Happy Chuseok gentle reader. I hope you are getting some much needed rest.
No rest for me and the misses. Today we hammered out a part of Gyungbokgung and decided to check the Lonely Planet for a nice place to eat in Gyungbokgung. Tosokchon stuck out to us because we really love ginseng chicken soup, and we felt like some comfort food. Also, it was only a few blocks away. So we packed up and headed our way down the alleys of Gyungbokgung looking for hot chicken ginseng soup in a stone bowl.
Lonely Planet Description: Lonely Planet has some high praise for this restaurant, noting that ex-presidents have dined here and that the samgyetang (삼계탕) is the best option for your dining experience. They also mention that the decor is a traditional Hanok style and that they recommend you dip your chicken in a mixture of salt and pepper before consumption. No mention of service…hum……
How to get there: By subway take line 3 to Gyungbokgung and then depart from exit 2. You are going to need to walk about 250 meters and it’s the second intersection. Look for the sign that says “Jusa-ro” and take a left. It is the first restaurant on your left with a bright red and green neon sign, with a chicken staring at a flower on top. It’s a Hanok-style of restaurant. You can’t miss it.
Atmosphere: Okay, let’s talk about the good aspects of Tosokchon first. This is a traditional Korean samgyetang (삼계탕) restaurant. You will not find a more authentic restaurant in the area. The restaurant has wood flooring and limited Western style seats, so get your bums ready to sit on mats with your legs crossed Indian style. The tables are really close together, so it gets cozy. I was cuddling with an adjuma for most of the dinner, she was gentle, loving, but if you have issues with space, you might want to avoid this place. That said, for a brief period of time, you will feel that you have been transported back into the Joseon dynasty because the food and atmosphere are traditionally Korean.
Service: Now we need to talk about service. I get it. It was Chuseok and it was pretty busy. However, that is no excuse for not bringing water or pajeon to our table in a timely manner. As we sat down, we were expecting the experience to be equivalent to a Korean BBQ restaurant; in that, you receive a bunch of sides and the samgyetang (삼계탕) is your main course. However, the server did not indicate that we had to share with the other table. So, here we were, awkwardly unsure if we should dip our chopsticks into the kimchi pot the next table over. Thankfully, the adjuma at the table next to us was awesome and gestured for us to take some kimchi. However, I think I would have forgone the sides without the help of the people next to us (God bless you guys). They also asked when our Pajeon was coming out, which took about 40 minutes. Yes, 40 minutes for a Korean style pancake. That said, because of the wait, they comped our pajeon, which was a nice gesture of goodwill. I’m going to give you some advice, if you are a novice traveller in Korea, I would be cautious about dining at this establishment. My wife and I can speak some Korean, and we know the customs, so we can handle ourselves, but someone who has limited exposure to the culture and language might be overwhelmed and eventually just become frustrated.
Food and Drink: You don’t go to Boston without ordering the New England clam chowder, you don’t go to Montreal without trying the poutine, and you surely don’t go to Seoul without trying the samgyetang (삼계탕). The dinner begins with a shot of ginseng and a glass of brown rice tea.The chicken comes served in a stone pot, with a bunch of herbs and rice stuffed into the chicken. The trick is to pick the chicken apart with your chopsticks, and to scoop out the rice and other goodies inside the chicken, including a giant piece of ginseng root. The samgyetang was worth the wait. The chicken fell off the bone, and the soup felt medicinal. It had a calming and warming effect on my bitter and tired soul. I have to give Lonely Planet credit, they were spot on with the salt and pepper mixture. We dipped our chicken in the mixture which gave it some needed flavor.
Next came the pajeon, which if you haven’t had the pleasure of indulging is a Korean style pancake. Pajeon is a diverse, and often tricky little fellow, in that each restaurant seems to have their own version of the dish. Imagine being in North America and saying you wanted a hamburger. At one restaurant they serve you a hamburger with just ketchup, but at another restaurant they serve you a hamburger with hot peppers and mustard. It seems to be the way with pajeon. In some restaurants, it’s a pancake with some onions and cabbage. In other restaurants it’s a pancake with five-alarm heat factor. In this case, we got pajeon with seafood, including shrimp, mussels and squid. Unfortunately, the baby can’t have seafood, so I had to eat the whole pajeon myself. Unfortunately it was a task I couldn’t complete. There was a nice balance of seafood and onions. The pajeon was fluffy, and light as a feather. It was perfect for me, even though I’m not a huge seafood fan.
Value: The samgyetang were each 15000KRW, which is a great value for the delicacy. The pajeon was comped, so I don’t know how much it was. There was no menu that I could see, they just bring out the chicken. We saw the pajeon on the other table and decided to order it. A bottle of soju costs 4000KRW. Overall, it was a great meal, very filling and tasty.
Who Should go to Tosokchon: Anyone who is feeling like some chicken soup and rice, with the taste of ginseng. Anyone who is interested in trying traditional Korean meal with medicinal benefits. As I have alluded to, you might need some Korean skills, even though that the menus are in English. It is the communication with the servers that Korean will be necessary.
Who Should avoid Tosokchon: Although it is near a huge tourist attraction, it isn’t very tourist friendly. At most restaurants near tourist attractions, the servers speak English and help you with your food in case you are having problems. In this case, the server just put the chicken on our table, told us to dig in and walked away never to be seen again. If you don’t know how to communicate with the staff, then I might avoid Tosokchon until you are with someone who has been in Korea for awhile or is fluent in the language. Also, large people might be uncomfortable sitting on the ondol (floor). However, if it is not busy, you could probably request a traditional Western style table. Finally, if you are claustrophobic, you might want to not risk the coziness of the restaurant and find another dining option, or get the takeout.