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Itaewon is known for many things including its infamous weekend nighttime revelry but it also attracts foodies at all hours who are attracted by the variety of international offerings. Ironically however, if you do a search on Itaewon restaurants, today's featured restaurant consistently lists in numerous results. And of all the wide variety of international cuisine and dishes found in this area, it is the humble dumpling that is famed here. Lines are common at all three (yes, three) branches of Johnny Dumpling- all in the Itaewon proper area and within a .5km radius- but picture the surprised looks of visitors to the 'Twon when they see that people are lining up for dumplings of all food. Some may scoff that Johnny Dumpling is another restaurant that gained a "lemmings" type of following from the locals (and, granted, most of the diners there are Koreans) but that still can't explain away the fact that the restaurant has been in Itaewon now (and absolutely thriving still) for more than 10 years.




The original store, located in the side street just south and parallel to the main Itaewon street, first opened in 2007 and, aside from the prices, nothing has changed about it. It still is the tiny store that can seat about 10-15 with its simple wooden interior and small kitchen. As Itaewon is known for the range of dining establishments started up by Seoul's various expats, the simple dumpling is probably the last thing you would think would succeed so well but succeed Johnny Dumpling has and to the point that it opened a second store near the Hamilton Hotel and a third merely 50 or so meters away from the original branch in Bogwangdong. Lines are a foregone conclusion for peak lunch and dinner times but even at off times you may encounter a queue although turnaround times aren't as long as a traditional restaurant.

The dumpling variety here are the northern Chinese-based ones which many hold to be less aesthetically pleasing as their delicate and thin counterparts from the south. But while the variety here may not be the looks of the mandu family, they have the robust hearty flavors that must be doing something right to still draw the lines after more than a decade in business. Of the six menu items available, five have mandu in them (it is a dumpling restaurant after all).

Steamed shrimp and meat wonton (8K for 13), half fried shrimp and meat wonton (8K for 10), wonton  soup made from mussel base (8K), eggs and chives steamed wonton (8K for 10), eggs and chives fried wonton (8K for 10), mapa dubu (8K). 
Tsingtao is 7K for the larger 640ml and 6K for the 330 ml (which... economically only makes sense to get the larger bottle...) while Cass is 5K a bottle, soft drinks 2K. 

They also sell bags of their wonton frozen for 13K with the option being 26 of the shrimp wonton for steaming or 20 for the fried variety. 

Very simple sides of only danmuji (pickled radish) and the zha cai (pickled greens) with soy sauce at the table for dipping.



The steamed shrimp and meat dumplings.


The visually more attractive fried cousin. This one is the "signature" mandu of the restaurant which comes with the dumplings steamed and then fried on one side with a bit or cornstarch drizzle for the pretty (and tasty) "branches".


The shrimp and meat filling isn't the delicate kind but more a flavor wallop with the juicy filling, plump meat just a well-matched balance of protein from the land and sea. The thicker consistency of the wraps works as another equalizer to the hearty filling. Though the filling is the same with the half fried kind, the expert cooking of both sides adds a delightful new dimension to the overall dish much like the toasting of certain sandwiches would add depth to it. With equal bits of crunch and chew, it's no wonder this mandu is the most popular variety.




The mapa dubu is a big ol' plate of rice and simply savory/spicy mapa tofu.The sauce and tofu quantity is generous and should easily satiate most appetites. The flavors are nice although I feel it's much subdued not only in the spicy level but the variety of spices for perhaps the mostly Korean clientele. I'd had better and I've had worse.


For comparison with the shrimp and meat kind, we got an order of the fried eggs and chives wonton which also comes similarly looking as the fried shrimp and meat kind albeit fried more in pairs and trios.


The fantastic match between eggs and chives is found in many cuisines, including Western ones, so their meeting in this dumpling form is not unusual. I am a big fan of chives in general but in this case its overabundance drowns out the subtle flavors of the eggs making it taste, essentially, like a chives dumpling. The texture and wrap thickness here is the same as the shrimp and meat variety but the overall combination of the latter just couldn't be beat.

Final thoughts: 

FT:
The variety of dumplings at Johnny Dumpling are certainly on the expensive end of the mandu scale though, particularly as their star shrimp and meat fried dumpling shows, the restaurant knows a thing or two about mandu making. Though certainly lacking the delicate poise and grace of hign-end mandu such as Jaha Sohn Mandu, the flavors and textures are much direct making Johnny Dumpling a great spot for either an (expensive) snack or a (cheaper) meal for the Itaewon area. 

Address: 
서울특별시 용산구 보광로59길 5
5, Bogwang-ro 59-gil, Yongsan-gu, Seoul



From exit 4 of Itaewon station, immediately turn around and hug the corner to walk down the main Bogwang-ro for 20 meters and turn right at the first street (Bogwang 59-gil). Johnny Dumpling is the 3rd or so store. 

Note that B and C on the above maps are the second and third branches of Johnny Dumpling 

Hours:
11:30AM-9:30PM everyday. 
They close on not only every national holiday but the day before it as well.

Telephone: 
02-790-8830

Website:
N/A

Parking: 
N/A

Alcohol: 
Beer and some Chinese liquor available

Tip: 
Check out the second or third location if the first has too many people in line. 
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Most may equate spring seaon with cherry blossoms and other fauna but for Korean food lovers, spring is the season for a lot of food things in their peak including jjukumi. I've seen these guys translated as everything from webfoot octopus to short arm octopus but these little guys are said to increase stamina (though I feel that's said about most everything in season around here) and are at their best around this time.

Though you can find jjukumi restaurants around, Chungmuro Jjukkumi Bulgogi stands out for many reasons not only because of its history and the great lengths gone to prepare the jjukumi here but because when that spicy, homemade sauce and tender jjukumi meets the charcoal flame grill, barbecue magic happens. Count numerous stars, celebrities, life-long diners, and even the Michelin Guide as fans of this spot.


