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Storm Chasing a Gastronomic Journey Through Seoul

Updated: Mar 26

Storm Chasing a Gastronomic Journey Through Seoul
Myeongdong, Seoul

Asia was a bit slower to reopen to tourists than other parts of the world. So, undaunted by the U.S. Joint Typhoon Warning Center's warning about an active storm threatening Korea around Labor Day, we made a mad dash to the airport the moment we heard that South Korea was open. Well, maybe not quite that instantly, since we needed to get negative PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) test results, complete the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency’s pre-entry forms, get a QR code for that, apply for and receive our Electronic Travel Authorization from the Korean Immigration Service, and handle the planning stuff. But, with Labor Day weekend fast approaching, we didn’t waste much time getting our chores done.

Our flight arrived at Incheon International Airport earlier than scheduled, so we were eager to get to our waiting Elife Limo. However, it wasn’t to be. After paying nearly $300 for PCR tests at home, we discovered we had to pay another $200 to get them done again at the airport. Adding insult to injury, or perhaps injury to insult, I think the medical technician may have touched my soul with the mucus swab. It’s hard to know where to go from there. But, after regaining my composure and vision, we found our driver and started the hour-long ride into Seoul.

I was last in Seoul in October 2019, but it felt like that was a lifetime ago. This time, rather than being in the city for business, I was visiting with my much more prepared children. By the time we made it to our hotel on the quieter side of Myeongdong, the long day of previously mentioned chores, flight, and subsequent soul-touching follow-up tests had taken their toll. After checking in, we were tired enough to find dinner in the GS25 convenience store just off the hotel lobby and turn in for the night.

Our first day on the ground was spent learning how to navigate the large and bustling city using the Seoul Metro. Thankfully, my daughter took Korean to fulfill her college language requirement, and my son spent the better part of a year listening to K-pop and learning the language on his own, so navigating the amazing subway system and connecting malls was surprisingly efficient.

Our first planned stop was YukJeon Hoegwan (47 Tojeong-ro 37-gil, Mapo-gu), the Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant famous for its bassak bulgogi. Naturally, we needed to try their signature dish, but because meals can be purchased as a set, we also added grilled baby octopus, beef tartare, and ox blood soup. And to wash this amazing meal down, we opted for the restaurant’s award-winning Makgeolli (rice wine). Each of us favored a different dish, although they were all superb, with the ox blood soup being an unexpected and excellent surprise. The Makgeolli was the best I have ever had, so we purchased a bottle to take back to the hotel for later that night.

We also stopped in next door at Compose Coffee for some very nice fruit shakes while my kids designed their full day of mostly shopping and many subway rides.

Early in the evening, we set off for Seoul’s most acclaimed bar, Charles H. (97 Saemunan-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul), renowned in international bar rankings. Located in the Four Seasons Hotel, Charles H. has regularly received international accolades as one of the top fifty bars in the world, along with recognition as the best bar in Korea in 2019 and 2020. I spent some time here on my visit in 2019, but visiting with my adult children made the experience feel much more glamorous. It was an excellent way to wrap up our first full day in this amazing city.

Storm Chasing a Gastronomic Journey Through Seoul
Dusk over Seoul

We woke up a little later than we should have on our second day in Seoul, likely due to the flight of drinks at Charles H., which was further enhanced by the beer and chips welcome package provided by our hotel. We did, nevertheless, manage to get to our first destination, Myeongdong Kyoja (29 Myeongdong 10-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul), before the Sunday crowds descended on it. The Michelin Guide brought us to this three-story, family-run restaurant for their famous Mandu (dumplings), Kalguksu (noodle soup), Bibimguksu (spicy mixed noodles served cold), and Kimchi. This restaurant only has four dishes on its menu, serves the food quickly (using a robot waiter), and is clearly a local favorite. Every dish was fantastic, even if the Bibimguksu was too slippery to eat with metal chopsticks. Fortunately, an attentive waiter noticed my troubles and delivered a fork, allowing me to enjoy the meal too. By the time we finished up and left, the line to get in meandered down three floors of stairs and out the front door.

The day was, once again, filled with visits to K-pop music stores, Korean fashion boutiques, a cat café, and the D Museum (83-21 Wangsimni-ro, Seongdong-gu, Seoul) at SM Entertainment’s building near Under Stand Avenue and the Seoul Forest. We had thought the exhibition would relate to K-pop, since it was in the SM Entertainment building, but it turned out to be about romance depicted in anime films and photography instead. It wasn’t the expected experience, but still provided a nice break from a day filled with subway rides and coffee consumption.

By early evening we set out to Bar Cham (34 Jahamun-ro 7-gil, Tongin-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul), one of Seoul’s bars regularly featured amongst the best in Asia. But, after running through the narrow streets of Tongin-done, in a steady downpour, we arrived five minutes after the bar opened, so there was no space for three. As a testimony to Bar Cham’s customer service, the bartender loaned us her umbrella and put us on the wait list. So we walked a bit down the road and, dripping wet, we found our way into the Village Parking Lot Pub (that’s what Google Translate said it’s called – but I’ve posted a storefront photo in case you look for it). It turned out to be a very pleasant, quiet bar, run by nice people. By this time the rain had let up so we headed back to return Bar Cham’s umbrella so we could find a Korean Fried Chicken joint (just called a fried chicken joint when you’re in Korea) for a late dinner.

Another subway ride took us back to our hotel, where we needed to drink an impressive amount of Makgeolli and beer and pack up for our early morning return to Incheon International Airport. Also, by this time, the active storm being monitored by the Joint Typhoon Warning Center had been named Typhoon Hinnamnor and was forecast to hit Korea around the time our flight was scheduled to leave Incheon. Although we had to leave for the airport a bit earlier than originally planned, at 5:45 am, we made it out before one of the most devastating typhoons in South Korean history made landfall.

In the end, this much-needed break was full of unexpected experiences and some amazing food in a city I need to visit more often.

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