Insadong is rife with traditional Korean vegan and vegetarian restaurants serving temple food; we’d already visited the two most well-known temple food restaurants in this area, Sanchon and Baru, so over Buddha’s Birthday weekend, we visited two lesser known establishments: Oh Se Gae Hyang and Han Gwa Chae.
Most restaurants in Insadong are located down a series of winding labyrinths with random dead-ends, hidden doors, and unmarked fronts. Even while using the most sophisticated navigation equipment, you’re bound to get a bit lost wandering around here!
Plumes of steam from street food stalls in Insadong.
We decided to try Oh Se Gae Hyang first, because I’d read many positive reviews about it, and because its the head of the popular Korean food company, Vegefood.
The entrance to Oh Se Gae Hyang; for address and directions check out Happy Cow.
Our freezer is always stocked with Vegefood products, so I was super pumped about going here, and had pretty high hopes! The interior was a bit run down; it basically felt like walking into an old Korean home, with a small number of low tables and floor cushions, and a flat screen TV mounted on the wall.
The menu features mainly Korean and some Chinese dishes, with two mock meat steak dishes advertised as ‘Western-style’ meals.
We ordered a sweet and sour stir fry, a Korean stew, and some Lotus leaf-wrapped rice. The meals came with bits of banchan, too.
Sorry, we pretty much devoured the sweet and sour dish before taking any photos! It had a good flavor, but the veggies were still cold and basically raw! It seemed like it had been thrown together very hastily. The banchan dishes were too salty for my tastes, and I was so disappointed with the Lotus leaf-wrapped rice. It tasted SO old; it was obvious that it had been pre-cooked (maybe years ago…), cut in half, and then microwaved for us. The rice was so crusty and basically inedible, and the whole thing had a very bitter taste. It was NOTHING like the amazing, fresh Lotus leaf-wrapped rice I’d had at Baru.
Eoin thought the stew was okay (it was too insanely spicy for me to eat), but he wasn’t too impressed. Overall, Oh Se Gae Hyang was the biggest restaurant letdown we’ve experienced in Korea so far! I feel super bad saying that, because it has such positive reviews on Happy Cow and other blogs, but I would never ever eat here again. The service, presentation, and quality of the food was just so poor and sloppy. I’m still gonna keep buying Vegefood products, though!
Onwards and upwards to Han Gwa Chae! This place was much easier to locate, as its on a pretty wide street rather than crammed down a tiny alley. Check out Happy Cow for the address and directions.
The entrance to Han Gwa Chae, located on basement level.
The sign out front makes it pretty easy to spot, if you can’t read Korean. It’s a buffet, with a set price of 13,000 won per person for both lunch and dinner (I don’t think the menu changes at all.)
The interior felt a tad bit claustrophobic; I think I’d hate it in here if it was super crowded. I really don’t dig the whole communal cafeteria-style seating arrangement. Luckily for us it was basically empty! The restaurant is owned by a sweet couple who served us tea, porridge, and soup as soon as we sat down.
The offerings here were quite scant, mostly lots of pickled greens like you’d usually get as banchan at most Korean restaurants.
Boiled tofu, roasted sweet potatoes, pajeon, and acorn jelly.
Kimchi, bean paste, leafy greens, sprout salad, and apple slices. There were also two big rice cookers filled with white or brown rice.
The staff asked us to just use one plate, but we were free to fill it up as many times as we liked. There are only so many pickled greens I can eat before my tummy gets sore, so I basically just filled up on pajeon (crispy green onion pancakes).
I appreciated the simplistic, vegetable-centered dishes on offer here, but Eoin and I both left feeling a bit unsatisfied. I know there are a lot of vegans and veggies out there who really don’t like mock meat and fried food, but man, I need that stuff to make a meal! I have never been much of a salad-eater.
Overall, the food at Han Gwa Chae was very fresh and crisp, and I liked the mom and pop homestyle cooking aspect, but I’d probably only ever go back here for a light lunch.
I don’t know what this guy was advertising, but he was causing the biggest ruckus ever in Insadong, blowing bubbles, flashing lights, and honking horns all over the place! There’s never a dull day out in Seoul.