By Seth Kugel
There are two phrases to learn if you visit Jeonju, a 650,000-person city – and a paradise for Korean food-lovers — three hours by bus south of Seoul.
First is “Hyundai-ok odi innayo?” — “Where is Hyundai-ok?” – a reference to a tiny restaurant famed for its kongnamul guk, or bean sprout soup, but nearly impossible to find in the labyrinthine bowels of Nambu Market.
The second is “Kamsa hamnida,” or “thank you,” the inevitable response to whichever generous soul drops what he’s doing and leads you to Hyundai-ok, past stalls of frozen fish and fresh fungi and down narrow passageways stacked with empty boxes and piles of dirty dishes.
My guide was a fish salesman, who deposited me at the restaurant, where I took the last of just 10 plastic stools. I was seated right in front of a woman in a pink apron slicing jalapeños, dicing chives and smashing garlic; other cooks filled big clay bowls with rice and the bean-sprout-laced broth or prepared banchan, the free and refillable miniature side dishes that accompany just about every Korean restaurant meal.
The soup is a famed hangover helper, but I had not been drinking, I had been freezing – Jeonju can be frigid in early February – and it transformed me from hungry and icy to satisfied and steamy for just 5,000 won (about $4.75 at 1050 won to the dollar).
There are now other Hyundai-ok franchises in Jeonju and elsewhere in Korea, but the original version is unique and representative of the city’s rich heritage. Jeonju is seen as a sort of guardian of Korean cultural, historical and, most of all, culinary traditions; last year it served as Unesco’s City of Gastronomy. It’s the place Koreans warn you not to go if you love Korean food, because you’ll never love it quite so much anywhere else again — or pay so little for it.
I spend my life looking for places like Jeonju, a city barely known to Western travelers that barely seems to care: many museums, restaurants and guesthouses don’t bother translating signs or menus, or even bother Romanizing their Korean names. (I heard much more Chinese than English among visitors.) The exception that proves the rule is Mosim, a cafe whose menu has headings for “Coffee,” “Tea” and the like but all listed items are in Korean Hangul script only. (I’ll have the, uh, latte?)
Not all Jeonju restaurants are as pared-down, or as cheap, as Hyundai-ok, but a whole lot are. At Veteran Kalguksu, in a squat, gray, modern building almost certainly the ugliest in the Hanok Village – hanoks are traditional Korean houses – the menu offers three items: dumplings of impossibly delicate skins filled with glass noodles and pork (4,000 won, about $3.80, for 10); cold, chewy and delicious jjolmyeon noodles mixed with vegetables and a powerful hot sauce (5,000 won), and the noodle soup the restaurant is named for (5,000 won). It was packed, and understandably so: I’ve been thinking about those noodles in hot sauce ever since.
Just north of the Hanok Village, a tiny and informal restaurant called Chamae Galbi serves short rib in a glorious stew filled with glass noodles and mushrooms for 9,000 won a person. It was packed, too. Outside the village toward the more modern (a relative assessment) city center, a modest restaurant called Han Bat Shik Dong (another without English signage), serves baek ban, a traditional meal of kimchi soup with a lovely variety of banchan (including whole fish, shredded squid and beef slices) to add to it, for 7,000 won. It was not packed at all, but I was there on a weekday afternoon.
The latter two restaurants are hardly famous; in fact, they were unknown even to some residents. But as I heard from one resident via e-mail before my trip and later confirmed by experience, “Bad food or restaurants do not exist in Jeonju.”
There are, however, bad hangovers. Makgeolli, a Korean rice drink with an alcohol content similar to wine, has achieved minor recognition worldwide over the last few years, the latest in formerly low-class tipples that have become fashionable. Slightly sweet, milky-colored and served cold from kettles, it’s hard not to like, though famed for rough mornings-after.
Order it in New York or Seoul and you’ll likely get a bottle or maybe some snacks. Order it in Jeonju and it is accompanied by an entire free meal.
For this reason, you cannot attend a makgeolli restaurant alone, and I begged a local connection I had drummed up, Hana Kim, to go with me. (Hana works with foreign students who come to Jeonju’s Chonbuk National University to study Korean; like local tourists, they tend to be from Asian countries, not Western ones.) She rounded up two colleagues, Taeyoung Kim and Byoung-Yong Kim, and we went to a spot called Yet Chon, a raucous restaurant with a graffiti-covered interior where the first kettle was 20,000 won and each subsequent one was 15,000.
We stopped at two, and that was plenty. Each arrived with a set of dishes. Pig foot, which I’m not inclined to love, was chewy and delicious; a deep-orange kimchi pancake — the traditional makgeolli side dish — was spicy and perfect. Clams and mackerel came with round two, as did soup. Total cost: 35,000 won — that’s $33 — for a meal for four, including beyond-moderate drinking.
Of course, there’s more to Jeonju than cheap food and hangovers. The Hanok Village, widely considered the biggest and most authentic in the country, is filled with guesthouses, teahouses and artisans’ shops connected varyingly by wide streets and crooked alleys. Indeed, evidence of the city’s heritage is everywhere. Though Jeonju feels like a slow-moving backwater compared with Seoul, it’s the ancestral home of King Taejo, founder of the Joseon Dynasty in 1392. (The dynasty lasted until 1910.) Gyeonggijeon is the city’s most impressive ancient site, a complex of buildings, some dating to Taejo’s time, that is home to what is considered the only existing portrait of the king. It costs 1,000 won to enter, which is unusual for Jeonju; every other cultural institution I visited was free.
