Restaurant Review: 들플부빔 (비빔밥)

 

 

Both 들플 restaurants are run by the same family.  The mother runs the larger 한정식 (han jung shik) restaurant serving ddeokgalbi (of course) and the son runs the nearby bibimbap restaurant; the focus of this review.  They’re both located right across from the Gwangju Lake dam (map) and because they’re just a few kilometers from the house, were some of the first restaurants we visited.  Unfortunately our first visits to both were lackluster and because there are so many other restaurants around, we never really went back and simply forgot about them.

That is until about a month ago.  During at least three unrelated conversations with three very different people, the name of this place came up.  It’s not exactly an inconvenient location and our initial visit wasn’t necessarily bad, so we headed back to see what, if anything had changed.

Sure enough, the signage outside was new.  Possible renovation?  A good sign (no pun) nonetheless.

 

 

I remember our first visit being sort of uncomfortable because it was so empty and quiet inside.  Needless to say we were shocked when we walked into a full and absolutely bustling restaurant.  I had to go back the next day just before opening time to get the second (people-free) picture of the dining room.

 

The menu offers some classics (육회/멍개/불고기), a vegetarian option (산채), and at least one I’ve never even seen before (청국장공).  A pretty solid selection.

While you wait for your bibimbap, you’re served a small appetizer of cooked pork, onions and garlic to be eaten bossam style with a variety of leafy greens and a homemade 쌈장 sauce.  There is also a small spicy salad (think fresh lettuce kimche) and a side of acorn jelly.  Sounds simple, but it was damn tasty.

The bibimbap comes out just about when you’ve finished these snacks.  It arrives as a stacked combo; the heavy dolsot bowl/rice on the bottom and a large brass bowl filled with your bibimbap selection on top.  Another large brass plate with homemade kimches.  A+ for presentation for sure.

If you’re off the beaten path far enough to end up in a place like this, you probably already know to scoop your rice out of the dolsot bowl and into the brass bowl.  The kettle on the table is used to fill up your dolsot bowl and should be set aside while you eat.  This will make “rice porridge” and is typically what you eat last (it’ll be piping hot so you don’t have much of a choice).  Depending on which type of bibimbab you order you will either mix in gochujang or a soy based sauce.

At 9,000won I’d actually consider this place cheap considering both how much you get and the quality of what you get.  I’ve been back a couple of times in the last two weeks just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke (we were famished during our initial return visit) and I can assure you everything on the menu is delicious…choosing a favorite would be tough!!

Looking for something else?  Plenty of other restaurant recommendation can be found here.

Restaurant Review: Hwansun Black Tofu (달맞이 흑두부)

 

 

Black tofu restaurants can be found littered throughout the Korean countryside and the Damyang area is no exception.  Unfortunately I wouldn’t recommend the two I’ve visited in Damyang (the one across from Sosaewon and the one across from Sanggyo both received a thumbs down) and instead will point you in the direction of the DalMatJi Black Tofu Restaurants.

The two I know of, have been to, and would recommend, are in Gwangju (신창동) and Hwansun.  The Hwansun branch is of particulary importance because it’s on road 817 which is a road frequently used by cyclists.  The “beast route” and the route I use to Wolchulsan National Park both use this road.  There is tons of good food along this road, and oddly enough, a plethora of Damyang style galbi restaurants!

The traditional hanok style restaurant is easily visible from the road and will be on your right if you’re headed toward Gwangju.  The decor inside maintains the traditional theme and has seating for groups of just about any size, although it’s limited to floor seating.

 

No surprises on the menu; it offers a variety of tofu dishes as well as bossam (pork) and jeon.  I’ve only eaten the beosut jeonguel (버섯전골), but made sure to make everyone else in the restaurant uncomfortable by staring at their menu choices.  It all looked delicious.

The banchan was small and boring by Jeolla-Do standards, but refill requests were gladly granted.

The mushroom stew (버섯전골), however, was impressive and plentiful.  It only takes a few minutes for the veggies to cook down before it’s ready to eat and if it cooks down too much you can simply ask for more broth (called 육수).

