Fast Casual

Fast Casual

A guide to chowing down on quick Korean and more dishes.

Think America is the inventor getting a quick bite and low cost? Think again.

Korea, China, and Japan created their own fast, casual, or take-out options.

While you’ll often stumble upon your McDonald’s or Burger King, these on-the-go options. They’re just as quick, delicious, and mostly healthier.

Korean Casual

The Korean diet has lots of healthy options. Plenty of vegetables, grains, and seafood. It also has quick (sometimes unhealthy) options. Here are portable meals to fill your growling stomach.

You’ll be forgiven if you mistake gimbap for a California sushi roll. But, you won’t find raw fish inside.

Let’s play that translation game! Gim (김) is compacted and dried seaweed. Bap (밥) means rice. Easy! Seaweed rice!

A plate of gimbap. The sliced rolls are easy to carry and share.

Why is gimbap so popular in Korea? Flexability and portability. 

Need an extra banchan (side dish)? Gimbap can fill that need. Going on a picnic with your friends? Buy a few rolls and split them in the park. Need a quick bite on your lunch break? Swing into a convenience store and buy a roll or triangle.

Big gimbap chains like Bapuri fill a full page with options. Tuna. Double cheese. Kimchi. Donkatsu.

Visit any traditional Korean market (시장). You’ll spot pans of bubbling pepper paste. Say hello to Korea’s fast food go-to. Unhealthy. Spicy. Indulgent.

Tteokbokki (떡볶이) is simple. Slivers of fishcake (어묵; eomuk) and cylindrical rice cake noodles (떡; tteok) rolling around in spicy sauce.

It could be a little spicy for non-Koreans. But, most tteokbokki shops sell an assortment of quick bites.

Sundae (순대) is tteokbokki’s spice-less bedfellow. A type of blood sausage created by stuffing pig intestines with vegetables and rice.

Also, check out eomuk guk (어묵국) or fishcake soup. You’ll easily find them in traditional market. Wooden skewers jutting out of a steaming broth. No spice. All nice.

Tteokboki simmering at a traditional market. Sticks of fish cake (eomuk; 어묵국) boil one pan over.

Mandu is Korea’s answer to dumplings. Think dough folded around vegetables and/or meat.

Walk around any market and look for hissing towers of metal or wooden pans. Steam filters from holes in the bottom of the pans, around pouches of mandu goodness, and upwards.

Mandu can be fried, steamed, or boiled. Pork usually fills gogi (고기) mandu (고기). Kimchi mandu adds a hint of spice.

If you dine in, check out the condiments. Take one a palm sized bowls. Pour and mix black soy sauce with the clear vinegar. Sprinkle a pinch of red pepper power. Dunk your mandu and enjoy.

Chinese Casual

Before Korea had it’s own written language, they used Chinese characters. Korea has a long history of adapting Chinese culture to suit their needs.

Today, like love motels, countless Chinese restaurants (중화요리) can be found in all corners of Korea. Inside, you’ll find the holy trinity of dishes:

Jajang is a black, bean based sauce. Korean’s pour the it over many bases. Rice (밥). Tteok (떡; rice cake).

The most popular pairing is noodles (면; myeon). Also known as Black Noodles.

The sauce often arrives with veges, scallops, and pork slices.

Before eating, hold a chopstick in each hand. (Think murderous granny with knitting needles.) Jab your sticks into the heart of the noodles. Mix. Get the sauce deep down. Step 2: stuff your face.

Inside a bowl of jjampong, find noodles, black clam shells, squid rings, and other 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea characters.

The red tint hints at the soup’s spice. You can say:

  • mae-un jo-keum (매운 조금요; a little spicy)
  • mae-un eobs-eo (매운 없어; no spice)
  • mae-un mon-eun (매운 많은; kill me with spice)

Tangsuyuk is like the sweet and sour pork found out west.

In Korea, restaurants take pride in their sauce. Some brew theirs with tang. Some drop lemon slices in their slithering concoctions. All implore you to stuff more and more pork bits into gullet. 

(There’s a unending debate about whether to pour or dunk. I say pour the sauce over.)

An order of tangsuyuk usually comes in large, larger and extended family feast. A plate is also a little pricey for one person.

Here’s a tried and true strategy among friends. Order a bowl of jajangmyeon or jjampong for each person. Plop a plate of tangsuyuk between everyone. Share the goodness and split the bill.

Japanese Casual

Korea may not have always had great relationship it’s neighbor to the east. But, throughout their history, they’ve traded ideas, traditions, and recipes.

A bowl of ramen with thick noodles, savory broth, and hard-boiled egg.

Ramen is the penultimate quick-meal export from Japan. Convenience stores stock their shelves with it. Food trucks parked on bike paths sling overpriced bowls of the stuff. But, if you want the true-blue, hit up a ramen joint.

This ain’t your daddy’s ramen. A pile of noodles rise above a thick broth. Pork slices and a hard-boiled egg ramp up the protein levels. Sprinkled green onions give the impression of a balanced meal.

Meat lover? Try donkatsu! Imagine a slab of breaded and fried pork. Now drizzle some Worcestershire sauce on top. Add a bowl of miso soup. Pour Thousand Island on sliced cabbage. There’s your meal.

Many restaurants practice the art of one-upmanship. Who can serve up the largest slab of donkatsu? A general rule: quality falls as it approach face-size.

A ten piece plate of assorted sushi, including tuna, flatfish, octopus, and more.

Sushi started in Japan. It sure as heck didn’t end there. Every gentrified neighborhood around the world claims a premium eatery.

Sushi isn’t exactly ‘fast casual.’ However, its found a spot in Korea’s dating scene. There are plenty of affordable and filling restaurants all over Korea.

For a little over ₩20,000, you can order Set-A and Set-B. You’ll get twenty pieces of assorted sushi (ten per plate) and a bowl of jjamppong or udon (우동).

Common pieces of sushi include tuna, shrimp, flatfish, and octopus. Trading is encouraged among friends.


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