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Mar
02

Korea Is Where it’s At

I’m telling you, Korea is where it’s at these days. And like other capitols that are bulging with too much, all that greatness in food, fashion, excess has to spill over. That’s why the New York Times food Critic is shouting from the roof top that we have to go to a city called Jeonju, only three hours by bus south of Seoul. Its population is small— 650,000—and its the paradise for Korean food-lovers.

trendy Korea

trendy Korea

But you might need a guide to get you there.

Jeonju is seen as a sort of guardian of Korean cultural, historical and, most of all, culinary traditions. To underscore that point, last year Unesco dubbed it the 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.

soup

soup

And so many Jeonju restaurants are  cheap! Take  Hyundai-ok, known for it’s bean sprout soup at $5.00 a bowl. People flock from all over to eat the soup they say works magic on hangovers. It’s standing room only here.

South Korea's ancient culture Jeonju Hanok Village

South Korea's ancient culture Jeonju Hanok Village

Without a guide it’s nearly impossible to find the gems of cuisine. Take for example, Veteran Kalguksu, in the Hanok Village.  The menu offers three items, so to the untrained eye you’d think this was nothing but a cheap diner in a cheap building. But when you eat a dumplings, you’ll pause in disbelief that their  skins can be so delicate or that the filling of glass noodles and pork (about $3.80, for 10) can have a flavor so unique. Then there’s the  jjolmyeon noodles mixed with vegetables and a home made hot sauce, and the noodle soup the restaurant is named for. You’ll never forget the meal.

Just north of the Hanok Village, a tiny  restaurant called Chamae Galbi serves short rib in a stew filled with glass noodles and mushrooms for $8.00. Outside the village toward the city center, another place to try is Han Bat Shik Dong 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 $7.00.

people come from all over to sample here

people come from all over to sample here

Again most of the signs are in Korean so you’ll have to have someone help you. But if you can’t get a guide, or insist upon strolling the streets, every one seems to agree on one thing:  Bad food or restaurants do not exist in Jeonju.

What to drink? Ever heard of Makgeolli? You can even get it in New york. It’s a rice drink with an alcohol content similar to wine but  sweet, milky-colored and served cold from kettles.

Makgeolli

Makgeolli

But beware when ordering it, not only does it go down easily. It also comes with so much food you won’t know what to do with. Things like pig foot, a deep-orange kimchi pancake,  Clams and mackerel.  Soup too. And the total cost? $33 — for a meal for four, and major booze.

What to do in between food and drink?

Hanok Village

Hanok Village

The Hanok Village is considered the biggest and most authentic in the country. It’s got guesthouses, teahouses and artisans’ shops connected varyingly by wide streets and crooked alleys. It’s the ancestral home of King Taejo, founder of the Joseon Dynasty in 1392 which lasted until 1910.

roof views

roof views

Throughout the Hanok Village there are ceramics shops and art studios. Ceramics make a great gift to take home with you.

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.

gyeonggijeon

gyeonggijeon

Hanok Village is a great place to let go and wander. Most museums, like the Fan Museum are free and often empty.

omokdae

omokdae

Omokdae, a hilltop monument above the Hanok Village with lovely views. But perhaps the coolest attraction is the Hangyo Confucian school.

Hangyo Confucian school.

Hangyo Confucian school.

All this outdoor hiking does run up the appetite though which is a good thing especially before sitting down to bibimbop, Jeonju’s most famous dish, known all over. Bibimbop is a relatively simple dish–  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.

Eat it at Sungmidan, for $8.00 but here the red sauce came premixed in the rice.

banchan

banchan

Or  Myeong Seong Ok, for the best banchan. 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.

But it is in walking through Hanok Village that you really get the feel of what the culture was like here. Old buildings, menus written on weathered wooden tablets and propped up on miniature chairs on the sidewalk. Where else can you find a dish like  ddukgalbi— pork rib meat pounded together with fruits, vegetables and spices and formed into a square, pregrilled then reheated at your table?

When it comes to food, after a trip to Jeonju you’ll never be the same.

Transportation

Easy! Buses leave about every 10 minutes from Seoul’s Central City Bus Terminal and cost between 12,000 and 18,000 won each way (like $10). In Jeonju, taxis are so cheap – rarely more than 5,000 won no matter where you go.

Sleep

Jeonju Guesthouse

Jeonju Guesthouse

Jeonju Guesthouse: At the edge of the Hanok Village, this hostel has some private rooms and it’s run by an English-speaking middle-aged Korean couple, Mr. Lee and Mrs. Kang. They are great hosts, who love foreigners. Private rooms are 60,000 won on weekdays and 70,000 on weekends and fit two or three.

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