I’ve long promised a roundup of places in Jeonju that I’d recommend to people… or, rather, places that I make a point of going when I’m in Jeonju myself.
For anyone not in (or going to) Korea, well… this might be of less interest to you, unless you love reading abut amazing restaurants that you’ll probably never visit.
I don’t claim to know all the good places in Jeonju. I don’t even claim to know most of them. (I don’t even know all of the places I “know” — there’s one place I was trying to locate, but couldn’t.
But I know some amazing places to eat and drink in that city, and during a trip there last week, I was reacquainted with some of the best of them, as well as lucky enough to make a couple of new discoveries (or to follow up on discoveries friends made after I left).
Let me just start by saying this: the Korean food in Seoul is
crap mostly sub-par. (I’m being polite.)
I know, you think there’s this place that isn’t crap, right? This place that has great kimchi jjigae, or wonderful mandu, or outstanding naeng myeong?
No. It’s sub-par. No, no, listen! You just don’t know, if you haven’t eaten Jeonju food. I mean it.
Okay, maybe the above I wrote above is an overstatement.
But every time I visit Jeonju, I’m reminded, in an overwhelming way, how much I love good Korean food… and how little of what I’ve encountered in Seoul counts as “good Korean food.” As I prepare for an upcoming trip to Seoul, I have to say: I really did think about making a day trip down to Jeonju.
(We don’t have time to do it, but I thought about it, hard.)
It hit me, like a ton of bricks, how hard it had been for me when I ended up in Bucheon and the food options dropped away precipitously… and it’s only gotten worse in the neighborhood since then. Granted, Bucheon is worse than most places. But I’ve eaten in plenty of places in Seoul, and it’s only marginally better. You see a lot of restaurants labeled things like “Jeonju Shikdang” but they’re all of them disappointments. Most of the food in Seoul is just dead, just flat. A soup or stew that ought to be a rich, complex blend of savory, sweet, salty, and and sour ends up being… well, two out of four: salt and and spicy. Food in Seoul is much like beer was in Korea until a year or two ago: a flamboyantly, inexorably bland and painful affair.
So allow me to say this: if you have not visited Jeolla Province, you have not eaten good Korean food. If you have not been to Jeonju (or maybe Iksan, but I haven’t been back there in a while), you haven’t eaten the best that Korea has to offer. It’s as simple as that.
So what this series of posts will endeavour to do is to outline the places you should eat in Jeonju… but also to emphasize the reason why you should take a few days to actually go there and eat these foods.
Note that point carefully: I’m not suggesting you eat at these places if you happen to go to Jeonju; I’m saying that you should go to Jeonju in order to eat at these places.
I don’t know a particularly large number of things to do and places to see in the city. I don’t have a long list of acitivities for you to consider. You can figure that stuff out on your own, or, perhaps, you can do as the Jeonjuites do: live those few days just savoring the best food in the nation, slowly, taking breaks in cafes and cinemas and talking walks here and there.
Then eat something, and feel your mind being blown.
I’ll split the places up by area, and you can figure out your own itinerary.
If you are in downtown Jeonju, everything is found in rough relation to the Gaeksa, a Joseon Dynasty-era rooming house for officials and such that stands basically at what used to be the heart of downtown Jeonju. Well, it is the heart of downtown Jeonju still, but downtown is no longer the heart of the city. It’s full of teenagers, and people seem to be hanging out elsewhere.
Still, the Gaeksa is a useful reference point for finding your way around. Just remember to say it “Keck-sa” for the locals. I have friends who kept asking for the “geck-sah” and it got them nowhere.
If you’re going to any of the places downtown, you can ask for them specifically, and most people will know them. But if you’re just going downtown and don’t have a specific place to stop, ask for the Gaeksa.
Waengi Kongnamul Gukbap (왱이콩나물국밥):
Near the Gaeksa is a place that was (and, according to a cabbie we talked to, still is) the best place for a local specialty called 콩나물국밥 (Beansprout-Rice Soup), a little place called Waengi Kongnamul Gukbap (왱이콩나물국밥).
