Your overview of what to eat while cycling across Korea.

Biking for the length of a workday will rustle up a mighty appetite. Luckily, you’re never too far from food while cycling in Korea.

There is an endless number of dining options while cycling across Korea. You’ll find anything from traditional bibimbap (비빔밥), to Chinese black noodles, to the triangle gimbaps found in convenience stores.

A pot of meat bibimbap (비빔밥). Don't touch the stone pot! It's still sizzling hot.
A pot of meat bibimbap (비빔밥). Don’t touch the stone pot! It’s still sizzling hot.

Korea grew fast. Sixty years ago you’d find only traditional, sit-on-the-floor restaurants. Now, you can find a pizza or fastfood joints in the most distant of outposts.

Here are some good options while riding.


Traditional Korean Food

Where’s the freshest food spot in town? That would be your old school, sit-on-the-floor Korean restaurant.

When you visit a western-style restaurant, owners may substitute lesser quality ingredients (cheese, meat) to save money.

However, old school Korean food was born here. The epitome of locally sourced, the ingredients and cooking techniques were raised on the peninsula. That makes traditional Korean some of the freshest and cheapest dishes around.

A meat and noodle (면; myeon) dish in a sit-on-the-floor restaurant. First, you cook the vegetables and meat. After, you add the noodles to the broth.
A meat and noodle (; myeon) dish in a sit-on-the-floor restaurant. First, you cook the vegetables and meat. After, you add the noodles to the broth.

Dining in traditional Korean restaurants can be a hassle. They only usually write their menus in Hangul. Sometimes you can’t even understand what dishes the restaurant serves.

Here’s a breakdown of cheap, delicious foods to look out for:

  • kimchi jjigae (김치찌개) — spicy, kimchi soup
  • Haejang-guk (해장국) — (a.k.a. hangover stew) hearty meat stew
  • bibimbap (비빔밥) — rice mixed with vegetables and hot pepper paste
  • naengmyeon (냉면) — buckwheat noodles served cold

You can find an endless number of region-specific takes on these dishes. They usually come in single serving sizes. So, you won’t have to share with the table.

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Communal Meals

Many traditional Korean restaurants cater more to large groups: a company outing or a family celebration. Often, samgyeopsal restaurants require you to buy a minimum portion of meat to cook. One or two people might not be practical.

If you’re a little lost, look or listen to the tail-end of the dish’s name. They will tell you the base ingredient:

  • 찌개 (jjigae) — thick soup
  • (guk) — thin soup
  • (bap) — rice
  • (myeon) — noodles
Samgyeopsal (삼겹살) sizzles on a grill.  Samgyeopsal is best enjoyed in a group.
Samgyeopsal (삼겹살) sizzles on a grill.
It is best enjoyed in a group.

If you’re looking for a full meal after a long ride, try bulgogi (불고기) and Samgyeopsal (삼겹살).

Samgyeopsal (삼겹살) is Korean BBQ. Nothing like advertisements out west, restaurants provide customers with side dishes and slices of pork belly to grill at the table. Samgyeopsal is best enjoyed in a group.

If you’re a beef lover, hit up a bulgogi (불고기) joint. Bulgogi (fire-meat) is thin, marinated strips of beef. Some restaurants might serve the finished product. But, you’ll be your own chef if you spot a grill at your table.

You can find some cheap bulgogi and samgyeopsal restaurants. However, they’re a little light on quality. But, because Korea doesn’t have much room for farm animals, good meat has a tendency to lighten your wallet.


Quick Korean & Foreign

Don’t resort to McDonald’s or Burger King for a quick bite while cycling. Korea has delicious domestic and borrowed on-the-go food options.

Here are some popular Korean, Chinese, and Japanese dishes.

Korean

  • gimbab (김밥) — rice, vegetables, and whatnot rolled in seaweed
  • ddukbokki (떡볶이) — rice cakes bathed in red pepper sauce
  • mandu (만두) — dumplings stuffed with meat, kimchi, and whatnot

If you visit any traditional Korean market (시장), you’ll find the bubbling red pepper paste of ddukbokki (떡볶이). Roiling around, you’ll find fishcake and rice cake noodles.

Like in China, skyscrapers of hissing, round pans fill the markets. Inside, you’ll find mandu (만두). They stuff these steam or fried dumplings with kimchi, meat, and more.

For a travel-friendly lunch, grab a roll of gimbap (김밥). Stick it in your pack for later. Gimbap are highly customizable rolls of rice, vegetables, and meat with a seaweed coat.

The best rolls of gimabap are found in chains like Bapuri. Options include double cheese, kimchi, spicy tuna, donkatsu (fried pork).

Convenience stores load their shelves with both rolled and triangle gimbap. They’re an easy, quick bite, but not the best quality.

Chinese

  • jajangmyeon (자장면) — (a.k.a. black noodles) noodles with thick black sauce
  • tangsuyuk (탕수육) — fried pork in sweet and sour sauce
  • jjamppong (짬뽕) — noodles and seafood in a spicy broth

Like love motels, innumerable Chinese restaurants (중화요리) dot the peninsula. Inside, you will always find a holy trinity of dishes: jajangmyeon (blank noodles), tangsuyuk (sweet & sour pork), and jjamppong (spicy seafood soup).