In Chungmuro, just a stop away from Myeongdong, Chungmuro Jjukkumi Bulgogi is found in a side alley off the main road. Having first started operations in 1976, the restaurant now has 43 years under its belt where the same family has been running this spot. Step inside the restaurant and you'll find a boisterous scene not unlike a popular Korean barbecue joint but here you'll find there's no meat that's being grilled at every table but the ruby red colored marinated jjukumi.



Menu options break down to essentially jjukumi at 28K for 2 people, razor clams at 19K, or a mixture of both jjukumi and razor clams at 29K for 2 with all options coming marinated in the restaurant's signature spicy sauce. The only other menu option is a vegetable fried rice that's meant to be cooked in the leftover barbecue and sauce and served as a meal finisher (6K per serving). Essentially coming out to be about 14-15K per serving, this is on par with most samgyeobsal restaurant prices today and all barbecue orders come with lettuce, ssamjang, and sides.


Like a Korean meat barbecue restaurant the process after ordering is largely the same: sides are brought out, a huge metal drum with glowing hot coals is set into the center of the table, grill set up atop and then the plate of goods- in this case the jjukumi- is brought out for self-grilling.

The mixture of the razor clams (shelled) and jjukumi comes on one plate and in the same fiery-red color, distinguishable only by shape. Plump and totally seasoned inside and out with the marinade, these guys are good to go as soon as the grill is hot.




Unlike most meat, these guys don't take long to cook and the sauce seasoning means that they require a lot more tossing and turning on the grill but after a few minutes the guys develop a bit of char while locking in the moisture and then it's good to go.

Despite how red the seasoning is, the spicy level is not extreme and more than any spicy heat, there's an interesting variety of flavors that comes from the house-made gochujang, garlic, and other natural ingredients (I want to say some kind of fruit-based ingredient?). In fact, it's the perfectly developed balance of flavors and scents that comes together, and sealed with a nice smokiness from the grill, that sets this place apart from any other jjukumi restaurant I've been to.


As mentioned, there are numerous jjukumi restaurants around but most are chain restaurants where the jjukumi arrives to the restaurants prepackaged and cased in factory-made seasoning pumped full of additives and chemically enhanced flavorings. Unlike the one-dimensional, chemically spicy flavors of these restaurants, the variety here is far more delicate and complex and something you know comes from years of experience and self-taught secrets- a hint of fruity sweetness, a bit of garlicky spiciness and just overall goodness.

Also needing to be mentioned is the lovely texture of the jjukumi. Just enough chew without being rubber-chewy and yet tender without losing its form, it's another testimony to the trade secrets of this restaurant. I've read that one vital ingredient in the jjukumi's preparation that the owner revealed in the past is makgeolli, or rice wine. He credits makgeolli as not only helping tenderize the jjukumi to give it the texture but also eliminating fishy scents while also giving it a bit of a mildly sweet and fizz to it when combined with the secret marinade. The owner said the use of makgeolli is a family know-how that he learned from his own mother, hailing from Suncheon, who used to dunk skate fish (of the infamous fermented skate fish variety, a staple of the Jeolla Provincial region) in the alcoholic beverage to do the same. Whatever other secret besides makgeolli and the house made gochujang goes into the process and marinade I'm not sure but what comes out is a truly unique take that's lovely made into wraps on the table or just fine on their own. Washed down with a bit of soju, this is a quintessential Seoul experience that's perfect for any pescatarian friends.


I wasn't a fan of everything though as the razor clams, as fine as the marinade is, takes on a tough and chewy texture on the grill. I'm not sure if it's because they need to be cooked even less than the jjukumi but as the combination order comes with both, it's not easy to cook them separately either. I would say skip the clams altogether and just go for the jjukumi.

Many long-time fans of this restaurant will tell you the fried rice is not to be missed. As the dishes are cooked in open grills the rice isn't cooked at the table but place your order on how many servings you'd like and they'll whisk away the leftover plate and cook it up in the kitchen and serve the fried rice steaming hot to you with just a bit of roasted seaweed strips and sesame seeds sprinkled atop. The fried rice doesn't take on that eye-swooning golden crust and fatty goodness soaked-in-every-rice-kernel that comes from a pan fried rice but as it's cooked in that secret sauce and with some crunchy kimchi and vegetables added to the mix, you'll likely find the spoon in your hand reaching for it again and again.


The fried rice also comes with some extra sides and a lovely, earthy dwenjang jjigae which you can tell is not from a mass-produced dwenjang.



Final thoughts: 
There are jjukumi restaurants and then there are one-of-a-kind jjukumi restaurants where they know their stuff. The jjukumi is prepared expertly, the secret seasoning is subtle yet complex, and the humble yet intimate setting makes this a not-so-hidden secret you'll want to revisit. I can't think of another jjukumi restaurant like it both in taste and atmosphere.

Address: 
서울 중구 퇴계로31길 11
11, Toegye-ro 31-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul


From exit 5 of Chungmuro Station walk about 30m or so until you get to Toegye-ro 31-gil and turn right. Walk up the street about 25m and the restaurant is on your left.

Note that B and C on the above maps are the second and third branches of Johnny Dumpling 

Hours:
평일 12:00 - 22:00토요일 12:00 - 21:30 일요일 휴무
12PM to 11PM weekdays
12PM to 9:30PM on Saturdays 
Closed on Sundays

Telephone: 
02-2279-0803

Website:

Parking: 
N/A

Alcohol: 
Beer, soju available. 

Tip: 
At lunch time you can get the fried rice and dwenjang jjigae (and sides) for a mere 6K. It's popular with the office workers around though.
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Just on the outside perimeter of the extremely popular Ikseondong neighborhood, this unassuming udon house is easy to overlook but step inside and you might find yourself wondering if you've entered a small neighborhood noodle shop in the countryside. For some, this place will seem familiar as it's the new form of the original that once was a local favorite in Buamdong. Back then, the restaurant itself was really cozy in just a 4.5 pyeong size (hence the name) but thankfully it has grown a bit bigger since then in its Ikseondong iteration.