Waengi is a wonderful place to end up on a rainy afternoon, which was the kind of day it was when I was usually brought there on band practice days. But anytime is a good time for soup. You get very barely warmed egg in a rice bowl, along with a bowl of beansprout-and-rice soup. The ajummas will tell you to spoon some broth from your soup onto the egg, stir it up, and eat the egg separately from the soup, but I prefer to dump the egg in. Don’t forget to add more beansprouts when you have finished most of yours — they give you an extra bowlful.
If you’re like me, you’re thinking, “It’s just beansprouts, a little broth, a little egg… what’s the big deal?” Ignore that part of your mind. Go anyway. Enjoy. Thank me later.
Banya Dolsotbap (반야돌솥밥):
“Dolsot” means “stone bowl” as far as I know, and it’s the kind of stone bowl in which you usually get served rice that is, even as it’s served, burning onto the inner edges of the bowl. With some dishes, you’re supposed to scoop out the rice and put it into a soup; with others, you mix the rice immediately to prevent it from burning too much.
At Banya Dolsotbap, you don’t worry about it. First, you sit back and look at the banchan; the tons of side dishes that you get. This is Jeonju, a part of your mind says; this is how it’s supposed to be.
(Sorry, I don’t have a picture of the banchan now. I’ll raid my hard drives for a picture and update sometime. But believe me: it’s astounding, if you’re only used to what they do in Seoul.)
Then you take the soy sauce mix, and simply drizzle it onto the rice. Don’t be shy. Once you’ve put some on, mix up the rice, and you’ll find beneath its surface (or above it, as in the picture above) all kinds of wonderful little surprises: beans, grains, and more. You can order with extra, but you don’t have to. Keep mixing it, adding a little more soy sauce till it tastes how you want it. Then you’re ready to have some rice, and some side dishes, and relax and take it all in.
Well, until you finish the non-burned rice. Then, you take some of your broth, and spoon that onto the the rice that is all crusted against the sides of the stone bowl. Then, as it hisses, because yes, the bowl is still that hot, scrape it off and savour.
It is like heaven, but better. Because it’s right here and right now.
Google Maps lists three locations: I’ve been to two of them, and they were both great.
Kajok Hoegwan (가족회관)
I’ll be honest: I’m including this place because it’s the one I’ve seen others recommend time and time again, and the one people get taken to when people want to show off Jeonju Bibimbap.
To be frank, I liked the side dishes but the bebimbap wasn’t all that special to me. It is, however, one of those places where they only have one dish on the menu, and that is, at least, something. (The best places only have one dish on the menu, but they do it right.)
Still, I found the bibimbap uninspiring, and a little uninspired, but the lady who runs the place is deemed a national treasure by some middle aged men in suits who work for the government, so, well, whatever. It’s not bad, anyway, if you happen to be downtown and looking for something you haven’t tried yet.
Google Maps says it is here, only a few blocks south of the Gaeksa, towards the street market.
Saebyuk Gang (새벽강):
(Note: I haven’t been to this place in years. I mention it for anyone who’s willing to hunt and try out a place based on long-ago, happy memories, though I have run across posts and other information online that suggest, as recently as a year or two ago, it was still the same old wonderful place.)
This is just a little drinking house, probably one of dozens in downtown Jeonju… but it’s kind of a special place, in the sense of it being something of a time machine. Saebyuk Gang–the name means “Dawn River”–was a local hangout of sorts for artists, poets, and musicians when I lived in Jeonju, and you can tell this not just by the fact that everyone in that circle can tell you, but also by the music and decor of the place. The last time I went, which admittedly was years ago, there was art by local artists, and the music ranged from French chansons to African pop music to Han Youngae’s classy renditions of Korean “trot” songs.
The proprietress back in those days was a wonderful older woman who made great food to accompany a decent selection of Korean liquors, along with the usual (meh) beer and soju options. I don’t know what it’s like now, but I’d bet it’s still a great little place… the pictures I found online show it’s the same woman running the place, and it looks basically the same inside.
Google Maps says it is here. You’ll have to look carefully: it’s a second-floor bar, and when I was looking for it, I always kept my eyes peeled for a little red sign sticking out of the building’s second story that read 술… that was the only sign that the place existed. The sign may be gone by now, though.