It’s not the cheapest lunch option around, but well worth the price for the quality and quantity that you’re given.  Not to mention it’s a beautiful restaurant and a fun place to take visitors or stop by while you’re out exploring the countryside.  Enjoy!

Looking for a bit more meat in your diet?  Plenty of other restaurant suggestions can be found here

Restaurant Review: 산수옥모밀 (SanSuOk Momil)


The SanSuOk Momil (soba/buckwheat noodles) franchise is a staple around Jeolla-Do.  They’re littered throughout the neighborhoods of Gwangju, but oddly vary in terms of quality and consistency.  The most famous one is downtown and the same family owns operates this one adjacent to the Duam-dong Home Plus (동광주).  The Duam-dong location (specifically) offers hands down the best buckwheat noodles in town and is a convenient option for lunch if you find yourself at Homeplus picking up some last minute items for the weekend.

 

 

 

 
The Duam-dong SanSuOk restaurant is located on the northside of Homeplus, directly across from the parking garage entrance (map).  It’s an unassuming storefront to say the least.  Inside you’ll find chairs and tables in the front and floor seating in the back.  It’s guaranteed to be packed during peak mealtimes, but the wait is never long as Koreans tend to inhale their noodles at warp speed.


The menu offers a variety of different momil dishes, both hot and cold, as well as some other traditional favorites you’d expect to find in a place like this (만두, 돈까스, 떡만두국,etc).  I’ve honestly never been disappointed with anything on this menu and for just over ten bucks between two people it’s surprisingly affordable and filling (and vegetarian friendly!).For a cold noodle dish I would recommend the 마른모밀, which comes with a small bowl of broth and a cup of cold sauce to either dip your noodles in or simply pour into the bowl of noodles.  For a hot dish I’m a big fan of the 냄비모밀, which comes with bits of fried tofu as well as a cooked egg in addition to the momil noodles.  And don’t sleep on the buckwheat mandu (메밀왕만두)…they’re amazing!

 냄비모밀

마른모밀

 마른모밀

 lunch

Not in the mood for noodles?  Plenty of other suggestions can be found here.

Restaurant Review: DamJu Brewery (담주브로이)

To learn that bamboo beers exists in this world and I didn’t know about it was a bit heartbreaking.  To learn said beer is being made locally and I’ve cycled within a 100 meters of the brewery at least a dozen times was absolutely soul crushing. What other bamboo themed treasures am I missing out on?

I ended up here with some of Damyang’s hardest working civil servants in order to celebrate both the end of the week and the end of our six-month long study group.  The “bamboo beer brewery” was casually mentioned as a place to host our celebration.  Mind blown.

The beer is made with actual bamboo leaves (or so says the owner), but let’s face it, it tastes nothing like bamboo.  The novelty factor is off the charts though so I was instantly sold on the concept.  You have your choice between a Weizen and a Dunkel.  I was partial to the Dunkel, but can definitely see myself enjoying a few thousand Weizens on the rooftop patio (!!!) next summer.

UPDATE:  I did in fact come back in the warmer months…the beer garden is indeed amazing!



Paragliders over the rice paddies

The food is the typical anju-ish stuff you would expect (don-katsu, salad bar, fried chicken, etc) except for two surprises: bamboo shoot sausage and bamboo shoot ddeok-galbi.  I’ve raved about the sausages before, not realizing where they came from.  The ddeok-galbi is so-so and the fried chicken was blasphemous.  I wouldn’t wander too far from the sausages and the don-katsu, by far the best two things on the menu.


As we were finishing up our meal I asked the owner if they offered take-out beers, like any good brewery does, and sure enough they do!  10,000won per bottle (1000ml).  They also sell the bamboo sausages and ddeok-galbi.


The biggest drawback to this place is the location.  It’s not really near anything notable and is just outside “downtown” Damyang.  You’ll certainly need to call a driver or get a taxi after your visit and it’s not cheap to get anyway from here.  Your best bet is to wait until spring, hop on your bike, and enjoy the countryside views to and from the brewery.