Besides the restaurant's size many will say the food has even upgraded which is positive news for the owner who is well known for making just about everything in-house.




Seats are limited to about 20 with the tables clustered around the open kitchen. One of the merits of this place is that they make not only their stock but even their noodles in house.




You can even catch them pulling out the noodles if you're lucky.


For an udon house, the menu is quite varied. In the hot udon varieties you have the yubu udong at 4.5K, spicy and garlic are both 5K each, oden udon 6.5K, and *beef) curry udon at 7.5K.
In the cold variety you can get the beef chashu udon at 7.5K or the spicy version for the same price. The cold or zaru udon are both 6K each (the cold udon is only offered in the summer). Also offered only in the summer is the momil (buckwheat noodles) served separately from the dipping sauce or the naeng momil which it comes already in the bowl of cold soup for 6.5K each. 
Then there's the regular beef chashu over rice or the spicy variety at 7.5K each. 




In the rice department you have the curry rice at 7.5K, the sake don (salmon over rice) for 8.5K though this is offered at 7.5K at lunch time with the option of adding salmon slices at 1K for 2 slices.



Sides include the yubu chobap at 1.5K, a soy sauce braised egg at 1K, chives steamed dumplings at 8K a plate or half a plate for 5K. 

If you're overwhelmed by the choices, you can get a set offering of which there are two: one is the beef curry rice and a small udon for 8K or the yubu udon and small curry for 7K, though these two sets are both offered only at lunch time. 


There's also another menu that's more side dishes to go with drinks.

They offer salmon belly sashimi at 17K for a small, 28K for a medium with the small, they say, a 1~ 1.5 person serving. Then there's the manila clams steamed in alcohol at 12K (only in the winter), braised egg and peppers at 5K, and beef chashu and green onion at 18K.

Alcohol offerings are quite a variety including 3.5K for a draft beer, 4.5K for a shot of sake, and then bottled sake and hwayo for various prices up to 65K.

As you can see, the prices are extremely reasonable and especially when taking into account that the restaurant is in the mad hot Ikseondong area (albeit on its edges). As if the prices weren't friendly enough, during lunch hours they'll upgrade any udon dish to a large for no charge! As you can imagine, the prices and deals makes it a very popular spot. 




Sides are a simple danmuji (pickled radish) and some kkakduki with refills being self-serve. 

What strikes you at first about the food is how simple yet clearly homemade the dishes are. There's nothing fancy about the dishes which usually comes topped with some simple garnish but you can tell they aren't dishes that are thrown out haphazardly. In fact, they even tell you when ordering that a few minutes should be expected to make each dish. 

The cold udon has the plump, house-made noodles in the center of an icy, with partial slush, stock and dressed with some chopped scallion, grated radish, and chopped cooked kelp. Some liquid mustard is provided on the side for some fire. Mix it all in and the first sip of that icy stock is just a burst of flavors. The rich stock, made from bonito and other goodness, is part savory and sweet and umami goodness that clings to your taste buds. The grated radish and some of the added mustard adds another layer to the tower of flavors that seems like it'll all be too much but works. It holds strong against the thicker, plump noodles which has a sublime chewy texture. These are noodles that are clearly not store-bought and the fact they retain their bite to the last drop of soup shows what consideration and expertise has gone into this dish. 





The case is the same with the hot udon which pairs the rich stock and the thick noodles in what can only be described as comfort in a bowl. As the stock is made in-house it's a definitively richer taste than any udon served as the kimbap chain restaurants which may be off-putting for picky kids (or adults). But what's clear is that from flavor to texture, no corners are being cut here. 



Comforting too are the sides such as the thumb-sized dumplings which are filled with chives and other goodness and the yubu chobap which are stuffed with seasoned rice and diced kelp. The flavors are subdued and mild yet homely and they make you think of the sort of after school snacks that your mom would prepare for you. They're both great as an accompaniment to the meals here but just as friendly for youngsters to enjoy.





The curry here is also a house favorite for many. You can choose to get it over rice or udon noodles but either way you'll get a nice pool of the Japanese-style thick curry with chunks of beef, carrots, and other vegetables over your choice of carbs. This sort of curry is exactly the kind my mum would make for us growing up (and which I still sometimes make) so the dish, especially in that cozy, snug setting really adds a peppering of nostalgia to the mix for me. 



The dishes overall here are on the mild side which works for most of the food offered here. The only dish I don't see the execution coming quite together is the beef chashu udon. The beef is rather flavorless and I can see they are trying to marry the beefy notes with the fresh chopped scallions but doesn't quite come through leaving udon noodles that are coated in a bland, beef oil coating and a ton of raw chopped scallions. We had to ask for extra chashu sauce but even that didn't quite bring all the ingredients together. 



Still, it's hard to think of many places nowadays that offers such homemade dishes at this price range so yes, I don't know how they are able to make a profit at these prices and in the neighborhood it's in, but if there's a working model, this is exactly the kind of restaurant that should be emulated.

Final thoughts: 
4.5 Pyeong Udon Jib isn't completely authentically Japanese nor is it the very best of its kind but it doesn't have to be because it simply offers high quality comfort food made with care and thought but at an unbelievable value. It has a rustic charm, as though one has stumbled into a well-kept secret restaurant and yet the atmosphere and the demeanor of the workers makes one feel at ease as soon as one walks in. Come to have not only hungry belly comforted but your soul as well. 

Address: 
서울특별시 종로구 삼일대로30길 46
46, Samildae-ro 30-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul



From exit 4 of Jongno 3-ga Station turn around and head towards the big four way intersection and turn left onto Donhwamun-ro and walk north about 200 meters. Turn left onto Samildae-ro 30-gil and walk about 60m. You'll see the restaurant on your left.

