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[By the Highway] Taste local specialties at Osu, Chungju rest stops

Aug. 5, 2023 - 16:00 By Lee Si-jin

As food-based tours have become a popular trend in South Korea, pushing historical sites and beautiful tourist attractions down in the list of vacationers' priorities, well-known restaurants and unique cafes garner unprecedented attention from holidaymakers.

Though highway rest stops were considered a place to quench one's thirst and relieve hunger with instant food and snacks, some roadside establishments -- which promote their local specialties with unique culinary offerings -- are luring epicureans, and has even led to the coining of the term “hyugeso tour,” meaning “rest stop tour.”

Imsil cheese cheolpan bibimbap served at Osu Service Area (Lee Si-jin/The Korea Herald)

Osu Service Area

The Imsil cheese cheolpan bibimbap, or Imsil cheese pan-fried bibimbap, may arguably be one of the most colorful cuisine in South Korea’s expressway food plazas.

The dish adds a new flavor to the time-honored dish by adding melted cheese to the classic bibimbap, made with an array of vegetables, beef and gochujang -- a red pepper paste commonly used as bibimbap sauce.

The Osu rest stop’s bibimbap is served with cheese from nearby Imsil, the namesake birthplace and production center for the famed Korean cheese for over 50 years.

“You can eat ramyeon, udon noodles or sundubu jjigae -- a stew made with smooth tofu, or sundubu -- at almost every service area in Korea. That’s the reason why I choose the Imsil cheese cheolpan bibimbap whenever I make my stop at the Osu rest stop. It’s special and, of course, delicious,” a 53-year-old truck driver surnamed Kim told The Korea Herald on July 27.

“If you want to enjoy the clean taste of mushrooms and bean sprouts, I recommend you not add the gochujang sauce,” he added.

Topped with sliced carrots, bean sprouts, mushrooms, shredded egg crepe, textured soybean meat, lettuce and white radish salad, the Imsil cheese bibimbap ends with nurungji, the fragrant crispy rice left at the bottom of the pan.

Osu Service Area lies on the Suncheon-Wanju Expressway bound for Gwangyang in Imsil, North Jeolla Province.

Apple pork cutlet at Chungju Service Area (Lee Si-jin/The Korea Herald)

Chungju Service Area

Another popular destination for eateries on the highway is the Chungju Service Area on the Jungbu Naeryuk Expressway bound for Changwon in Chungju, North Chungcheong Province.

Deep-fried pork cutlet is everyone's favorite, with its crunchy breaded exterior and tender and juicy meat inside, topped with the iconic brown-colored sweet sauce.

At the Chungju rest stop, the sauce's flavor is brought up a notch with Chungju apple, for which the city is well known.

The apple pork cutlet is served with a scoop of rice, sliced cabbage with salad dressing, pickle, kimchi and a bowl of cream soup.

Insam Land Service Area

Pay a visit to to Insam Land Service Area on the Tongyeong-Daejeong Expressway bound for Tongyeong in Geumsan, South Chungcheong Province if you want to try unique ginseng-themed desserts. Geumsan is the country's ginseng retail center.

On the entrance floor, the snack stalls offer fried ginseng snacks and ginseng milk.

Ginseng milk (left) and hodu gwaja (Korean walnut cake) at Insam Land Service Area (Lee Si-jin/The Korea Herald)

“Fried ginseng snacks might seem surprising. But, the best item to pair with the ginseng milk is hodu gwaja (Korean walnut cake). The sweetness of sweet red bean inside the hodu gwaja masks the bitter taste of the ginseng milk,” Park Ha-young, a mother of two daughters, told The Korea Herald at Insam Land Service Area on July 27.

South Korea’s 4,866-kilometer highway system boasts 206 rest areas. This article is the second in a series introducing notable rest stops, guiding travelers to unique experiences during summertime road trips in South Korea. -- Ed.