The owner’s wife is an absolute angel and deserves special recognition.  Turns out she is a childhood friend of the chairman of our village and immediately called him once she found out where we lived.  This small coincidence made us instant BFFs and translated into copious amounts of “service”!  Free sausages and booze for everyone.  She even sat down with us and had a couple of beers at the end of the night.  Pretty awesome.

UPDATE:  So we’ve been back a few times since this orginal post and the owners have been very generous every time.  Our last visit they even gave us a tour of the brewery.  It’s impressive for the middle of Damyang…lots of expensive imported German brewing equipment!


Don’t like beer?  Plenty of other restaurant suggestions can be found here.

Restaurant Review: Sanggyo Galbi (쌍교 숯불갈비)


Sanggyo has recently undergone some major renovations, presumably to solidify their reputation as “the” top dog in the Damyang restaurant market.  I try not to let fancy buildings influence my judgement of the food (it’s Korea after all…some of the best food in the country is found in some of the scariest looking restaurants), but it’s hard not to be impressed with this beautiful hanok inspired two-story restaurant.  As a testament to the quality of the food, I can tell you that for the better part of a year, during the renovations, they had people eating in make-shift shacks and it didn’t affect business in the slightest.  Be prepared to wait at least 45 minutes on the weekends…mind blowing when you see how big it is inside.

 

Like any good tourist restaurant (not a negative in this context) they provide, both floor and table seating as well as private rooms.  The food comes out quick and servers are accustomed to obnoxious picture taking so snap away.

 
They offer two local specialties: ddeok galbi and Damyang style BBQ’d galbi.  I’m sure you can find better ddeok galbi elsewhere in town, so stick with the galbi they’re famous for.  The Damyang style of BBQ is a bit different in that the meat is brined and cooked in back and comes out piping hot and ready to eat.  You have a choice between regular and spicy (it’s not spicy at all).  Both are delicious.

 
The basic banchan will arrive almost immediately and consists of three types of salad, three types of kimche, three types of seaweed and a couple of other odds and ends.  The server will recommend which salad or seaweed to eat with the meat, but after a decade of living in Korea I’m pretty sure that there is no rule about what goes in your lettuce leaf wrap.

Additional servings of meat are easy to order and encouraged by the staff.  Refills of banchan are no problem what-so-ever.  Basically, arrive hungry and ready to eat.  Be sure to save room for the “shik-sa” portion of the meal…because it’s not dinner unless rice is involved!  We, for some reason, always order the sujaebee and are always disappointed.  One portion is more than enough for three or four people though so at least it’s not expensive.  In fact our entire meal for three people, including five orders of meat (don’t judge), five beers, and an order of sujaebee was about 80,000…and I didn’t eat for the next 48 hours~

 


Not interested in galbi?  Plenty of other options can be found here.

Restaurant Review: Daega (대가 – 생선구이)

Daega is another popular “destination restaurant” for both domestic tourists and Gwangju day-trippers alike.  It’s situated directly across from the Gwangju dam and it checks all the right boxes by being comparatively cheap, serving local specialties and having a somewhat quirky “traditional” interior design.  Even during the winter months, when everything else is dead, this place is thriving on the weekends with a packed parking lot and a full restaurant.

 

Even if you don’t like grilled fish (looking at you dad), this place is just straight up fun to be in.  Walking through the big wooden front doors, you’re greeted with a large open restaurant offering floor seating, table seating and a few private rooms in the back.  There’s tons of traditional kitsch around to keep your eyes occupied while your stomach waits for your food to arrive.  They even have a water-way built into the floor with goldfish swimming around!

The menu has a few options, depending on the size of your group, but it’s basically your choice of grilled fish with or without ddeok galbi.  Don’t sleep on the ddeok galbi…it’s better than most (all) of the Damyang restaurants specializing in this tasty local treat.  The set menus toward the top will give you a mix of different fish, ddeok galbi and the dolsot rice.

