The Kimchi-ite: A Tour Through Hongdae, The Center Of Korean Youth Culture

Seoul has no shortage of unique neighborhoods worth visiting and it is certainly not at a loss for places to go drinking. However, there is only one true place where the youth of South Korea go en masse for so many of their desires and that place is Hongdae. Taking its name from the Korean abbreviation for the local art university, Hongik University, Hongdae is a great place for restaurants, cafes, art, live music, clubbing, lounge drinking and shopping. There are neighborhoods all over the city dedicated solely to each of those activities, but none have all of them, nor at such great accessibility.

The streets of Hongdae are lined with an unbelievable concentration of great restaurants, cafes and fashion boutiques.

Exiting from Hongik University station‘s exit 9 will give you a face full of Korea’s different subcultures. University students wear trendy American-style varsity jackets. Musicians have their instruments strapped to their backs. Club kids will have their frameless glasses and cut-off jeans. Exit 9 is the launching point for everyone’s night and on Saturdays it can take minutes to walk up the short flight of stairs.

Rillakuma takes a breather on “Meat Street,” a block with over 30 Korean BBQ restaurants.

One block out of the station is the so-called “Meat Street,” a one block corridor with over 30 tabletop, fire wielding, Korean BBQ restaurants. Serving up the standard samgyeopsal, kind of a BBQ-style bacon, as well as most other parts of commonly eaten animals all to be dipped into the all too delicious ssamjang, a sauce of garlic, soybeans and chili paste that is unique to Korea.

Street musicians line the street between Hongdae Station and the main nightlife areas.

Venturing on from Meat Street will take you right past Hongdae’s famous street performers and buskers. Musicians, comedians and magicians all compete for pedestrians’ attention, but everyone knows Hongdae is the musician’s playground. More than just sidewalk space for one-man acoustic cover machines, it is a testing ground for Korea’s indie music scene, with many acts going on to sign major record deals. Bands have their own regular spots with dedicated fans cheering loud enough to be heard for blocks around.

People passed-out and drunk is not an uncommon sight in all corners of Hongdae.

Most people come to Hongdae for the nightlife. Reasonable prices give the area an advantage over Gangnam. Restaurants are packed with laughter as people pour each other shots of soju, Korea’s drink of choice that, despite rarely being consumed outside of the peninsula, is one of the most consumed liquors in the world. Bars become so dense that they stack one on top of another with a speed dating bar on top of a darts bar on top of a cocktail lounge in the same building.

The two versions of Hongdae Playground: on the left, the Free Market during the afternoon and on the right, the late-night hangout spot.

One of the best places to drink after dark, when the weather is good, is in the playground right across the street from Hongik University. Koreans and expats alike grab a beer from a neighboring convenience store or Korean rice wine from the Maookli Man’s push cart, take a seat on the bench or the graffiti covered jungle gym and just hang out, often accompanied by an eclectic mix of street music. Additionally, on Saturday afternoons the area turns into the family friendly Hongdae Free Market, featuring arts and crafts vendors as well as live music.

Afternoon window-shopping is fantastic with the latest in international design and fashion.

There is really so much more to Hongdae than what I’ve mentioned, such as dog cafes, amazing basement comic book shops, narrow streets with over 50 women’s clothing boutiques and a huge concentration of great Japanese restaurants. Hongdae is one of the best places in Seoul to explore, there’s always something new to see or do as it is constantly in flux.

Now is the best time to get to Hongdae and experience it all as the neighborhood is changing on what seems like a monthly basis. As the neighborhood exponentially increases in popularity, rent is raising, pushing out businesses that have been in the area for decades in order to make way for international coffee chain locations. Many of the smaller cafes and music venues that built the area’s reputation have been pushed to adjacent neighborhoods like Hapjeong in order to keep their heads above water. Regardless of corporate takeovers, Hongdae absolutely remains my favorite neighborhood in Korea and is accessible at any hour on any day.

Check out previous “Kimchi-ite” stories on Korean culture, food and eccentricities by clicking here.

[All photos by Jonathan Kramer]

A taste of Seoul, Korea: Three nights

Korean food is hot! “Spicy” is probably the most prominent flavor in Korean cooking, but it’s also a sign of the increasing popularity of Korean cuisine. Everywhere you turn these days, it seems like someone is talking about Korean food, from New York’s superstar chef David Chang to the insanely popular Kogi food truck in Los Angeles. But for all the buzz Korean food is getting among eaters, many of us know little beyond the Korean basics of barbecue and Kimchi. What exactly do they like to eat in Korea? And why is everyone so obsessed with the food there?

