Dining on traditional meals while biking in Korea.

Where can you dine on the freshest food in Korea? Easy answer. Korean restaurants.

Western-style restaurants serve familiar dishes like burgers with cheese. But, Korea’s limited farmland makes cow products difficult to come by. Owners often substitute sub par ingredients to save a few won.

If you want organic and locally sourced, search for traditional Korean spots. Nowhere in the world can you get these dishes in their purest form. No substitutes.

How To Eat

So you plop on the floor at a Korea restaurants, take off your helmet, and glance at the menu on the wall. Oh, no! Where’s the English. You see rows Hangul priced anywhere from ₩6,000 to ₩50,000.

₩50,000 for lunch? Don’t worry. We’ll explain.

Let’s Break It Down

Before you even step foot into a restaurant, glance at the sign above the door. Most Korea-style restaurants serve on type of dish. No Tolstoy-thick menus. (Looking at you, Cheesecake Factory.)

Restaurants spell out their specialty in their name. A noodle restaurant serves noodles. Not soup. Not fried chicken. Not ice cream.

If you gain a familiarity with Hangul, the Korea writing system, you can decode any restaurant sign. Just check out the last few characters in the dishes name.

Let’s take apart an easy one: 김치찌개.

Look hard? Well, check out the last two characters: 찌개 (jjigae). Oh, soup!

So, ‘blah blah’ soup. Wait! Use the phonetic alphabet chart to sound out the first bit: 김치.

김 = kim.           치 = chi.

Oh. Kimchi soup!

Not all signs are as easy as that one. But, now you have the super-secret enigma machine.

Kimchi soup and rice for two. Order some tofu, mandu, and even ramen to drop in the pot.

Sharing Is Caring

Now that you’re getting more comfortable dining, let’s throw a wrench in the gears.

Companies and schools often have end-of-year, end-of-quarter, mid-of-week outings. Every employee, from boss to temp, gather in a back room of a restaurant. They order a mound of meat, a bottle or twelve of soju, and burn the candle deep into the night.

Some restaurants bank on these types of communal meals.

When you take a glance at the menu at a samgyeopsal (삼겹살; pork belly) restaurant, you’ll see a price (₩29,000) followed by an amount of meat (400 grams). This is meant for groups of at least two, three or more. Free of charge, they’ll throw in bottomless side dishes (banchan; 반찬).

Those little plates of goodies that come with traditional Korean meals are call banchan (반찬), or side dishes. The quantity and types of banchan depend on the restaurant and region. Here are some famous examples:

Huddle Round the Fire

If you do find yourself in a group of two, three or more, you’ve got options. Here are a few traditional restaurants to try out if you don’t mind spending a little extra.

Galbi (갈비) and samgyeopsal (삼겹살) are meat dishes cooked and served from grills in the center of your table . This is the famous Korean barbecue, as it’s known in the west.

Samgyeopsal is pork belly. It comes in strips that are cut as you cook.

Galbi is either pork or beef ribs. Because they cross cut the meat, you’ll often find an oval piece bone in each meat strip.

Chowing Down

If you want to experience galbi or samgyeopsal, finding a restaurant couldn’t be easier. Stroll around any restaurant district and peak through the windows. Look for aluminum tubes draped from ceiling vents to the tabletops.

Samgyeopsal (삼겹살) simmers around a pot of soy bean soup (된장찌개).

Workers will chuck side dishes on your table once you sit down. Order a portion of meat. Throw in some rice and alcohol if you’d like.

Lean back! Workers will remove the tabletop grate and drop in a searing bucket of coals. (Gas grills are more common nowadays.)

Once the workers bring out your meat, its your turn. Whip out the scissors and tongs. Start grilling.

(If you look clueless, workers will come over and help out.)

As you cook samgyeopsal, arrange the meat slices around the center. This is the hottest part of the grill. Next, cut the strips into half-finger lengths. Once they turn golden brown, push pieces to the edge of the grill.

Be on your toes when cooking galbi. The marinade masks the color of the meat. If you get lost in conversation, it’ll burn out of spite.

Don’t worry. Workers often come by to change grill grates. If you’re unsure if the meat’s ready, catch their eyes and ask, ‘mogo (먹어; eat)?’