The banchan will arrive first, of course, and while it doesn’t look like much they are extremely friendly about refilling the dishes you like, especially if you catch them before the lunch/dinner rush.  The kimche is at least a million years old and is phenomenal…refills are a must.

Next out is the dolsot bap.  If you’ve never had it before, it’s basically two dishes in one:  rice and 누룽지 (I’m not even going to try and spell that in English).  Simply scoop out your rice into the separate rice bowl (not pictured).  Don’t scrape too hard because the crispy burnt pieces stuck in the bowl is what makes your 누룽지.  Next, fill the stone bowl with the barely tea from the pitcher on your table and put it aside until the end of the meal.  During the time it takes you to eat everything else, this burnt rice and barely tea will turn into a delicious after dinner porridge.

Shortly after you’ve dealt with your dolsot bap, the fish and ddeok galbi will arrive.  The type of fish will vary depending on which set menu you choose, but it’s all delicious!  If you’ve been in Korea longer than five minutes you probably know the fish comes out whole…you’ve been warned.

  

Here’s what the entire spread looks like:

 


For dessert you have a choice of coffee, shikhye or do-it-yourself ice cream cones.   Or you can do yourself a favor and skip the crappy dessert and order another round of OB and a few more of those tasty ddeok galbi paddies!

Restaurant Review: Damyang Flower Ddeokgalbi (담양애 꽃 떡갈비)

I’m sure you’re painfully aware, like the rest of us, that Damyang is equally famous for and proud of the minced meat paddies known as ddeokgalbi (떡갈비).  It’s ubiquitous.  Personally I find most of it overpriced and not all that great.  In fact my favorite ddeokgalbi in Damyang can be found at a restaurant known for grilled fish (Dega/대가).

 

Damyang “Flower” Ddeokgalbi was recently referred to me by a friend, but has been on my radar for awhile because it’s consistently busy.  It’s hard to ignore their success.  So…I’ll save you the effort of reading the rest of this post:  it’s surprisingly clean, delicious, well priced and a place I’ll gladly take out-of-towners when they want to try some of the local flavors.

 


Walking in the restaurant it was instantly clear that it’s much bigger than it looks.  That explains the seemingly large parking lot in front!  Before you’re seated you’ll have to choose your set menu.  Pretty easy as it’s a ddeokgalbi restaurant serving ddeokgalbi.  Basically choose between beef, pork or a mix of both (the mix is recommended…called 반반정식, or the top right of the menu).


Once seated things start to happen pretty fast.  The banchan comes out first and is pretty damn impressive.  It consists of a lot of the usual suspects (kimches and namools) and is fresh and flavorful.  The server will recommend which to eat with the ddeokgalbi, but you’d be hard pressed to mix something “incorrectly”.

 

 


Shortly after, the ddeokgalbi will arrive.  Don’t panic if you’re trying to maintain that plus-size figure as additional paddies are cheap at 3,000 for pork and 6,000 for beef!

 


To top it off you’ll get some soup (된장), a bit of fish (고등어) and rice with bamboo shoots (죽순).

 


Dessert is where things got a bit weird.  Purple sweet potato tea anyone?


All said and done it was 30,000 for two people and we were stuffed.  Add some booze and an extra order of ddeokgalbi and you’re still under 50k for a memorable dinner.  At 13km, it’s also a quick drive or a scenic bike ride!  Here’s the directions and here’s the view:

 

 


Looking for something else?  Plenty of other restaurant recommendations can be found here.

Restaurant Review: Vietnam Restaurant and Mart

Spring Rolls

Fried Spring Rolls

Pho Bo

Pho Bo

What this place lacks in decor and ambiance, it makes up for in authenticity and taste.  Don’t be fooled by the dilapidated exterior of the building and the exposed kitchen and appliances indoors.  They’re serving Vietnamese food miles beyond what you’ll find in Gwangju (those Vietnamese chain restaurants basically serve Korean food for twice the price).

 

 

Walking in, I was met by a small Vietnamese server and a handful of younger Vietnamese friends having lunch…always a good sign to see actual Vietnamese people in a Vietnamese restaurant.  Rumors of Bahn Mi sandwiches proved false (possibly sold out?)  (update: been back a couple of times and still no Bahn Mi sandwiches) so we opted for the litmus test of Vietnamese food:  Pho and Spring Rolls.