During my recent visit to Seoul, I decided to investigate. Armed with only my camera and an empty stomach, I dived head-first into the sizzling center of Seoul’s food scene, curious to discover what Koreans liked to eat. But before I started, I needed to find some help. As any local will tell you, eating in Korea is a communal experience, with dishes passed and shared among friends. To help me navigate my way through the bewildering array of Korean food choices, I met up with three of Seoul’s top food experts: Dan from Seoul Eats, Joe of ZenKimchi, and Jennifer from FatManSeoul. Over the course of several meals with my hosts, I began to get a sense of the surprising, subtle and savory flavors that make Korean food so special. Want to get a taste of what Korean food is all about? Join along as we take a big bite of Korean cuisine – click below for more.


Up All Night in Hongdae
Hongdae, a youthful neighborhood west of Seoul’s main downtown, has become in recent years a hub for all things fun, young and trendy. Stroll down any side street near the Hongik University metro stop and you’ll be assaulted by cozy coffee shops, raucous pubs and of course, plenty of food.

I started my culinary exploration of Seoul here in Hongdae, with Dan Gray, creator of Seoul food website Seoul Eats. The first stop was a spot simply called “RIBS,” specializing in Galbi, or pork short ribs. These tiny bite-size meat morsels make a perfect accompaniment for drinks are flavored with plenty of pepper and spices. Like many young Koreans out on the town, this was to be the first of several more stops, with plenty of drinking and snacking along the way. We headed to Chin Chin, best known for Makgeolli, an unfiltered rice wine. The drink has a milky, tangy taste to it, with a finish not unlike the yeasty taste of good Hefeweiss beer. Patrons can enjoy the drink al fresco, paired with the buzzing throb of Seoul’s plentiful motor scooter traffic jams.

After a few rounds of Makolli, we were hungry again. Thankfully, Korean food lends itself well to consumption on the street, with literally hundreds of vendors lining the sides of Hongdae’s many alleys. We headed to a Pojangmacha, or tent restaurant to get a taste of late-night Korean snacking, where we enjoyed Gaeran Mari, an omelette-like drinking snack made of eggs, veggies, ham and doused in ketchup.

Roll Up Your Sleeves in Mapo
Hongdae gave me a taste of Seoul’s frenzied late night eating scene. But I was still curious to see what the average Korean might be eating for dinner. To discover more, I met up with Joe McPherson from ZenKimchi, for a mini-food tour of Mapo-Gu, a largely working-class district east of Hongdae. Mapo is also home to Mapo Restaurant Street, a huge cluster of eateries offering traditional Korean specialities like Bulgogi and Bibimbap. They also offer more eclectic fare, including dog meat soup.

We got our hands dirty by starting with a Samgyeopsal eatery, specializing in salt-grilled pork belly. Barbecue is perhaps Korea’s most well-known cuisine. Diners typically gather round a large hole in their tables, filled with glowing red coals, while the meal’s meat is cooked in front of you. Dinner was salt-pork, accompanied by the ever-present Kimchi (pickled cabbage), as well as eggs, which were cooked up using a lip on the edge of our grill and mixed with the Kimchi.

One meal is never enough in Seoul. Like many of my nights there, we moved on to try another Korean speciality, a cold buckwheat noodle soup called Makguksu. This icy-cold dish makes a refreshing contrast to the typical spicy, smoky flavors of most Korean food. We ended our night on a decidedly blue-collar note, stopping by the 7-11 for corn ice cream sandwiches a uniquely Korean frozen novelty.

Taste the Past in Itaewon
I had been snacking till dawn and had a taste of Korean working-class cuisine. But now it was time to get a taste of the past. Korean food has a long and illustrious history, with some unique traditions that set it apart from their nearby Chinese and Japanese neighbors. To get better sense of this, I met up with Jennifer, creator of FatManSeoul and walking encyclopedia of Korean history and culture. We headed to Itaewon, Seoul’s historic district, a throwback neighborhood lined with old-style buildings, traditional Korean handicrafts and tea shops.