Hours:
11:30AM-9PM everyday with break time between 3:30~4:30PM on weekdays. 
11:30-8:30PM on Saturdays with no break time
11:30AM-9PM on Sundays


Telephone: 
02-745-5051

Website:
N/A

Parking: 
N/A

Alcohol: 
Draft beer, hwayo, sake available

Tip: 
As mentioned, upgrade to a large size for noodles is free during lunch.
Another branch has popped up in eastern Seoul in Songpa-gu.
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A number of "food alleys" are found in and near Jongno District but over in Jongno 3-ga, just by Jongmyo Shrine, there also used to be a dakbokkeumtang alley. This alley is no more, unfortunately, but one restaurant has remained in business to this day with a 50+ year history to it.

Gyerim dishes out the fan-favorite dakbokkeumtang dish except their take on the dish is quite a different take than the common fare. Here the dish is more savory than sweet, more soup than a braised dish, and it comes with a mountain of fresh minced garlic that goes atop before the whole dish is cooked on your table. This is dakbokkeumtang like you've never had before.


As well-known as Gyerim is, it's almost like a mythical place with its hidden location deep within a side street just off the bustling main Jongno road. The narrow alley is surrounded on all sides by towering rows of older buildings which makes it a dark street, even in day time. But once in the alley Gyerim is relatively easy to find not only because of its shiny sign but because of the almost inevitable line of people that will be waiting outside.




From the outside, the restaurant doesn't look very big but once inside you'll see it stretches quite wide (I think either to or almost to the main Jongno road) which, when considering the lines outside, shows just how incredibly popular Gyerim is. But then again, Gyerim regularly makes the various "top dakbokkeumtang" lists for Seoul.


The only thing on the menu here is dakbokkeumtang which is available in small, medium, and large size for 22K, 33K, and 44K. Only extra add-on available is rice cakes which is 2K per order. You can order kalguksu or fried rice for after your meal (2K each) but unlike other restaurants, Gyerim has a rule that you can only order one or the other. I initially was thinking that it was an odd rule but considering how packed and busy it is, you can understand the restaurant wants to get people in and out as quickly as possible for both the restaurant and diners' sakes.

Unseasoned, blanched soybean sprouts, kkakdugi, and individual portions of a special house sauce are the only offerings here besides the dakbokkeumtang.


A few minutes later, in a big, beat up, tin pot will come the dakbokkeumtang which you can see, even before tasting, is quite unusual compared to the standard way the dish is served. First you'll notice there's an enormous, adult fist-sized mount of freshly minced garlic. While minced garlic is a standard ingredient in dakbokkeumtang the extremely generous amount here is sure to widen the eyes of any first time visitor.

You'll also notice that the dakbokkeumtang here is quite soupy. Typically, dakbokkeumtang has less broth but here almost all the ingredients are submerged by the red soup. In my research about this restaurant, I learned that this alley was once home to a dakbokkeumtang alley that was thriving even up to the 80s thanks to the filling portions yet cheap prices but started to lose their popularity. In 1992, the current owner took over the restaurant which continued to struggle. The dakbokkeumtang here, even before the change in ownership, was known for the generous portion of minced garlic but the owner decided to up the amount event further which has since become the restaurant's trademark.


Thankfully the copious mountain of garlic is not meant to be eaten raw  but the dakbokkeumtang, which is already pre-cooked, is cooked a second time at your table.





While cooking, the flour-based rice cakes inside can be eaten almost immediately while the potatoes and chicken requires a few more minutes.


Green onion, potatoes, chicken... these are all the standard throw-ins of a dakbokkeumtang but you can see the broth is quite thin. The broth, despite how red it looks, isn't so spicy or sweet and has a sort of dakgomtang-kind of element to it. As it continues to cook at our table, the broth and ingredients soaks up the garlicky flavors while the sharper notes are neutralized by the cooking as the soup slightly thickens. I myself was initially worried that it would be garlic overkill but instead the flavors are deep and full. The minced garlic is never pre-ground (minced garlic slightly ferments as time passes giving it a sharper flavor) and is freshly ground for every order. Apparently they go through over 10kg of garlic on a daily basis.







The chicken itself is very tender and moist, easily shredding with your chopsticks. You can enjoy the chicken on its own but here they also offer a unique, house-made dipping sauce. It's clearly soy sauce-based but there are some other ingredients in there as well that gives it a hint of other sweet and tart flavors. This offering of sauce, as small and simple as it is, will come in handy when you have a group with folks whose personal preferences ranges from liking underseasoned dishes to heavily seasoned. 

The abundance of the garlic in the chicken soup is also what makes the add-on offering of kalguksu (noodles) rather unique for dakbokkeumtang here. Usually there isn’t enough liquid to cook any noodles at the end which is why most restaurants offer the choice of bokkeumbap (fried rice). Here, you can also have fried rice but you can alternatively choose the noodles instead which then becomes a hearty way to close off the meal. As the noodles cook up it further thickens the soup while the flavors of the soup clings to the noodles. And with the base being chicken soup with the benefit of garlic, think of this like a Korean take on the classic chicken noodle soup :)

Final Thoughts:
Those familiar and expecting the sweet, spicy, “braised”-like flavors and consistency of today’s dakbokkeumtang will find Gyerim’s take a complete curveball. Though a little difficult to describe, it’s somewhere between a regular dakbokkeumtang and the soup dish of dakgomtang. Nevertheless its makeup, including the signature mound of minced garlic, makes it a decidedly Korean dish making it both a familiar and unfamiliar meal for even the most versed in Korean cuisine. 

Address: 
서울 종로구 돈화문로4길 39
39, Donhwamun-ro 4-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Korea


Head out Jongno 3-ga Station's exit 12 and walk straight for 180 meters until you get to Jongno 26-gil (you should be between Jongmyo Shrine on your left, across the street, and Sewoon Plaza on your right). Walk along Jongno 26-gil for about 12meters and you should see a small alley on your right which is Donhwamun-ro 4-gil but may not have signs on it. Walk about 20 meters and you'll see Gyerim on your right.