So, the meat’s ready. You can grab a piece of finished meat, dip it in the red gochujang (고추장) paste, and eat as is. But, if you want to be authentic, take a lettuce leaf from the banchan basket. Place it flat in your palm. Throw some meat, rice, and kimchi on it. Dab some gochujang, fold it like a taco, and stuff your pie hole.

A pot of bulgogi sits ready to eat. Side dishes help round out this meat-centric meal.

Let’s look at our phonetic alphabet chart one more time. Bul (불) equals fire. Gogi (고기) equals meat. Sound delicious? You bet.

Bulgogi (불고기) comes in many forms and recipes. Expect thin, strips of beef or pork (sometimes chicken) marinated in soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, and more. Onions and carrots add to the sweetness.

Quality of meat ranges from prime rib to ready-to-eat heaps on Styrofoam platters.

A budget friendly bulgogi restaurant will serve you kitchen cooked dishes. A premium eatery will give you a pot and the title of chef.

Cooking bulgogi is a pinch compared to galbi. The soupy marinate helps regulate the temperature. Workers often come by to tell you when soups up!

Want a spicy drinking companion? Find a dak (닭; chicken) galbi (갈비; grilled meat) joint. Friday and Saturday nights, you’ll find hordes of the young flocking with their friends. They’ll order bottles of beer (맥주, maekju) and soju.

Like beef and pork galbi, you’re the cook. Workers will bring you a large pan. Inside, you’ll spot layers of chicken, tteok (떡; savory rice cake), vegetables, and spicy sauce. Order cheese for added McTaste.

After you devour the chicken and goodness, order rice to toss in the pan. Mix it about to soak up the greasy, saucy remnants. Recycling at its finest.

Dive deep into Korean cuisine. Visit a traditional street markets (시장). In addition to selling brand-less merch, you can see, smell, and taste authentic Korea.

Seoul’s Dongdaemun Market (동대문시장), slings still-writhing octopus (산낙지). In Busan’s Jagalchi Market (자갈치시장), pick a fish and an ajumma (아줌마) will chop it up and serve you hoe (회; raw fish) at your table upstairs.

Every city in Korea has a market. Just click here. Zoom into your location and check it out!

Dinner for One

If you’re alone, hate sharing, or want to save a few won, we’ve got you covered. There are plenty healthy, single serving meals in Korea.

The prototypical kimchi is hot pepper sauce slathered between leaves of fermented cabbage. There are many iterations. Radish kimchi. White kimchi. Green onion kimchi.

Kimchi jjigae (kimchi soup) is just as flexable. Start with a soup base. Throw in kimchi, hot pepper sauce, tofu, and whatever else your heart desires.

On the menu of popular kimchi jjigae restaurants, you’ll spot a Subway-style list of add-ons. Into your soup, toss some mandu (만두), packaged ramen, pork slices, and more.

Don’t be scared! While kimchi side dishes are served cold, kimchi jjigae warms the belly. If you don’t like spice, order rice. The mix of hearty grain, tang, and spice satisfies.

A sizzling stone pot of bulgogi bibimbap. Stir well to cook the raw egg.

Bibimbap translates to ‘mixed rice.’ It’s often served in a sizzling stone bowl. (Don’t touch!)

A simple dish, inside you’ll find rice, namul (나물; assorted vegetables), kimchi, and mushrooms. Add a dolup of gochujang (고추장). Mix till everything’s got a light shade of red.

Vegetarians in Korea dream about bibimbap. However, bulgogi bibimbap is a popular variant.

Some restaurants split a raw egg on top. Think of it as a mini-game inside your lunch. The yolk cooks in the blazing bowl as you mix.

Naengmyeon (냉면). Let’s take the word apart. Naeng (냉) reads as cold. Myeon (면) translates to noodles. So, cold  noodles. Have I lost you?

Your first impression of naengmyeon could be mom’s refrigerated leftovers. I’ll bet, though, a new memory will emerge. Nothing will beat a sunny summer ride and a bowl of icy, buckwheat noodles.

Depending on your choice of naengmyeon, you’ll sometimes find a hard boiled egg anchored in the depths of the meaty broth.


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