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Walking through the tight little alleyways of Pimatgol several years ago, I had to wonder if I had come to the wrong place. When I planned my trip, local food experts steered me here for some of the best grilled food in Seoul, South Korea, but initially all I saw around each shadowy bend were rows of concrete buildings that appeared to be ordinary homes, with laundry hanging from their second-story balconies. The uneven stone walkways were deserted, and I was tempted to head to the nearby district of foreign embassies where I knew I’d find a cheery, brightly lit restaurant with menus in English. But the reassuring smells of burning charcoal encouraged me to stay. Plus I had come to South Korea, a country known for barbecue, in part because I happen to be a little obsessed with grilling (I’ve written eight grilling cookbooks). So just the chance that I might find some new grilled discovery kept me in Pimatgol.
Steps from Gyeonghuigung, the grandest palace in all of Seoul, and practically hidden behind futuristic skyscrapers, Pimatgol was a meandering neighborhood that had survived thousands of years of cosmopolitan growth. Back in the 1800s, members of the ruling family left their Seoul palace on sedan chairs held high on their servants’ shoulders to ride down Jongno, one of the city’s widest streets. Commoners were obliged to show respect by bowing as the royalty rode past. But some Koreans scoffed at this custom and instead slipped down hidden alleys that ran beside the street. Before long, taverns opened along the alleys and the owners set up barbecue grills to feed the flow of customers. The food scene in Pimatgol grew in reputation and drew throngs of office workers every day for its particular specialty, grilled seafood.