Telephone: 
02-2263-6658

Hours:
11:30AM-10PM Tues - Sun (closed on Mondays)

Website:
http://gyaerim.cityfood.co.kr/

Parking: 
N/A

Alcohol: 
Regular Korean alcohol varieties available

Tip: 

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Do a simple search for Korean barbecue and you'll receive results on everything from restaurant recommendations to all the ingenious varieties out there. But do the same for Korean grilled fish and the number of results are quite a different story. Just like most Koreans don't normally barbecue meat at home due to the effort and smell, the act of prepping and grilling fish is quite laborious and messy which makes it a common dish to eat out. A post I made long ago on a popular fish grilling restaurant in Sinchon has remained a popular post on this blog, perhaps a sign of how there's a big underground fan base for it, so for those looking to enjoy some fish with all the Korean sides and fixings, Hanil Sikdang is another oldie but goodie restaurant and a welcome addition on the itinerary of any fish loving traveler.

Of course, the most famous grilled fish street of Seoul is in Jongno 5-ga, near Dongdaemun but a few blocks down in Jongno 3-ga there sits two restaurants that also specializes in this same menu. Tucked behind a small alley just off the main Jongno street, Hanil Sikdang is one of them and is immediately recognizable by the enormous grill outside with the sizzling sound of fish being cooked over charcoal.

Operated now for decades by an older owner couple, you'll usually find one of them at the grill cooking up fish for the hungry patrons inside. You'll also see that the grill is stacked with fish that are pre-cooked.  After an order comes in, the pre-cooked fish is cooked once more to completion before being served. What's left are nicely cooked, plump and juicy fish with little to no smell lingering on your clothes.


Like the alley its in, the restaurant shows its a product of a past era. Tables are clustered together on old floors and worn walls. There's another kitchen area inside where the scorched rice, jjigae, and sides are prepped and served. Table seats are also divided into two sections: floor and table sitting.

Your pick of fish rounds down to spanish mackerel, mackerel, mackerel pike, yellow corvina, dried pollack- all some of the most common fish consumed in Korea- and all priced at 9K. If you're in a group you can, and should, mix up the fish orders because... why not?


Now, if you thought 9K was expensive for grilled fish, note that each fish order does not come alone but is joined by an array of seasonal homemade side dishes, dwenjang jjigae (with a minimum 2 person order), and dolsot or scorched rice. Those familiar with Korean cuisine will recognize dolsot rice, probably in the form of dolsot bibimbap. Here the rice comes in these individual metal pots and bowls. Scoop out the rice, leave a layer of the browned rice on the bottom, pour in the water, and cover to enjoy at the end of the meal.


The sides are all quite fresh and tasty. Just when your appetite has been whet by them, the freshly grilled fish should arrive at your table.


All the fish are prepped in advance including the key salting process which ensures the exterior retains a savory edge while helping lock in the moisture of the meat inside during cooking.


On one end of the "oily" spectrum, you'll find the less oil fishes such as the Spanish mackerel and yellow corvina while the other end holds the oilier fishes of the mackerel and mackerel pike. It's hard to find fault with well-salted and well-grilled fish. And they certainly know how to prep and cook fish here.

Combined with the various side dishes and the dwenjang jjigae, this is a home Korean meal minus all the work and dishes.


While the fishes are all the same price, the more expensive fishes like the yellow corvina from Youngdong (which is famed for this fish) comes in a  baby version so there's not much to eat. The much better value are the bigger fishes such as the mackerel and Spanish mackerel.


The hwangtae gui is the only variety offered that comes seasoned in a spicy sweet sauce. The texture of the dried fish that's plumped and cooked again is unique among the other fishes and I recommend it just for an alternative from the other grilled fish. It's also one that pairs lovingly with some beer, or soju... or both... :)


As a pro tip, don't consume all the fish but leave a bit at the end of your meal for the scorched rice which has, after sitting in its tea bath, turned into a lovely neureungji. Take a spoonful of the slightly nutty neureungji, the mellow and warm "soup", and add a piece of the salty, grilled fish atop and the flavor combination is heaven.



Final Thoughts:
A real Korean home cooked meal, complete with sides, soup, freshly cooked rice, and the expertly grilled fish, this is an accurate look at what a standard Korean dinner looks like rather than the everything-doused-in-artificial-spicy-sauce-and-bloated-with-cheese dishes that are so common and what visitors might mistaken as standard Korean cuisine nowadays. The restaurant isn't fancy by any means (the outside restroom is... interesting), but you'll get proper Korean home food at this restaurant with soul.

Address: 
서울특별시 종로구 수표로20길 16-17
16-17, Supyo-ro 20-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Korea



From exit 15 of Jongno-3ga Station immediately you'll see a small alley on your left (Jongno 18-gil). Turn left into it and walk about 12m and you'll see the restaurant on your right. 

Telephone: 
02-2279-7343

Hours:
7AM-10PM everyday

Website:
N/A

Parking: 
N/A

Alcohol: 
Regular Korean alcohol varieties available

Tip: 
Closed on the second and fourth Sundays of every month.

The shared restroom is outside and not the cleanest so make use of a restroom before (such as in the Jongno 3-ga subway station).
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My friends know that I'm not crazy big on gamjatang, a dish that's misleading because the star of the dish is not "gamja" (aka potatoes which is just about my favorite food in the world) as the name would suggest but the pork spine (which is just about my least favorite food in the world).

I've just never been a fan of strong pork scent in general but having to go through the laborious effort of digging through the nooks and crevices of the pork spine for specks of meat has always made me wonder if it's worth the effort. Which is why I'm genuinely surprised at how much I enjoyed today's featured restaurant- Wonjo Gamjatang Ilmijib. As further testimony to my enjoyment of this place, let the record show that this is the first gamjatang restaurant I've ever written about in the entire history of this blog.


