events

Jeonju, Jeollabuk, South Korea: Bibimbap Town

Directly south of Seoul, is the small town of Jeonju. There is plenty of history in this town, I’m sure, but this trip is not about history but about eating. No, I have not sold out yet, it is still a travel site, and not another “foodie blog”. Back to the topic at hand… Jeonju is just 3 hours away from Seoul, enough to get there in the morning, have lunch and dinner and then come back before midnight, which is what I’m going to do.

At the Express Bus Terminal, the bus leaves from Central City terminal about every 10 minutes. There are two classes of bus, but I’d go for the more expensive service that cost 17,900W one way. According to the map, it is just about 200km away, but as usual, traffic jam plus heavy rain means that the trip took 3 hours. There will be a break half way to Jeonju, and the rest stop i surprisingly well equipped. There is a small supermarket, and plenty of shops selling sit down meals or korean junk food. They even have toebokki and sundae (korean blood sausage, not ice cream).

Highway rest stop: Korean junk food… and it is good!

Highway rest stop: Korean junk food… and it is good!

The bus ends up in Jeonju’s Express Bus Terminal (전주고속버스터미널) in the north of the town. By now it is already quite late in the afternoon, around 2pm and I’ve not have my lunch yet along the way. At least it’s time for a proper lunch. There are plenty of taxis waiting at the bus terminal, which is convenient.

Seungmidang Restaurant First Bibimbap mission takes me to Seongmidang restaurant (성미당) close to the Gaeksa landmark. It is hidden in a small street, but with a GPS you will never be lost looking for location 35.817413, 127.145264. Even at 3pm there is a queue here. The couple in front of me are Japanese, which makes this restaurant famous in Japanese guide books too. Normally I would avoid places like these, but maybe there’s no harm giving it a try.

Seungmidang Restaurant exterior. I was so hungry I didn’t spot the “high end audio” shop next door.

Seungmidang Restaurant exterior. I was so hungry I didn’t spot the “high end audio” shop next door.

Entering the restaurant...

Entering the restaurant...

There are 2 types of bibimbap here on the menu, raw beef and normal. It is not cheap at all. But at least the banchans are plentiful and not too bad tasting. And soon the main dish arrives in a brass bowl that is heated so much that the stuff inside sizzles. You mix is around and get the beef sort of cooked. The rice is already mixed with the gochujang sauce, unlike most bibimbaps I’ve had in Seoul. And the hot bowl creates a layer of hardened rice where it contacts the bowl. They call this nooroongji 누룽지, which I used to hate, but started to like after some time. What’s important is that the dish smells great.

One way to tell a good restaurant is the sparse menu. This one is not the simplest one I’ve seen, but it still screams quality

One way to tell a good restaurant is the sparse menu. This one is not the simplest one I’ve seen, but it still screams quality

Bibimbap before mixing. The red stuff is the beef. Gochujang is already mixed into the rice under all the toppings.

Bibimbap before mixing. The red stuff is the beef. Gochujang is already mixed into the rice under all the toppings.

IMG_3351-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

IMG_3351-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

After mixing, and pre-diving in… I could still smell the dish while writing this up.

One sentence reviews the whole dish: its damn good.

The gochujang sauce that they use is on the sweet side. Not terribly spicy, but the whole thing just balances together. I eat very quick. And best part of it all, the layer of burnt rice at the bottom with the burnt gochujang sauce. I notice locals pouring soup at the end to soften the noorongji, but I quickly developed a way to scrap the crunchy bits off the bottom. And it was good.

Well, I’m here as a tourist... … so I better do what tourists usually do. After the nice late lunch, its time to walk around to let the food settle and get ready for dinner. Just a street to the north of the restaurant is the Gaeksa. Wikitravel describes it as an ancient hotel. It looks like a small building with an over engineered roof but I don’t see how it could be a hotel for a town. There are maximum of 3-4 rooms, so perhaps it is for VIPs only. Locals are just hanging around here having a picnic.