Our meal for the evening would be Hanjeongsik, a cornucopia of traditional small plates. No meal goes by in Korea without the ubiquitous banchan, small dishes of pickled vegetables, dried seafood and sauces that are used for dipping and as sides. Hanjeongsik takes banchan to the next level, meant to symbolically reflect five colors (black, yellow, green, red and white), directions, the four seasons and five tastes. Our spread included prawns, tofu soup, fish cakes called odeng, seaweed and plenty of pickled veggies. It’s a decadent and delicious way to sample what traditional Korean eating is all about.

We finished our evening at a tea house nearby. Though many younger Koreans now seem to gravitate towards the ubiquitous coffee shops of Seoul, tea houses will give visitors a taste of the Korea of days gone by. The humbly-named tea house “Second Best in Seoul” in Itaewon takes the traditional Korean tea to the next level. The tea here is less a drink than a dessert, combining fruits like persimmon, nuts and red bean paste into delicious post-meal concoctions. We enjoyed our tea sitting in the shop’s retro 1970’s chairs, digesting our meal. Like so much of the cuisine of Korea, it proved to be a surprising blend of the old and the new, a collection of culinary surprises waiting to be discovered.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months traveling through (Southeast) Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

Undiscovered New York – Exploring Koreatown

Like many other large cities, you might already know that New York has a large and continuously growing Chinatown. Yet in a city that is home to more than 100 distinct immigrant groups, it’s also home to a surprisingly diverse assortment of residents from homes across the Asian continent. One strip of authentic Asian culture that tends to get overshadowed by Chinatown is Koreatown, its lesser-known neighbor on 32nd Street between Broadway and 5th Avenue.

Also known by its nickname “K-Town,” this densely-populated block packs in a huge range of entertainment and culinary options, enough in fact to make a full evening out of it. Sandwiched inside the upper floors of surprisingly drab commercial office buildings are hidden Korean Barbecue joints, raucous BYOB Karaoke dens, swanky lounges and rooftop bars with stunning views of the Empire State Building. It’s a city in and of itself, and a strip that’s particularly ripe for exploration.

Want to learn more about where to go and what to see to make the most of your trip? Step inside Undiscovered New York’s guide to Koreatown.
Bon Chon Chicken
Think you’ve had some great fried chicken before? You haven’t lived until you try the spicy and soy-garlic style Korean fried chicken at Bon Chon. This swanky spot offers a range of Korean bar-food favorites including the aforementioned chicken, Latin American-style sweet corn, sushi and rosemary french fries. It’s a Korean smorgasbord in the best possible sense – trust me, the combination of food sounds odd, but it works. And when you take that first bite of chicken you’ll be making plans for your next trip back.

Karaoke Dens
Koreatown is not just about eating – it’s just as much a street that’s made for entertainment. And when we’re talking about evening plans in Koreatown, that typically means Karaoke. As you walk down 32nd street you’ll find any number of signboards advertising karaoke bars on the floors within. Just find any place that looks interesting and walk on in. Those with a severe case of stage fright shouldn’t despair – almost all karaoke spots in Koreatown let you rent private rooms so you can belt out that off-key rendition of Barry Manilow without fear of embarassment. A karaoke session typically includes a private room, a variety of bar snacks and server to bring you drinks. One of the better known spots on 32nd Street is iBop, well known for its “bring your own alcohol” policies.

Korean Barbecue
As you might expect on a street specializing in the food and culture of Korea, there’s a plentiful assortment of Korean Barbecue restaurants. A meal typically consists of an assortment of plentiful grilled meats, prepared on an in-table grill as well as an array of small dishes like the ubiquitous kimchi and other pickled vegetables. Though there’s a number good Korean Barbecue spots on 32nd Street, our favorite is actually Kum Gang Sang, if for no other reason than the insane fake-rock grotto complete with grand piano wedged in the corner of the restaurant. Another good choice is Seoul Garden, a restaurant located in an unassuming corner of the second floor of an office building.

Million Dollar Views
One of the more interesting characteristics of Koreatown is its proximity to one of New York City’s most iconic buildings, the Empire State Building. Want to get a bird’s-eye of this amazing structure? Shhhh….you’ve got to keep it a secret though. Koreatown visitors in the know head to the rooftop patio at the La Quinta Inn, called Mé Bar, where they can drink in million dollar views along with a beverage of choice. Its perhaps the perfect way to end an evening in one of New York’s lesser known but fantastic neighborhoods.