Wonjo Gamjatang Ilmijib has been in business now for some 50 years showing its not a restaurant that's all fancy bells and whistles. Located in the up and coming (in popularity and recognition) neighborhood of Huamdong, the restaurant's main clients have, until recently been locals- nearby Sookmyung Womens University students, as well as members of the nearby Yongsan American military base. The growing popularity of the Huamdong neighborhood as well as the restaurant's appearance in a couple of television shows in recent years only helped bump up its popularity and winning over a slew of new fans.

The restaurant is right on a major four way intersection with a big old sign so you can't miss it. The two-story restaurant shows its age but for an older restaurant it's kept very tidy and neat. Each table comes with two small jars, one containing kkakdugi (cubed radish kimchi) and the other containing yeolmu kimchi (young radish leaves kimchi). Both are house made and meant to be scooped into the serving bowls for your meal.


Gamjatang is the only main offering here which comes in small, medium, and large for 15K, 20K, and 25K respectively. These prices are quite cheap compared to the average gamjatang restaurant with the serving sizes for roughly 2, 3, and 4 people respectively. The friendly prices are a nice gesture enough but what's very unique about Wonjo Gamjatang Ilmijib is that they actually offer a gamjatang baekban that's meant for solo diners and at a mere 7K- definitely not easy to find individual gamjatang servings. Add-on's for the gamjatang are available with ramen for 1K, a bowl of rice for 2K, and fried rice (for the end of the meal) also 2K. Soft drinks are 2K a bottle while alcohol selections are chungha, samsanju, soju, makgeolli, and beer which range from 3-5K a bottle.


A house brewed tea is the standard drink offered here and, besides the two varieties of kimchi at every table, the only other dish offered with your meal is a plate of chili peppers and sliced raw garlic. Every table is equipped with a gas burner in the center which is where your pre-cooked gamjatang will come out to cook once more.


The gamjatang comes out like this with the pork bones in the center and accompanied by a few peeled potatoes looking as smooth as a baby's bum.



Give it a few minutes to heat back up at your table and a mellow, underlining scent will start to emanate. But unlike regular gamjatang, the scent is more meaty and without the sharper undertones that gamjatang's usual heavy seasoning releases. Take a peek into the soup between the potatoes and pork bones and you'll see the soup is a mildly red hue and relatively unmuddled.  Unlike the most common version of the dish, the gamjatang here is absence of not only seasonings like wild perilla seeds but also ingredients like perilla leaves and cabbage leaves (also known as "woogeoji").


The ratio of the potatoes and meat to the soup is also much larger proportionally than the standard gamjatang with the soup submerged in the main ingredients and not the other way around. After a few minutes, take a big bone onto your plate and get digging in.


The first thing you'll notice about the pork and bones here is just how fall-apart tender it is. The meat shreds beautifully just by prodding and gently pulling with your chopsticks. One of my pet peeves about gamjatang is how dry the meat tends to be and with a heavy scent. It's a big reason why a separate dipping sauce is usually provided. Here the soft meat is plenty moist and with just enough of its own flavor that it doesn't need any sauce. It almost has a pulled pork-like texture and a natural earthy scent that all ages can enjoy.



The potato, I've heard, is also an atypical variety that's much more dense with a lovely mellow hue in flavor. It's lovely to enjoy after it soaks up a bit of the soup or you can even mash it up into your bowl of soup for a chunkier and creamier variety.



The soup is also flavorful and packs an umami-punch but without the peppery, garlicky, and sharp flavors you'd normally expect. It has just a tinge of spice to it but it remains the mildest (in terms of spiciness) gamjatang I've had but with enough rich meaty flavors to make an excellent base for a variety of soups and stews.

Which is why we had to get the ramen noodles. With that pork bone rich broth, adding ramen noodles combines the elements of a tonkatsu ramen, Korean spicy ramen, and gamjatang to make this easily a dish that would be popular in its own right.


As if that wasn't enough, we decided to get the fried rice which is essentially just rice, sesame oil, and seaweed cooked in the soup. But considering how clean the soup is, this is a pure, lip-smacking, umami-rich fried rice at its most basic. No kimchi, cheese, capsaicin found here but just a simple yet flavorful fried rice at its most basic.



Final Thoughts:
Forget what you thought you knew about gamjatang and come here to try it at its most basic, fundamental level. Stripped of traditional gamjatang ingredients such as red pepper flakes and wild perilla seed-rich, they still manage to make a deep and flavorful gamjatang that is also a master class in how they get the pork bones to be so tender and moist. It breaks the mold of the typical gamjatang dish but with a 50+ year pedigree, it just may be a defining progenitor of this hearty and common dish. 

Address: 
서울특별시 용산구 후암로 1-1
1-1, Huam-ro, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, Korea


Come out of exit 2 of Sookmyeong Womens' University Station and walk along Duteombawi-ro for about 500 before arriving at the Yongsan High School 4-way intersection. The restaurant should be on your left sitting right on the corner of the intersection. 

Telephone: 
02-776-0670

Hours:
11AM-10PM 

Website:
N/A

Parking: 
N/A

Alcohol: 
Regular Korean alcohol varieties available

Tip: 
At lunch time they have a gamjatang baekban which is a smaller, individual gamjatang and all the fixings meal that they dish out for only 7K
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It's very uncommon for me to cover a restaurant here outside of Seoul unless it's in a travel post but I decided to share this place as it's a popular restaurant located just by Gimpo International Airport (which quite a few readers I'm sure may utilize during their travels in Korea) and also the fact that its kalguksu is a bit different from others.

Gonghang Kalguksu makes no attempt to be modest about its popularity as its walls are absolutely covered in hundreds of autographs and pictures of various celebrities who have dined here. In fact, it was the numerous mentions about this restaurant's popularity with Korea's various famous individuals (from K-Pop idols to politicians) that piqued my curiosity. After all, just how atypical could a bowl of kalguksu (knife cut noodles) be?