It wasn’t cheap at 24,000 for two people, but two bowls of soup and a plate of spring rolls was more than enough to fill us up and ultimately well worth the price.  Simply put, it was delicious. (The fresh spring rolls are better than the fried)

This place is also a mart selling Vietnamese snacks and ingredients.  The mart is in the back, where you will also find additional seating.  The best part is they sell fresh cilantro if you ask nicely…2,000 for a large handful.

The location is pretty easy to find as it’s close to the river, noodle street, and one of the most famous restaurants in town, SeungIl Shikdang (승일 식당).  Here’s the google map link.  Just in case, here’s the map from my phone:

If you have room for dessert, head down to the river and get in line with the rest of these suckers and buy some of the “famous” Damyang donuts 🙂

 

Restaurant Review: Changpyeong GukBap Restaurant (국밥)

Gukbap is one of many foods Damyang claims to be famous for and Changpyeong, just down the road, is the epicenter of it all.  Unlike ddukgalbi, which overshadows all the less famous Damyang foods, gukbap is actually affordable and doesn’t come with a pretentious “fusion” theme (don’t get me started).  Quite the opposite actually.  At 6,000 won a bowl, Gukbap is some serious blue collar eats. Come here during lunch time any day of the week and you’ll see what I mean.

If you’re not a fan of the nasty bits, you’ll want to give this spot a pass because the menu is nothing but pork products.


“Changpyeong Gukbap” is one of the more popular gukbap restaurants around this area and is consistently packed.  To get there head down 887 to the Goseo intersection and take a right (about 6km).  The driveway entrance to the restaurant is about 100 meters down the road on your right.  The restaurant itself is tucked away and a bit difficult to see from the road so keep your eyes peeled for the tall blue roadside sign.  A map with this restarant labeled (and many others) can be found here.

Most people order the standard 국밥 (pictured below), but personally I prefer the 공나물국밥 (don’t worry, it also comes with plenty of organs as well).  Enjoy!

 
 


 

Bike’n Hike (VI): Naejangsan National Park

Destination:  Naejangsan National Park

Cycling:  120km
Hiking:  12km
Days:  2
 NaeJangsan National Park

The Bike’n Hike concept was born out of a failed backpacking trip to Jirisan National Park in February of 2014.  For whatever reason the logistics of that trip weren’t coming together so we opted to ditch the car, grab some bikes and head to a closer National Park.  That park was of course Naejangsan.  Since February we have done six Bike’n Hike trips to five of the surrounding National Parks…three of those trips were to this little park to the north.  It’s not by accident that we keep returning.

Traditionally these mini-bike tours have been a minimum of three days.  This was our first attempt to squeeze it all in a weekend.  Luckily we weren’t without willing participants.  Gibby and Jay were the first two to arrive from Seoul and after a bit of drama with cranky taxi drivers and unwelcome rain storms, we headed to a local 고기 집 to fill up on BBQ and booze and wait for the others.

“One Dish”
Once Sunghoon and John arrived in Gwangju we quickly met up and set off for The Damyang House,  which would serve as our home base of sorts for the weekend.  The slick (wet) roads prevented us from taking the scenic route through Mudeung National Park, but it was dark and getting late anyhow so it seemed a better use of time to head straight back to the house.  The ride itself is under 20km and less than an hour.  The rain had stopped at some point during dinner so we were able to avoid getting soaked on the ride home and had an opportunity to enjoy a campfire and the surrounding bamboo forest once we arrived. 
 Relaxin’.
The Damyang House

The next morning we scraped together a nice breakfast, got our gear in order and hit the road.

 The Crew
 Our Departure
Not everyone was happy about us leaving.
One of the (many) appealing aspects of the trip to Naejangsan is the roads that lead to and from the park.  They’re well maintained and largely underused so traffic is never really an issue.  There are two climbs during the 50km ride to the park entrance, but without them the day might be too easy.  Not to mention, the descent into the park makes it absolutely worth it!
 Moments before disaster…sorry Gibby!
A quick rest before the big climb of the day.

