I spent about two years in Korea. Now, I dream of traveling all over the country on a kind of food tour, trying all of the specialties.
There's nothing like walking through one of the many food streets in Korea. Steam rising into the air from outdoor stalls, the delicious smells of fried and grilled specialties. Fried cakes and sweet bean-filled pastries. Getting a small bag of tteokbokki (떡볶이), the chewy rice cakes with fish, in a spicy sauce. In my neighborhood in Busan, the usual price was around $1 (US).
The food culture in Korea was something I didn't know much about before traveling there, and it was eye-opening. It is definitely off the charts. I knew about kimchi (김치), but not much else. There were no Korean restaurants where I grew up in Wisconsin.
My Experience in Korea
I spent about two years in Korea, the majority of the time in Busan, a seaside port city on the southern coast, and the second-largest city in the country.
Many of the most memorable meals I've ever had were in Korea. The Korean-style barbecues, which we grilled right at our table, with friends and co-workers from the schools where I was working. Grilled marinated meats wrapped in a lettuce leaf, with garlic, kimchi, and dipping sauces (soybean paste and sesame oil). The raw seafood feasts. The local restaurants that served gimbap (김밥), samgyeopsal (삼겹살), japchae (잡채), doenjang jjigae (된장찌개), kimchi jjigae (김치찌개), the spicy stews I grew to love, especially during the winter months. The kimchi pancake, cooked and dipped in soy sauce, and eaten right on the street.
And the prices were so cheap. You could usually get a full meal in the range of $3-4 dollars. I especially loved the Banchan. The small side dishes served with your main course. Most often kimchi, daekon radish kimchi, fish cakes, and other pickled vegetables. There was always something new to try, and in my two years in the country, I really only skimmed the surface.
Searching for Good Korean Food in the States
The main difference that took some adjusting to when back in the States: the prices. A bowl of bibimbap and side dishes in Korea would usually go for about $3-4 (US). In the states, I've paid anywhere from $12-20. It is a special treat, and well worth it. And when the cravings come, and I'm in the mood for Korean food, I'm usually ready to splurge. It was especially fun during that time, however, when these amazing meals only cost a few dollars.
Now I've been working a seasonal job in northern Arizona for the spring and summer, and have had a chance to visit Flagstaff a few times. A college town with a laid-back vibe, and also kind of a gateway for travelers to the Grand Canyon, and other parts of the state. There are several Korean restaurants. I had lunch at two of them, trying my go-to dish, bibimbap, at both places.
Restaurant 1: KoKiYo
First, KoKiYo (116 S. San Francisco Street). One thing I like and appreciate about Korean restaurants, is that the dishes are authentic and very close to what you will get when in Korea. A few of the vegetables might be different, depending on what is locally available, but the overall flavors are usually the real deal. The soup and the side dishes were delicious. Kimchi, cucumber kimchi, and fish cakes with vegetables. Everything was fresh and tasted wonderful. The marinated meat, the veggies, the gochujang sauce adding just a slight spiciness.
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If you are craving Korean food and find yourself in Flagstaff, I highly recommend Kokiyo. The meal was well balanced, delicious, and completely satisfying. I will definitely be back.
Restaurant 2: Na D Li BBQ & Korean Cuisine
At Na D Li BBQ & Korean Cuisine (7 N. San Francisco Street), I also ordered bibimbap. It seemed the owner at this restaurant was the only one there to do the cooking and serving. I appreciated this. Times are tough, a lot of small ma and pa restaurants are still attempting to rebound from the pandemic, and there are staffing issues in a lot of places. The Bibimbap here was also fresh and delicious. The only downside, it was not served with side dishes. You can order kimchi separately here.
Still, it was a delicious and a perfect meal, and a nice ambience in the historic part of downtown Flagstaff. I will likely return to try other dishes here as well.
I Dream of Returning to Korea
A dream of mine is to travel all over Korea on a kind of food tour, trying the specialties from the different regions. The food culture there is deep, and provides a connection between people. It was common for a relative of a co-worker, who didn't speak much English (I was trying to learn Korean, but only knew some basics and survival language at the time) to extend an invitation for a meal. "My brother wants to eat spicy crab with you," my co-worker might say.
And the hospitality and kindness of the Korean people was also on another level. Several times I met complete strangers who invited me for a meal, and wouldn't accept any money when I offered to pay or at least chip in for the bill. One day reading at the Dadaepo beach, I met a family who invited me to have Sangseon Hwae, the raw seafood feast. Eaten in a similar way as Korean BBQ, with vegetables and sauces wrapped in lettuce leaves. They wanted to practice some English, and were happy to teach me about Korean culture, and give a guest in their country a great and memorable experience. The schools where I taught also regularly took the entire staff out for a feast at a BBQ restaurant.
When I returned to the States, I lived in Chicago, and was happy to discover and explore the Koreatown there on the northwest side, and the few Korean restaurants in the downtown area. I had to have my fix of kimchi and one of my favorite dishes, Bibimbap (비빔밥) "mixed rice", on a regular basis. I bought jars of fresh kimchi from the Korean market. I was glad to learn of the health benefits of these kinds of fermented and pickled foods. Bibimbap was a dish I would eat for lunch, and sometimes for dinner. A very filling and healthy meal, usually consisting of cooked and raw vegetables, and marinated meat (bulgogi) over steamed white rice, topped with a fried egg. The spicy gochujang sauce on the side.
When I at first didn't know the correct way to eat this dish (I think I tried to use chopsticks) the staff at the restaurant would show me how, stirring in the gochujang and mixing everything together, thoroughly, with a spoon. Then, demonstrated with mime gestures, that it should also be eaten with a spoon. I was glad to know that, as I was still a newbie then with limited chopsticks skills.
Traveling these days, wherever I happen to be, I usually do a search to see if there are any Korean restaurants in town. On a trip to Mexico City in fall of 2021, I was happy to discover the small Korean neighborhood there in a central location, with a variety of restaurants. As much as I love Mexican food, it was great to be staying within walking distance of the Korean neighborhood as well. It was undoubtedly a kind of food paradise for me.
Perhaps one of the things I love about a good Korean restaurant is the walk down memory lane. The ambience, the scents wafting from the kitchen, the spices and flavors, bring me back to that special time I experienced in Busan and Seoul. I’m always seeking that out, or trying to recreate it somehow.
Both KoKiYo and Na D Li BBQ offer a range of other dishes. Japchae (잡채) noodles, jjigae (찌개) stews, jjamppong noodle soup, tteokbokki, and marinated BBQ meat dishes such as galbi (갈비), as well as the Korean drink soju and beers such as Hite and Cass.
If you find yourself in Flagstaff, and are craving Korean food, or are curious and perhaps sampling Korean for the first time, I recommend giving both of these places a try. There is no doubt you will leave happy.