As the name of Gonghang Kalgusku (apparently "Gonghang Noodle Soup" is its official English name?) implies, this restaurant is located just across the street from Gimpo Airport. "Gonghang" is the Korean word for "airport" so the literal name of the restaurant is "airport knife cut noodle soup" or "airport kalguksu".

As Seoul's secondary international airport, Gimpo International Airport mainly services neighboring Japan and China as well as Korea's major cities. Undoubtedly the restaurant's popularity and notoriety among Korea's celebs is largely due to them looking to catch a simple but good meal before or after one of their trips but the restaurant is also sought after by humble folks like us as reflected in the many cars that are lined up to enter the restaurant's premise in peak hours.

The restaurant itself is interestingly located in the basement of a mid-sized office/residential building and parking, although offered, is a bit of a headache as they utilize one of those car elevators that individually puts in and takes out cars, one by one.


The interior of the restaurant is quite spacious although in a rather odd elongated shape. As the restaurant's name suggests, their kalguksu is most popular but interestingly its not the regular kalguksu (7K) that most order but their mushroom kalguksu (8K) or naejang kalguksu (9), "naejang" meaning beef entrails. In fact they even have a naejang bokkeum on the menu (or stir-fried beef entrails) which one can order in either small or medium (20K and 30K respectively), and a naejangtang or naejang soup for (8K). Kalguksu, for those who aren't familiar with the dish, usually comes in a meat or seafood base but a variety with entrails is certainly new to me. Their other menu items are also rather unexpected for a kalguksu restaurant including sooyook (boiled beef slices) for 20K or 30K in small or medium, and a spicy-sweet mixture of wooreong, (a kind of freshwater snail) for 15K.



Ordered the mushroom kalguksu and the sooyook (small) and the latter arrived first on the table. The pieces of beef come with a scattering of sliced onion and chives which has also been partially cooked. The dish is accompanied by a simple soy sauce-based dipping sauce.


The beef is nice and tender and moist. The last bit of blanching of the onion and chives transfers the subtlest of scents to the beef. The hard part of sooyook is perfecting the exact time and temperature as often a less fattier cut is used, meaning, if it's cooked too long it gets tough and dry. With the dip, it's a great way to kick up your taste buds.



The kalguksu comes in a big ol' pot like this with the noodles buried under a big heaping helping of mushrooms and ssook. They have these high-tech heating pads that boils up your soup at your table without any fire. I still don't understand how the technology works but it's kind of crazy.


Once the soup starts to boil you'll notice that the soup has a reddish hue. Give it a few minutes to boil (basically to get the mushrooms and ssook cooking) and the server will come back around with the plate of noodle pre-cooked to add to the soup mixture. Usually kalguksu is served with the noodles and soup altogether but here they add it in separate steps to ensure the mushrooms, ssook, and noodles don't turn into a coagulated mush.



For those who are familiar with kalguksu, you'll know that it's served already cooked, usually in individual bowls or in a big bowl with a ladle for dishing out for a group. Stew/soup dishes that are cooked at the table are usually reserved for Korean jjigaes or braised dishes which is what makes the table cooking process for the kalguksu here unusual. But try a spoonful of the soup at the beginning of cooking and later after it cooks. The soup takes on a considerably deeper flavor which is the strong point of the kalguksu here.



The soup has a strong beefy flavor to it with a spicy kick that makes one think of the hearty comfort dish of yookgaejang. It's on the same branch of sorts with the, also famous, yook kalguksu except the soup has an earthier and herb-scented tone to it from the mushroom and kalguksu.


A robust soup like this deserves a thicker, more formidable counterpart to it which is what makes the thicker kalguksu noodles a great match. The soup clings beautifully to the thick noodles while the soup thickens from the noodle's starch as it cooks.



At the near end of the meal this now considerably thickened and flavor-filled soup provides all the punch for fried rice. Technically it's more of a porridge but rice, seaweed crumbles, egg, etc are added to the leftover soup base to cook. What results is a plump and tasty cooked rice dish that's comfort carbs for the soul.

Final Thoughts:
A rather unusual take on the common kalguksu dish that combines several elements of other Korean dishes. The beefier, deeper broth here may even makes fans out of those who don't normally like this dish. A great pit stop for anyone traveling through Gimpo Airport!

Address: 
서울특별시 강서구 공항대로 18-1
18-1, Gonghangdae-ro, Gangseo-gu, Seoul, Korea



From exit 4 of Songjeong Station, walk straight for about 150m and you'll see a large office/residential building with Gonghang Kalguksu in the B1 level of the building. 

Telephone: 
02-2664-9748

Hours:
9AM-10PM everyday

Website:
N/A

Parking: 
The building has a parking machine that takes vehicles in and out but only one at a time which means on weekends and peak times you may find yourself waiting for your car for quite a bit of time. 

Alcohol: 
Regular Korean alcohol varieties available

Tip: 
You can always add extra mushrooms and vegetables or extra noodles when you order the kalguksu. 
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When it comes to Korea's coastal cities, arguably the cities around the southwestern coasts have largely taken a secondary role to other parts of Korea, that is, until Yeosu made its global debut with the 2012 Yeosu Expo. Even for Koreans pre-Yeosu Expo, it wasn't as highly sought after as a holiday destination like it is today, mostly remembered by the locals as the first and important naval base for revered national hero Admiral Yi Sun Shin of the Imjin Wars.

In the years following the Expo, recognition and admiration of the largely untouched natural beauty of Yeosu as well as its tasty fare (Namdo cuisine is well known in Korea after all), began to really put the city on the map. The timing of the Expo couldn't have been any better as a, back then, new band called Busker Busker was making a name for itself with its youthful yet folksy music with their popularity really taking an upturn with the now infamous song called "Yeosu Night Sea". The yearning folk-ballad, complete with gorgeous shots of actress Han Ga In in beanches of Yeosu, struck an emotional chord with generations and the song has now become synonymous with the coastal city.