The climb begins.
We arrived at the park in under four hours, which gave us plenty of time to tackle the “hike” portion of the Bike’n Hike adventure.  The relatively easy ride to the park is quickly forgotten once you hit the park trails…they’re unforgiving and head pretty much straight up to the mountain ridge that circles around the park.  We were in a race with time (sunset) so completing the ridge hike was out of the question as it takes pretty much all day to hit all eight peaks.  It’s highly recommended if you have the time though…it’s an incredible hike.  Our goal was simply to get up to the ridge, grab a few photos and bask in the sense of accomplishment.  After four hours of cycling that’s easier said than done.  
 Getting closer.
 We made it!
Feeling accomplished!
 Taking a break.
 Our view.
 Exploring.
 Time to head back.
After climbing down the mountain we hopped back on our bikes and rode the 2km back to the park entrance where you’ll find a street of restaurants, a minbak neighborhood and a bit of nightlife (read: a CU Mart).  There are loads of cheap minbaks (about 10,000/person) clustered together at the top of the hill.  The lady at 촛불 is especially nice and her minbak sits highest up on the hill with a red sign.  You can’t miss it.  
   촛불민박
The restaurants around aren’t really anything to write home about honestly.  They are loads of them, but they oddly all serve the same menu.  I’ve been to five or six of them and can’t say anything really stood out enough that I’d recommend it.  If nothing else it’s a good place to catch your breath with some 동동주 and 파전 post-hike.  
We hit the CU after dinner for a few beers and made friends with some of the local wildlife.  As the temperature dropped and fatigue slowly set in we said goodbye to our new friend and got some much needed rest.
Praying Mantis
The next morning we headed towards the nearest town, Jeong-Eup, to get breakfast at a restaurant we found last time we were in the area.  This place is much cheaper and the food is a thousand times better…sadly I didn’t get a photo or even the name of the place!  I can say it’s on the right side of the road, just past the turnoff for road 21 that leads you back towards Damyang (and up the biggest climb of the day!).  The turn for road 21 isn’t clearly marked when heading north on road 49 towards Jeong-Eup so look for the big red love motel…this is where you’ll need to take a right!
Big Red Love Motel
The ride home to Damyang (or the Gwangju bus station) is about 70 or 80kms and starts off with a bang.  This climb through the valley is actually really enjoyable and while it’s quite long, it’s not as steep as some of the other climbs on this route (four in total).  And of course once you’re at the top, you’re met with a nice downhill to catch your breath.  The whole afternoon is filled with valleys and underused roads.  It’s gorgeous.

Selfie at the top of the mountain.
 Valley roads.
 Headed to Damyang.

Bike Trouble!
After fixing John’s bike, we turned off on road 29 which heads south through Damyang “city” and back to The Damyang House.  This road is scenic in its own right as it passes by Damyang Lake and the iconic Chuwolsan, which overlooks Damyang and can be seen from miles away.  Of course there’s another scenic valley to pass through as well.  
 Chuwolsan
Chuwolsan
Valley to Damyang.
We eventually ended up in Damyang and stumbled upon the Namdo Food Festival, which looked pretty damn fun, but was much too big of an endeavor to take on this late in the game.  We instead headed to one of Damyang’s famous Galbi restaurants which didn’t disappoint.  It’s embarrassing how much BBQ’d pork they gave us.  
 승일식당
 Always packed. 
Namdo Food Festival
At this point in the trip it sort of felt like someone hit the fast forward button.  Certainly one of the bigger down-sides to trying to accomplish so much in a two-day weekend.  I think we’d all agree that another night/day to soak it all in would have been nice.  Regardless, it was an action packed 48 hours and I look forward to doing it all again soon (Wolchulsan anyone?)!!!
*all photos by Sean Walker, Sunghoon Cho, Jay Diaz, John McDermott and Mark Gibby Johnson…thanks for sharing guys!