This weekend, there’s the quadruple coincidence of Labour day, the weekend, Children’s day and Buddha’s birthday this weekend giving most people two weeks of vacation. And in conjunction with an annual Jeonju Film Festival, the whole country seems to converge on a small little town.
There’s no secret that I love Jeonju. The town is small enough, people seem nice but all cars on the street are driven by descendants of Schumacher and the food is just lovely. Not overbearing, and just enough ingredients and the food seems to be made still the artisanal way by uncompromising and luddite old ladies. Sure, charge me a little more for the hand made goodness and 12,000Won bibimbaps, and since I travelled all the way to try something nice, don’t skimp on it.
Taking the bus on this busy weekend. Most parts of major highways in Korea has a dedicated lane for buses and large passenger vans. This will shave some tens of minutes off the trip compared to driving your own little stinky and crammed car smelling synthetic ester-fueled air “fragrance” for 3 hours. Since this is no where like Malaysia, no mid-sized 4 wheel car tries to reason silently that it is a full-fledged express bus.
There are two types of buses that ply the route. There seems to be a bus leaving every 5 minutes at the peak times of early afternoon from Seoul Express Bus Terminal. Most of them are 3-a-row “business-class” buses, and then there’s the odd 4-a-row bus that’s cheaper (12,800W this time, compared to 20,500W – I swear the price has gone up year-on-year). For me I can’t tell the difference between the two, except for the fact that you’re squashed closer to the stranger to the right. If you’re taking the bus on a date, perhaps it is a plus.
The first problem came around on arrival. It was 6pm. My favourite bibimbap restaurant Seungmidang (성미당: 전라북도 전주시 완산구 전라감영5길 19-9) had a long queue outside and they had to cut it short because they ran out of stock. Damn tourists.
Luckily there was the last batch of bibimbap at 가족회관 (전주시 완산구 중앙동3가 80 2층) just behind Seungmidang.
But it all was downhill from then on. All hotels and B&B were full for the night, even the small ones. No accommodation, the only other option was spa but even then there was no guarantee it will not be filled. And it was raining, and making walking around a bad experience.
So. No food. Long queues. Rain. No accommodation. Plenty of people. There was only one thing to do. Since everyone is leaving Seoul, perhaps Seoul is the best place to be for this long holiday.
And so it was, I took the 10:45pm bus back to Seoul. Arrival was at 2am, but it was great to be sleeping in my own bed again. Home sweet home, as they say.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Strange logo at Gyeongijeon park. I don’t understand Korean yet, but it doesn’t look like “toilet” to me.
Now this looks more like a park
I suppose this must be one of the shrines…
… 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.
Traditional meets modern
On the way to the Hanok Village, there are more bibimbap restaurants than any other
Smack in the heart of the Hanok Village. And I’m sure you were expecting some old stuff too…
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.
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.
Restaurant’s army of ajummas at work.
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!
Ticket back to Seoul
Night bus. Man, that TV screen is tiny from the back!