Back in the states I ate Korean food 2-3 times a year. It was always very expensive and we ordered the same three dishes: Glass Noodles, Korean Pancake, Bibimbap and Spicy Pork. What a waste, there was so much more to Korean cuisine that we should have been enjoying.
Outside of the Camp Humphrey’s gates, commonly known as the Ville, are a variety of restaurants that try to imitate American palettes or offer international options. The prices at these restaurants are going to be much higher because they are targeting foreigners and soldiers. It’s a great way to make business while giving those who are homesick their food comforts. But there is a whole country of amazing food that is waiting for you beyond the strip of shops called the ville. Get out into Pangseong and Angeong-Ri and try the most hole in the wall restaurant you can find and be awestruck by the taste and the price.
If you are looking for a nice ice breaker to eating at Korean restaurants, try the popular chain restaurant, Yoogane. This eatery serves table side grilled dakgalbi with all of the fixings of a regular Korean restaurant. The first thing you’ll notice are the grills in the center of each table. Don’t worry! You won’t be cooking, your server will do that for you. There is an English and Korean menu available. When ordering point at what you want and since this is family style specify how many servings of said item you want, either 2 or 4 persons. Just hold up how many fingers, they’ll get the idea.
What? You don’t like spicy food? Don’t say that! Ok, I’m a hypocrite, I wouldn’t eat spicy food for most of my adulthood and I seriously missed out on some amazing food because it had a bit too much pepper in it. A good rule of thumb is if it’s red, it’s spicy. The average spiciness level here is a medium hot. If you are just beginning your spicy journey, never get anything in Korea that has a pepper picture next to it or specifies it is hot. To give you an idea of what the spicy warning in Korea means, it took myself and Jason over 2 hours to finish spicy duck with sweet potatoes because of the crying, running noses and the piles of rice that we chowed down on to make the burning stop. We watched four episodes of Brooklyn99 to finish that amazing meal. Yes, even after all that pain, I still give it 5 stars, it was that good.
So if the menu specifies the item is hot then it has purposely been made that way for the adventurous who want to feel the burn late into the night. Otherwise, Korean food is a medium spicy to no spice at all. If you really want to avoid spice or if your kids won’t try it, order the fried rice. It’s in the back of the menu and is wonderful. Has the smallest hint of spice.
While your meal is being cooked, head over to the self serve station. In most Korean restaurants, you will be provided with water either in a waterbottle or from a self serve water tower. If you don’t want water, go to the fridge and get yourself some alcohol or soda. Then it’s time to get to the fun of Korean food, Banchan! Banchan are little side dishes usually consisting of fermented vegetables and cabbage. These items are usually at a self serve bar. Don’t be shy to get some banchan to try! However, don’t overfill your bowls. It’s frowned upon to waste banchan so if you only want to try it, just get one piece. At yoogane, the shredded raw cabbage is great with a sauce from one of the squeeze bottles. Sorry, I have no idea what is in those bottles but it’s heaven! If you see a sweet tea dispenser that’s actually going to be hot broth for your soup. Put some sliced green onions in the bottom of your bowl and fill it up.
But, where’s the rice? This was new for me when I came to Korea but only children are offered rice at table grill restaurants. Instead, adults will use their chopsticks to pile a lettuce leaf with grilled chicken/ veggies and banchan. If you are feeling adventurous, try using a kelp leaf instead. They look a bit like grape leaves and have the craziest flavor. I think I like them? Still not sure. If the heat becomes too much for you, eat some of the banchan and lettuce to cool down.
Yoogane is a very clean and well run restaurant with super polite staff who will help you every step of the way. You do not need to speak English to eat here and you do not tip after paying the bill. If you are only feeling a little adventurous this restaurant is a great introduction to Korean Cuisine.
Paengseong-eup, Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi-do