There are a few places worth going to in this neighborhood, which is just south of the downtown area and merges with the Hanok Village, though I couldn’t find them all this time. One is a tiny guksu restaurant near the local Catholic girls’ high school, and another is a wonderful place for eating and drinking amazing Korean traditional liquors. However, I only really managed to find one place I’d been before.
Gyodong Dawon (교동다원):
This is a little traditional tea shop, where a man with a ponytail offers a couple of Korean teas, and some Chinese teas. I highly recommend the “Hwangcha,” which is some kind of really old-fashioned fermented tea that, in fact, is fermented in-house and which is quite delicate-flavored and aromatic.
But part of the pleasure of having tea at Gyodong Dawon is the fact that the place is just unlike anywhere you might go in urban Korea. You walk in, and feel like you’ve slipped into another time zone, where the minutes move by a lot more slowly, and where simple pleasures are amplified.
The place is the same as the last time I went: little, very crunchy wheat biscuits that accompany the tea:
… and you only order one tea to be shared around the table. One member of the couple who runs the place will show you how to properly steep and serve the tea–a somewhat involved process:
But once you know what you’re doing, they leave you alone to enjoy the quiet, the nature, the music, and the atmosphere. Highly, highly recommended.
There are plenty of places in the Hanok Village where you can have a drink, but there’s one place I’ve been a few times, that I’ve searched for on every trip back… but never found. If I ever do find it on a trip back, I’ll add it. Until then, maybe someone will contribute a recommendation in the comments section? I know a good place for traditional liquors in Iksan, but in Jeonju, I don’t know where to point you, beyond saying, look around the Hanok Village.
Jeonbuk-Dae Gu-Jung-Moon. Say it confidently, with a voice full of anticipation. (It means the old main gate of Jeonbuk University.)
You will have at least one of the best meals of your life in this area, and possibly more than one. You will also find the bar with the best beer selection in Jeonju, and possibly in Korea. No kidding.
길손네 (Gil Sonnae):
One of my favorite restaurants when I lived in Jeonju, this place was one of the first places I wanted to go when I went back. (I’d taken some exchange students there once when they were complaining how bad Korean food was, based on a year of student cafeteria experience. Afterwards, they were shocked at how good Korean food was, if it was done right.)
There are a few older women who work in this place, and from what I can tell, they form a well-oiled machine, a crack team of dalk doritang makers. Now, the chicken is tender and wonderful, but it’s the broth that is the absolutely mind-blowing component of their one and only dish.
Taste it, and you taste the savour and life force of chickens long gone, chickens newly cooked, chickens yet to be hatched. It is a delicate balance of everything you love about chicken, except more than you ever realized. You will never look at crappy fried chicken the same again.
And if you want to make the experience even more amazing, you can order one of the several wonderful traditional liquors available on the menu. Personally, I recommend two kinds. The first is Mindeullae Daepo — Dandelion Liquor. This apparently is available in a couple of places in Seoul (I’ll post a link when I’ve confirmed this) but the only place in Jeonju we found it was in the dalk dori tang restaurant. It is delicate, aromatic, and delicious.
The other drink I recommend at this place is the Nurunji Makkeoli — the burnt-rice-beer. No, no, shut up, makkeolli isn’t wine, isn’t liquor, it’s beer, period. And the nurunji makkeolli is about the best makkeoli I’ve ever tasted; it’s smooth, has a rich flavor, looks wonderful, and is the kind of thing you give to people who say, “No, I’ve tried makkeolli before and I don’t like it.”
“No,” you must say. “You have not tried nurunji makkeolli.” And then book some train tickets for Jeonju. Because I really don’t know if this stuff is available anywhere else: when we asked the head ajumma of the place, she said she had a local supplier who brought it for her fresh. And fresh it was. Amazing stuff.
Google Maps Naver Maps says it is here:
… and it looks like this:
… but for this one, you don’t need Google Maps. Just make your way to Jeonbuk Daehakgyo Gu-jung Moon. Then, standing with the gate in front of you, and “Daehakno” behind you, turn left and walk just a few doors down. There’s a pair of “Happy Crane” machines just outside of the place, but if you look over them and into the window, you will see an inner room with a lot of wood paneling and not much light. This is the place.