One particularly appealing free spot is Omokdae, a hilltop monument above the Hanok Village with lovely views. But perhaps the coolest attraction is the Hangyo Confucian school (also free). I am apparently not the only one to think so: a sign outside notes it is a favorite filming spot for Korean film and television. The complex of traditional buildings is not well-documented (at least in English), but is nevertheless beautiful and fun to wander through.
There are cultural attractions and shops around every corner in Hanok Village, and plotting out a course doesn’t always work, so your best bet is to simply wander and discover. Following a map to the Fan Culture Hall (Jeonju, I had read, was known for its production of traditional paper and its use in artful fans), I walked by accident into a museum that had no fans at all; it was obviously dedicated to a woman who seemed impressive, at least from the (to me) incomprehensible Korean displays dedicated to her. I wondered briefly if her name might actually be Fan and I had been confused, but it turned out to be the Choi Myeong-Hee Literary Museum, devoted to one of Korea’s most prominent writers.
I eventually found the fan museum, and it was worth the effort, with sufficient English descriptions and displays of both older and contemporary danseon (round with a handle) and jeobseon (folding) varieties, many almost painfully elegant. I was the only visitor, and a worker took me under her wing, telling me a bit more about some of the better-known contemporary fan artists based in the area.
Throughout the Hanok Village there are tiny ceramics shops and art studios, as you’d expect form any such spot, and I wandered in and out of many. But I reserved my gift purchases, mostly of rustic-looking ceramics decorated with delicate tree-designs, to Form. Bigger than most shops, and located toward the edge of the Hanok Village, at 21 Eunhaeng-ro, it had a warm glow that drew me close, bells that jangled when I went in, a tiny white dog that nipped me when I petted him, and a studio in back where artists toiled. I spent the equivalent of about $150 on four items.
I was happy there was so much to do between meals, because that reduced my overall calorie consumption. But I did reserve two meals for bibimbop, Jeonju’s most famous culinary export. Bibimbop is a relatively simple dish: an array of vegetables like bean sprouts, carrots and mushrooms, a runny egg and perhaps a form of meat that you mix together with rice and red pepper paste. In Jeonju, the ingredients are supposed to be fresher and better; the region is known for its fertile soil.
At Sungmidan, where I paid 11,000 won (for Jeonju, that’s tourist trap pricing), the red sauce came premixed in the rice – some people object to that – but the vegetables were fresh and tasty and the banchan — including scallion pancakes, cabbage salad and a variety of kimchi – plentiful.
But I far preferred the version at Myeong Seong Ok, which gets occasional nods from bloggers and which I also heard about on Twitter. The banchan was vast, including a fresh-tasting leaf with chili sauce – not quite fermented enough to be full-on kimchi – that the server identified as bom dong, a spring cabbage. That alone was worth the 7,000 won I paid. (It’s farther from the Hanok Village; add on cab fare and it’s about the same price as Sungmidan).
My final find was the result of more wandering in Hanok Village. I was drawn to an old building – about a century old but beautifully restored — and what I guessed but was not sure were menus written on weathered wooden tablets and propped up on miniature chairs on the sidewalk. (The only Roman letters were a sign reading “Open”.) Peering in the windows, I saw a mostly young crowd, shoes off and sitting on the floor in the traditional style. It was only 5 p.m., and I decided to come back for dinner. It turned out to be Eruwha, where the specialty is ddukgalbi, pork rib meat pounded together with fruits, vegetables and spices and formed into a square, pregrilled then reheated at your table. (They actually had an English menu explaining this and then instructing you how to eat it, using an alternate spelling of the dish: “Put piece of Dduckgalbi on slice of radish…”) The ddukgalbi was 8,500 won, an absurdly small amount considering that not only included tax and service, but also the accompanying banchan and tea that came with the meal, as well as roasted chestnuts and biscuits that came as dessert.
My first day back in New York, I took a friend to Korean food on West 32nd Street, Manhattan’s Koreatown. The makgeolli was $20 for a small bottle, and it came without food. The galbi was stringy, the kimchi limp. And the bill was monstrous. It had happened – Jeonju had ruined me. And I couldn’t have been happier.
IF YOU GO
Buses leave about every 10 minutes from Seoul’s Central City Bus Terminal and cost between 12,000 and 18,000 won each way. In Jeonju, taxis are so cheap – rarely more than 5,000 won no matter where you go – that buses are unnecessary.
I stayed at the Jeonju Guesthouse, at the edge of the Hanok Village, a youth hostel with some private rooms run by an English-speaking middle-aged Korean couple, Mr. Lee and Mrs. Kang. They are great hosts, who seem to be at once delighted and bemused by the foreigners who come through. Private rooms are 60,000 won on weekdays and 70,000 on weekends and fit two or three. Bunks start at 19,000 won.
There are also a few hotels, but many Koreans stay at one of more than 20 traditional Korean guesthouses in the Hanok Village, which run about 60,000 to 80,000 won a night per couple. Alas, few have multi-lingual Web sites, listings on international booking sites or English-speaking staff members to answer the phones. Either call the Jeonju Tourist Office at 82-63-282-1330 during local business hours and pray someone speaks English, or book your first night in a hotel and then knock on doors once you get there.