Story by Jordan Redmond / Photos by Peter Kim
Soak up the relaxed pace and delicious food of this Northern Seoul neighborhood
Seongbuk-dong has long been one of the best neighborhoods for living in Seoul. Nestled just north of the bustle of Jongno-gu and to the south of Bugaksan, the mood in Seongbuk-dong is an unusually calm one compared to the hurried tempo for which Seoul is famous. As the seat of old money in the city, secluded houses with gargantuan gates mingle with embassies and ambassadors’ residences. Temples, galleries, and a scenic fortress wall offer an ample amount to see and do over the course of a longish day, but when all the calories are burnt after scaling the area’s slopes, where can you get some reliable grub and eat like the locals of this relatively relaxed burrough? Here are some can’t miss places that reflect Seongbuk-dong’s current character, which is one of left-leaning slow food ideas and up-to-the-minute Korean food obsessions.
The Napoleon Bakery is the magnetic center of the areas outside of Hansung University Station exits 5 and 6. Everyone in sight seems to be drawn into this massive bread-wafting mothership and then repelled out, large white-and-green paper bag in hand. Having been performing doughy alchemy since 1968, Napoleon is a neighborhood institution that has sprouted similarly swarmed outposts around the city. It’s known for its Korean-style breads like red bean buns and the inimitable yakbbang, or medicine bread. Yakbbang is the breadification of the glutinous rice snack, yakbap, and is something like Korean carrot cake in its earthy sweetness and spice. At KRW 2,000, it’s a weighty brick filled with chestnuts, raisins, and black sesame seeds with the assertive tastes of brown sugar, cinnamon, and jujube making this a fantasy distillation of autumn flavors. However, it is excellent anytime, especially with a glass of milk. Also make sure to leave with one of Napoleon’s black sesame baguettes or impeccable sourdough loaves. But don’t dither. Your meager basket will fill up with pastry after decadent pastry. Much like most of Seongbuk-dong itself, Napoleon feels time-tested and trustworthy.
Seongbuk-gu, Seongbuk-ro 7
Having just opened in the middle of 2016, F-64 Taproom reflects distinctly more current Korean sensibilities. Craft beer has been a blazing indicator of what younger Koreans want for a handful of years now and not coincidentally, a consistent harbinger of gentrification. What sets F-64 apart from the indistinctive galley of mindless craft beer trend-riders is its fixation on photography. There are ever-changing photo exhibits that adorn the space’s walls and even the wooden taps are in the shape of various camera lenses. Another thing that separates F-64 is its, ahem, focus on Korean draughts. At any given time, a majority of the kegs are from Korean-based breweries, like the well-known favorite Hand & Malt, or lesser known lights such as Ansan’s German-Korean tag team, Kramer-Lee Brewing. There is nowhere better in Seongbuk-dong to slake your hop cravings than F-64.
Seongbuk-gu, Seongbuk-ro 19-1
Olle Guksu is a tiny shoebox of a restaurant that specializes in Jeju’s signature porky noodles. Most Korean noodles soups you’ve likely had have been either a myulchi or anchovy-based broth or sometimes sagol or beef bone-based if the dish is dubbed guksi. Jeju’s rendition of kalguksu called, bluntly, gogi-guksu or “meat noodles” features crescents of boiled pork with attached outer rims of velvety fat bobbing around in a pearly white pork bone broth. The noodles are firm but not too much so and are an able vehicle with which to carry the clean-cut broth to your mouth. Accompanying the considerable bowl of noodle soup are some wonderful vinegary side dishes. Also, if dining with another person or if you’re just massively hungry, order a yachae-jeon as the greasy, chewy, slightly sweet pancake contrasts nicely with the gogi-guksu’s clean taste. There are all of four closely arranged tables in this restaurant as well as a couple of low-perched counter seats. The plain white space, reasonable prices, and simplicity of the food here are representative of some kind of anti-corporate, pro-slow food ethos that a number of restaurants along this corridor echo.
Seongbuk-gu, Seongbuk-ro 50-2
Nogari Super is a simulacrum of an anju-jip or drinking house but don’t let that stop you from going. Even though the scribbling on the walls is just a little too good and the feeling is one of purposely-stoked nostalgia, the same serious boozing goes on in here just as it does in any other original edition of an anju-jip. This one just so happens to be a small franchise that sits in a typically warren-like hanok. The real attraction here is the Jeonju-style hwangtae or dried pollack. After being hung and dried in the cold winter air, the hwangtae is split horizontally from head-to-tail and opened up, resembling an oblong book. At Nogari Super, they take a meat tenderizer to the dried fish, thwacking it until the meat has achieved a feathery quality. It’s then quickly toasted so that the fish picks up just a little char. Lastly, the lovingly tortured hwangtae ends up at your table with an addictive sauce made of soy sauce, mayonnaise, and hot green chilis through which you should drag the fish. The result is one of the best drinking dishes in the Korean food cannon.
Seongbuk-gu, Seongbuk-ro 14-gil 3
Dimibang is the type of local where there always seems to be one table quite well-lubed with soju no matter what time of day you walk in. The preferred tipple here is Hallasan Soju, the charcoal-filtered Jeju rice wine which goes down a little more easily than some of its green-bottled competitors. You’ll need it to put out the fire of Dimibang jeyuk-bokkeum or spicy pork which comes still steaming in a beat-up aluminum pot, some of the pork having caramelized and stuck to the side. If you don’t feel like setting your tongue alight, this place makes a mean kongbiji which is made from the curd-like remains of the tofu-making process, usually boiled with lard to make a silky-yet-hearty stew. Usually only the proprietor handles all the cooking and she might sometimes be concerned with doing some pro-bono acupuncture for a stricken regular. So come with a patient attitude and willing liver, zone out to the always awesome tunes emanating from the radio, and you will be rewarded.
Seongbuk-gu, Seongbuk-ro 50-1