locally harvested teas and infusions made from Korean plants and fruits. The Tea Collective aims to bring together a community in search of more mindfulness in their urban lives. Have a mugwort (ssug) scone or a pumpkin glutinous rice cake along with your healing tea. And keep an eye out for their monthly studio talks featuring like-minded creatives from around the world or tea workshops. 

49, Dosan-daero 55-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea

4. Mingles

Lauded as Korea’s best restaurant by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and granted a Michelin star in 2017, Mingles in swanky Chungdam-dong lives up to the hype. Mingles manages to be both contemporary and worldly while also deeply respectful of Korean culinary traditions. Chef Mingoo Kang celebrates native ingredients while in season, such as a tender carrot leaf that grows in the mountains in early spring on the island of Ulleungdo. His attention to detail and passion for the Korean terroir is evident in his version of the traditional Korean bansang, which can be included as part of a set menu. Chef Kang transforms the everyday meal set of rice, soup and side dishes (banchan) with his perfectly crisp seasonal pickles (jangajji), the airiest batter-fried veg (tuigim) and a bowl of soup made from traditionally fermented soybean paste. The bansang, like the entire Mingles experience, is immaculate yet soulful.

94-9 Nonhyeon-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea

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5. Gyeongdong Market

While the tourists flock to Gwangjang market for bindaettuk (mungbean pancakes) and makgeolli, the chefs (and elderly pensioners) can be found at Gyeongdong Market near Dongdaemun. This traditional market is famous for its focus on traditional medicine stalls overflowing with dried roots and herbs to be brewed or powdered into healing potions. And, in the other winding alleys of the market, you will find farmer’s stalls with fresh seasonal produce such as every imaginable foraged mountain green during springtime, or vendors of freshly pressed sesame and perilla oils. Prices are exceedingly reasonable especially compared to conventional supermarkets and department store food halls, but don’t forget to bring cash.  

147, Wangsan-ro, Dongdaemun-gu, Seoul, South Korea

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