Go in. Eat. Be thankful to be alive so you can enjoy it.
HeyRu (해이루) Gamja Tang:
Gamja Tang translates as potato soup, but this is mostly just bone soup, with meat dripping off the bone, and just a little potato somewhere in the bottom if you’re lucky. This place isn’t really a place I go on pilgrimage to, but once you’ve eaten at 길손네 three times, and are ready for something different, this is the place you should go to. Great on a rainy afternoon, or, some people tell me, for a late breakfast after a night of too much drinking.
… yeah, it’s one of those things. But if you like pork, melt-in-your-mouth, fresh-off-the-bones-meat, amazing, delicious broth that has a little zing but isn’t the spice-bomb you’d get in Seoul, if you like finding one enormous hunk of potato saturated all the way through with delicious broth, then this is for you.
It was breakfast one fine morning. It was a fine breakfast, too.
Google Maps says it is here. It’s down a side street, a few blocks north of the university front gate but closer, in fact, to the nearby stadium. If you can go in a bigger group, the spectacle of the ajummas refilling the soup with more pork bones halfway through is worth it. Good luck finding the potato, though.
Samsara (Art & Travel Cafe):
What do you get when you take two free-spirited, well-traveled Koreans and drop them in Jeonju? You get the Art & Life Cafe, also know as Samsara.
You also get Jeonju’s most amazing little cafe/shisha/bar. I swear, this place has the most exciting beer menu I’d seen in all my years in Korea, at the time. Things have changed radically since then, but back in 2011, they carried all of the beers available in Korea from breweries like Lost Coast, Anderson Valley, Rogue, and the Belgian brewers Huyghe and Brasserie Lefebvre. We only discovered this one our last day in Jeonju, in fact just before we had to catch a train, so we indulged in a Saison 1900 from Brasserie Lefebvre, which was good — a fruity (but not very spicy) Saison which I’d swear uses French Saison yeast, and which I quite enjoyed. I’m sure the beer selection has changed since, but I’d bet it’s still good, if a little exorbitantly priced.
But you’re paying for the location and the decore, and that is pretty nice if you like that kind of thing. They also have a bunch of board games available if you want to play a little Scrabble or something. Also, the owners are genuinely nice and cool people. You will feel shocked when you realize that, yes, this place exists in Jeonju. In Jeonju.
But then, Jeonju people have taste, when it comes to consumables. So maybe it’s not surprising at all.
Google Maps says go here. It’s near the corner, just beside a place that serves triangle kimbap, and there’s a map to the location on the Jeonju Hub website’s review, here.
I found that every time I returned to Gyeonggi-do, I always found myself pining for the kind of food that one can get down in Jeolla-do. I’m not even in Korea anymore, but I still miss Jeonju food. In some ways, I feel like leaving Jeonju was the biggest culinary disaster of my life. But it’s nice knowing Jeonju’s still out there, still being wonderful… in terms of its food, anyway.
If you want to know what Korean food is really supposed to taste like… if you want to sip nurunji makkeoli and realize the nasty crap in the plastic bottles in Seoul isn’t really makkeoli… if you want to sit in awe of an old lady who did things with chicken you always knew were possible, if only someone had super(cooking)powers…
Have I mentioned everywhere worth eating? Good heavens, no. I can name three or four other places I couldn’t find again, and my friends in Jeonju (or with family there) will probably be able to recommend several more on top of that. I can name places that were just so far-flung I couldn’t reconcile myself to the trip across town when other good places were nearby. And then there’s all the places that have appeared since I left, or which I simply never knew about. (Though, personally, I’m a fan of the places that have been there since forever.) You would do well to explore further, to search and seek and ask around. Cabbies seem to still know where the best places to eat all are.
Go to Jeonju, my friends.
Oh, and by the way: there are other places that deserve this kind of writeup. I think Jeju Island is one of them, actually. I just don’t have the information. Someone does: and someone should write it up. If you’re inspired by this to do so, let me know.I’ll add a link to your post, and you can link back to mine. Maybe we could get a little ring of food pilgrimage posts up someplace. Not even just Korean places, either. It’s a thought.