Seoul can be kind of a wasteland before 11 a.m., so I’ve spent my fair share of hungry mornings stumbling around the city looking for a place that’s open and willing to serve me food. Sure, there are fancy cafes in high-end neighborhoods like Gangnam or Garosu-gil that offer Western-inspired brunches, but they’re usually woefully overpriced and feel very far away, especially when I’m hungover—which seems to be kind of the norm when I’m visiting Seoul. Really, the first time I had breakfast at a 7-Eleven was out of desperation; I was hungry, it was right there, it was open, there was food. But that food hit the spot, and it’s done the trick every time since, which is why I firmly believe the best place for breakfast in Seoul is a convenience store.
I’m particularly fond of 7-Elevens, but going to a GS25 or CU Mart also will do, because no matter the brand, convenience stores fill the breakfast void in Korean cuisine, especially for a hungry, hungover foreigner. Locating one is never a problem because they’re everywhere, on nearly every street, in every subway station. Korean convenience stores also usually open 24 hours a day, which means I’ve always been able to feed myself there no matter the time.
Korean convenience stores are also filled with some surprisingly gourmet goods; I’m not talking day-old taquitos here. For some perspective, those now-legendary honey butter chips that I’ve heard food editors herald as the height of Korean culinary innovation were originally sold in convenience stores. And if you’re on the hunt for the next honey butter craze, look no further than the selection of flavored milk. There are the classics, like chocolate and strawberry, but I’ve also had milk that’s flavored like honey, banana, even coffee-mint.
But the best breakfast item, in my humble opinion, is also one of the most basic: sam gimbap, a triangle-shaped rice ball wrapped in seaweed. Each little pocket of goodness fits in the palm of your hand and is stuffed with different ingredients, like kimchi, spicy beef, bacon and tuna, or, my personal favorite, egg and Spam, which is basically just a huge hunk of Spam with some egg fried rice inside a seaweed package. You can enjoy the sam gimbap as it, straight out of the fridge, but if you’re looking to get fancy, there’s always a microwave available in which you can warm up your sam gimbap. Each one rarely costs more than $1.50 a piece, so I would always recommend enjoying a second one while you’re at it.
If you are craving a Western-style breakfast staple, they are often available albeit tricky to track down if you don’t know where to look. Coffee, for example, never comes in carafes as it does in American convenience stores. Instead, there are cans of coffee and cartons of lattes that are most often served cold. If you’re lucky, there might be a little cabinet on the counter by the cashier, the glass window fogged over from steam, where you can find hot cans of coffee too. Pop one of those open, and the steam will burst out through the tab, an obvious sign that you’ve done well for yourself. The coffee is usually sweet and milky with a slight aftertaste of something chemically, but it’s caffeinated so there’s not much more you can really ask for. I’m partial to Georgia Max coffee, but that’s mainly because we have the same name.
The granddaddy of all Korean convenience store food is instant ramen. There are dozens of varieties, stacked up on shelves, that range from spicy to mild, seafood to beef. And since there are no breakfast-specific foods in Korea, any ramen can be a breakfast ramen if you eat it at the right time. There’s one big yellow package with an egg on the front that’s actually sesame flavored, and while there’s no actual egg in the ramen, you can always get a hard-boiled egg from the refrigerator and plop it in. It’s almost expected that you will make and enjoy your cardboard bowl of noodles in the store, sitting at one of the plastic chairs out front or stools at the window.
Don’t worry if you show up hungover—That’s kind of the best move, because there’s nothing quite like a greasy bowl of instant ramen to sop up all the leftover soju in your belly. There are also several brands of Korean one-shot hangover cures readily available for those who need to quickly shape up for work after a night out. These drinks that come in shot-size bottles are heavily caffeinated but still taut “natural,” hangover-fighting ingredients like milk thistle and raisin tea extract to help you pull yourself together and seize the day.
Go ahead and gorge yourself on kalbi and kimchi and karaoke at night, but in the morning, when Seoul is quietly recovering from its own hangover, creep on over to your nearest 7-Eleven, make yourself a low-key breakfast feast, and enjoy it on the sidewalk. I promise will be the most satisfying breakfast you’ll eat in Korea.