Korean Food Alleys: Escape into Pimatgol

The bustle of downtown Seoul can be overwhelming at times, leaving one feeling trampled. That’s why there are alleys of refuge such as Pimatgol. Meaning “Horse-Avoiding Alley,” this narrow alleyway preserves a lesser-known side of Korean culture through its 600-year-old history.

Pimatgol was first created during the Joseon Dynasty by the peasant class, known as sangmin. As the lowest class of Korean society, they were subject to many customs and obligations in the presence of aristocrats, known as yangban. Travel along the main street of Jongno was tedious, as the sangmin would often be required to prostrate themselves every time a nobleman passed, usually on horseback. To escape this time-consuming ritual, the sangmin constructed a small alleyway that runs parallel to Jongno, just a little north of the major thoroughfare, so they wouldn’t have to encounter aristocrats during their travels.

Left: Traditional architecture can be found in the unlikeliest corners of Pimatgol. Right: A restaurant is adorned with a giant yangban mask, which originally served as a parody of the aristocracy.

Over time, Pimatgol evolved and adapted to the needs of the Korean people. With aristocrats on horseback no longer a concern, the alley has become a refuge from downtown traffic. During the Imperial Japan era, organizers of the Samil (March 1) Movement gathered in Pimatgol in the basement of Seungdong Church the night before the famous reading of the Korean Declaration of Independence. During the politically unstable ‘80s it was a refuge for student demonstrators escaping from the police.

Originally, Pimatgol was 2.5 kilometers in length, able to convey pedestrians from inside Dongdaemoon gate all the way to Gwanghwamun, terminating behind present-day Kyobo Building. Urban redevelopment has claimed all but one central leg of the historic alley, located between Tapgol Park and the YMCA. It is easy to find from the southern end of Insadong, provided you’re willing to brave the mysterious winding alleyways.

The twists and turns of Pimatgol hide many surprises.

Stepping into Pimatgol takes the visitor into a completely different environment. During the day it’s a near-deserted channel for pedestrians and delivery scooters in a hurry, and at night segments of the alley come alive with workers toasting the end of another long work day. Many of the restaurants in the alley are adorned with grotesque Hahoe yangban masks, a well-known creation of Joseon-era sangmin culture. Although the blind corners might first alarm newcomers, the friendly atmosphere of the alley soon appears.

During lunch break, patrons gather in Bullojujeom (Fire Bar), a cozy place with a rustic wooden interior and murals displayed on the walls. One of the regulars is Shin Chang-han, an architect and artist who has contributed several wall murals to the area. He is quick to welcome visitors with a cup of coffee and show off his artwork.

Shin Chang-han proudly displays his rice paper artwork.

It is because of this friendly, disarming atmosphere that Pimatgol represents an oasis of calm in the ever-developing downtown district. The January 2012 issue of Seoul Magazine included Pimatgol in its list of Seoul’s top food alleys, recommending the tea house Ssarypmoon, “where you may just catch the owner giving a performance on the daegeum, a large bamboo flute.” There are many other delightful secrets hidden away in the depths of this back-alley labyrinth.

Left: the old section of Pimatgol, next to Kyobo, was once packed densely with restaurants. Right: Shiintongshin (Poet Exchange) was a popular hangout for poets, owned by poet Han Kwi-nam.

Pimatgol specializes in many kinds of traditional Korean dishes -- usually at a more-than-fair price -- as well as copious amounts of bars serving anything from beer to traditional Korean liquor. Restaurants range from beautiful examples of traditional Korean architecture to canopied street food establishments, often referred to in English as soju tents. Restaurants serve delicacies such as gamjatang (pork rib and potato soup), bindaetteok (mung bean pancakes), grilled mackerel, and makgeolli (rice wine). 

To the west, where redevelopment has claimed most of the alley, there are still a few vestiges, poking through like flowers growing from the cracks in a sidewalk. Most of the area between Kyobo and Jonggak Station is under construction, so it remains unclear if Pimatgol will be incorporated into the new construction.

Excavation of the land underneath Pimatgol has uncovered several Joseon-era artifacts such as these (photo courtesy of Yonhap News).

Already completed in 2007, Le Meilleur Jongno Town is a skyscraper that sits on the former location of Pimatgol. A 5.5-meter-wide passage was incorporated into the building’s design to mark the former path of Pimatgol. The lower five floors, as well as two basement levels, have been designated as a shopping mall incorporating many of the former establishments of Pimatgol.

Left: A modernized version of Pimatgol cuts through the main floor of Jongno Town. Right: Cheongjinok continues curing hangovers in their new location inside Jongno Town, which is adorned with a picture of the former location.

Among these include Cheongjinok, a restaurant established in 1937 serving haejangguk (a soup intended to fight hangovers), Mijin, which serves cold buckwheat noodles, and Gamchon, which serves spicy tofu soup. Deeper into the subbasement, the air is damp with the heavy aroma of Korean spices used in dishes such as budaejjigae (army base stew). It was a difficult transition for many restaurants, but over the years several of them have certainly landed on their feet.

Still others have moved on. Hanilgwan, a 70-year-old restaurant, packed up and moved across the river to Gangnam. Still others seem gone for good; many of the once-popular restaurants from the westernmost end of Pimatgol have vanished, such as mackerel restaurant Daelim and makgeolli house Yeolchajib, which means "Train House," in reference to how crowded it always was.

At Daelim, Seok Song-ja grills mackerels for her customers. Her restaurant closed in 2010.

Although only a small stretch of Pimatgol remains today, it is still worth visiting to get a rare look at Korea’s sangmin culture. To get there, head out Jonggak Station Exit 3, and you will find the entrance to the alley behind Pizza Hut.

By Jon Dunbar
Korea.net Editor