Jajangmyeon is a bowl of rice noodles with black (bean) sauce, meat, and veggies. Inside a bowl of jjampong, you’ll find a nice broth of noodles, veggies, clams, other sea-born curiosities. Tangsuyuk is a large plate of fried pork drizzled in sweet & sour sauce.

A good tactic among friends is to buy a bowl of jajangmyeon or jjampong for yourself. Get a plate of tangsuyuk for the table.

Japanese

  • ramen (라면) — wheat noodles in a meat or fish broth
  • donkatsu (돈까스) — deep-fried pork cutlet with Worcestershire sauce

Japan lent some of its culinary ideas to Korea. Like any industrialized nation, sushi restaurants invaded every upscale neighborhood in town. But, there are other examples of quick cuisine to dine on.

Ramen comes in many forms. Convenience stores serve cup ramen for cheap. Food trucks parked on the cycling path sling overpriced packaged ramen in bowls of hot water. Best-case scenario, ramen-only diners deliver bowls slurp-able noodles in thick pork broth.

A food truck parked by the side of the bike path near Busan serves an overpriced bowl of packaged ramen. A few frozen mandus bob on top.
A food truck parked by the side of the bike path near Busan serves an overpriced bowl of packaged ramen. A few frozen mandus bob on top.

If you love meat, you can’t go wrong with donkatsu (돈까스), breaded and fried pork filet drizzled with Worcestershire sauce. Some restaurants will serve up a slab larger than your face. To give the impression of a balanced meal, they add a small side salad and miso soup.


Western Food

An old fashioned hamburger, fries, and a coke. You can find western diners just like back home.
An old fashioned hamburger, fries, and a coke. You can find western diners just like back home.

If you’re craving a steaming plate of pasta or an old fashioned, factory McBorn burger, there are plenty of options.

Causal, fast casual, and family restaurants sprouted in Korea a couple years back. Now, you can find homegrown chains that serve Italian (American) pizza and pasta. Or, if you’re craving something greasy, fast-food and sit-down diners like Flapjack Pantry will grill up tasty hamburgers.

The Italians (Americans)

Raracost and Seoga & Cook are Korea’s take (on America’s take) of Italian food. Sit down at one of their franchise family restaurants and open their menu. You’ll find eighty-plus items ranging from tomato sauce pasta to gorgonzola pizza.

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Western Breakfast

English breakfasts and stacks of pancakes are rare in Korea. You can find brunch-focused restaurants. But, they’re hard to spot and overpriced.

If you’re looking for a quick western breakfast, try one of the bakery chains. Paris Baguette and Tous Les Jours have bread, pastries, and coffee options.

Pizza, Pizza, Pizza

Pizza is worldwide phenomenon. Korea is no exception.

Pizza School to Pizza Etang are Korea born pizza joints that bake up an affordable pie. However, remember the equation: cheaper pie equals cheaper ingredients.

The almighty Domino’s Pizza and Pizza Hut chains make their presence known. However, these aren’t your momma’s pizzas.

Pizza Hut serves up a bacon potato pizza stacked potato wedges and bacon bits. They drizzle some mayonnaise on top to complete the heart attack.

Because of the extravagence of their pizza’s, prices can get on the higher-end. However, Domino’s offers a great discount if you order take-out.

Fast Food Heaven

The world isn’t whole without fast-food.

If you glance at any fast food menu in Korea, you’ll spot some version of a Bulgogi Burger. It’s just a hamburger drenched in bulgogi (BBQ) sauce.

There are other unfamiliar or rebranded options, like McDonald’s Shanghai burger (spicy chicken burger). But, don’t panic. You can still snag a Big Mac and Whopper. They taste the same as back home.


Convenience Stores

Convenience stores are the lifeblood of quick and easy food in Korea. They’re open twenty-four seven on every city block in Korea.

You have problems? They have solutions. Thirsty? Grab a bottle of water or 3 AM tallboy. Hangnail? They have toenail clippers. Dead phone? Buy a phone chargers.

Apart from the basic supplies, you can also scrounge up a quick meal.

Convenience stores have half an aisle dedicated to ramen. Nearby, you can find hot water dispenses. Fill up your cup of ramen and chow down at the dining counter.

You can also find hard-boiled eggs, ham sandwiches, both rolled and triangle gimbap, and good olmeat on a stick.

Don’t forget about lunchboxes. Inside each plastic box, you can find rice, kimchi, and sausage separated into little cubbies. The clerk will heat it up in a microwave behind the counter. (Hungry workers will snatch most of the lunchboxes by noon.)

If you don’t like to waste time in the morning, buy a bundle of pastries and carton of milk. Bring it back to your motel and stuff your face when you wake up.

Remember, convenience stores stock shelves with foods that have longer life spans than a Galápagos tortoise. Weigh the positives and negatives of that.

A food truck parked next to the cycling path near Busan. They provide slightly overpriced packaged ramen in hot water.
A food truck parked next to the cycling path near Busan. They provide packaged ramen in hot water.