IMG_3368-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

IMG_3368-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Gaeksa

IMG_3371-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

IMG_3371-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

More Gaeksa. And so I lied. There were not that many people here today. Perhaps it was forecasted to rain?

A few streets to the south east of the Gaeksa is a park where Gyeongijeon (경기전) shrine is located. I believe the attraction here is the portrait of Taejo Lee, the founder of the Joseon dynasty is placed. In the central building, there is indeed a portrait. Otherwise the buildings look very chinese inspired. In fact, I wouldn’t be able to tell that this was in Korea if I saw the exact building in China. Other than that, not much more I can say about this place. There are plenty of photo groups walking around with large lenses (I don’t know what’s with these people, walking around a park with a 70-200 f2.8. If they are shooting birds, I can think of better places than parks… not to mention they probably need a 600mm for all these small birds).

IMG_3390-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

IMG_3390-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Strange logo at Gyeongijeon park. I don’t understand Korean yet, but it doesn’t look like “toilet” to me.

IMG_3392-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

IMG_3392-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Now this looks more like a park

IMG_3397-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

IMG_3397-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

I suppose this must be one of the shrines…

IMG_3399-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

IMG_3399-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

… and yes it is, and this is the portrait people came to see. Perhaps photography is prohibited here. Anyway.

Time to move east to the Hanok Village. Short review: I thought that I would be looking at old buildings. What this is, is a mash of old and new reconstructed buildings. The attraction here seems to be more the shopping than the building. There are restaurants, shops selling handicraft, a nice shallow granite “stream” on the walkway and even an Italian restaurant. Nice place to take a walk, but disappointing historically.

IMG_3422-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

IMG_3422-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Traditional meets modern

IMG_3423-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

IMG_3423-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

On the way to the Hanok Village, there are more bibimbap restaurants than any other

IMG_3431-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

IMG_3431-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Smack in the heart of the Hanok Village. And I’m sure you were expecting some old stuff too…

IMG_3441-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

IMG_3441-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

For the benefit of doubt, lets assume this is a renovated old house. This is an inn. Which I presume is getting healthy business.

Why should I complain too much. The aim was to walk enough so that I can go on to the next restaurant for more bibimbap around dinner time before going back to Seoul. By the time I was done with the Hanok village, my watch registers 7pm. Sounds like dinner time to me. I backtracked using the cookie crumb feature on my Garmin and back to Seungmidang Restaurant as there is supposed to be another competing restaurant near by that is just as popular.

IMG_3463-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

IMG_3463-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Evening in Jeonju, enroute to the next meal destination...

Gajok Hwegwan Restaurant This restaurant is located at the south west corner of the intersection at 35.817154, 127.146157. The korean name is 가족 회관. You have to go up one flight of stairs to the second floor and enter an entrance full of pots of ingredients. This place is more of a factory than the first restaurant. Everything is piled high, waiters and waitresses with trolleys with banchan arranged and stacked up on trays ready to unload onto new tables very quickly. And the bibimbap arrived very quick too. Everything efficient.

IMG_3480-LR-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

IMG_3480-LR-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Restaurant’s army of ajummas at work.

IMG_3471-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

IMG_3471-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Le Banchans

IMG_3476-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

IMG_3476-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

and more Bibimbaps

How did it go? I loved the banchans here. Probably better than Seungmidang. Too bad the Bibimbap was normal tasting. Still quite ok, but nothing magical like Seungmidang I believe it could be because of the gochujang here doesn’t taste as good. But overall it was a good meal, rescued thanks to the banchans. At least that’s how I feel.

Then again two bibimbaps in the span of 4 hours is probably too much for a day. After dinner, it was time to take a taxi to the bus station for the 3 hour long trip back to Seoul. I guess I’ll have to come back again to do the other restaurants in the future. And I think I might have tasted what is definitely the best bibimbap so far. And that’s a big feat for a small town!

IMG_3483-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

IMG_3483-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Ticket back to Seoul

IMG_3484-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

IMG_3484-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Night bus. Man, that TV screen is tiny from the back!

KRJeonju-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

KRJeonju-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Resulting path that I took around downtown Jeonju

*End of Post*