Having lived in Korea since Yeosu's rapid rise in recognition and popularity, it had long been on my list of places I wanted to visit in Korea which finally came to fruit with a trip earlier this year. Despite having been to numerous coastal towns in Korea now, Yeosu proved to have its own distinct color It also, to date, has been one of the more "romantic" cities in Korea I've been to and by that I don't mean so much the lovey-dovey sense but there's something in the atmosphere, the colors, the feel that evokes a sort of Van Gogh-ey kind of artist's soul in one. Here's a look at my all too brief time in Yeosu.


The drive from Seoul took about 4 hours with one or two pit stops along the way. At rest stops along the way I've seen these sort of grilled cheese blocks increasingly being sold around the country in recent years. Akin to haloumi cheese, they maintain their structure and shape during their grilling and are far less savory than most other cheeses. The cheese is also made locally and it's interesting to think that even a decade or so ago, cheese beyond what was found on hamburgers and pizzas were still largely unfamiliar and unpopular with the masses here. But now they're not only making cheese locally but offering it at rest stops in Korea!


A bit of squeak and a bit of savoriness. As a cheese lover I would've loved the more depth but hey, it's a nice little snack albeit a pricier one compared to the other rest area fares offered around.


Departing Seoul in the morning, we arrived in Yeosu just in time for lunch and made our first official stop at Gaedojib for some Seodaehwoe. The seodae fish is a local fish that can only be captured in the wild (ie cannot be raised/farmed) and apparently only comes from the Yeosu region. I've seen it translate as everything from the red tongue sole fish to flat fish and I'm not sure what to tell you except it looks basically something like this:


The fish can be prepared in a number of ways but a popular method here is to have it raw style in a hwoedeopbap kind of way where the slices of raw fish is mixed with rice, vegetables, sesame oil and a spicy sweet seasoning for a flavor and texture pop of a dish.

While a number of restaurants offers this dish in Yeosu, I was enticed by Gaedojib as the reviews were saying that it was an old restaurant and one that had been running in the same family for two generations now. And you know I'm a fan of timeless restaurants :)

Located just by the famous Gyodong Market of Yeosu, this restaurant has all the visible signs of a long-running restaurant with the exception of its newer sign.


The seodae fish is the only thing on the menu and its prepared in one of two ways- braised or mixed into the spicy sweet mixture. Both dish goes for 10K a serving, with extra bowls of rice 1K. Local makgeolli is 3K a bottle while soju and beer go for 4 a bottle. As the various signage shows, they've also been featured on a number of TV programs.


The place is run by this funny halmuni who has a lot of pride in her food and restaurant. As she explained to us. the restaurant was first opened by her mother-in-law who hailed from Gaedo (hence the name). After years of working in the family business, she picked up all the secrets and makes virtually everything herself.


Her home cooking is quite evident from the get-go with cold home brewed barley tea and an array of homemade sides offered. The side dishes included two varieties of the famous gat kimchi of the region with one made the commonly-known spicy way and the other a refreshing "water" kimchi variety. The stir-fried anchovies was surprisingly not fishy and addictive for its savory-sweet flavors while the home pressed sesame oil used in the soybean sprouts elevated it from your everyday sprouts.






As everything is made-to-order and the ajumma serves, cooks, and handles everything in the restaurant operations I was thinking it must take some time on busier days but luckily for me there was only one other team on my visit. The seodaehwoe muchim is brought out on a big plate like below with the nuggets of fish and crunchy vegetables dressed up in red and given a sprinkle of sesame seeds.


Separately, big bowls of rice in metal bowls are served with a splash of that home pressed sesame oil. Already the combination of the nutty scent of the sesame oil and the tart and spicy seasoning is enough to get your mouth watering. To your bowl of rice you mix in fish and make your own seafood bibimbap of sorts.





While one may think the dish is no different than your standard hwoedeopbap (mixed rice with raw fish), there are a number of ways this version is different. First, the seodae fish itself is a lot plumper and fuller; often times in hwoedeopbap the fish is sliced much thinner and in a smaller amount sometimes making one think they're having just rice and vegetables mixed in sauce. Here, you get good sizes of the fish in almost every bite.


What's also unique is the variety of flavors that are far, far more complex than your standard hwoedeopbap. I already mentioned a few times about the home pressed sesame oil which, once it hits the warm rice just gives the whole mixture a lovely velvet-like grounding. But the sauce itself is also unique as their primary ingredients- including the gochujang and the makgeolli vinegar- are made by the halmuni herself. The gochujang is not as sweet nor spicy as it looks but it has a deep earthy peppery tone to it while the makgeolli vinegar cuts through the other flavors but not overwhelmingly. The makgeolli vinegar has an almost fruity tone to it which made me ask her if she uses any fruit to make her jangs (condiments) but she told me there was none. Just good old fashioned makgeolli vinegar that produces its own hint of natural sweetness.

The owner halmuni was a humorous woman throughout the meal. As I was taking picture after picture of the food she gave me a playful slap on my back and told me to stop taking pictures and get eating (oh, the abuse I endure for this blog :P). Later, as she shared with her about all the lengths she went to make her food she proceeded to casually just sit at our table to do so. She also told me my bowl didn't have enough fish and proceeded to take the platter of the remaining fish mixture and scoop it onto my bowl as she explained the ratio was better now. This sort of act of kinship is much more common in the rural parts of Korea and it catches city slickers like me off guard too but what a funny halmuni she was.

After our meal, she proceeded to give us a detailed tour of her kitchen, primarily the various ingredients she handmade such as her makgeolli vinegar.


She organizes them by date so she knows exactly how fermented the vinegar is while the straws at the top of the reused water cooler bottles helps it to "breathe". This know-how and recipe was from her MIL she explained.


This was her homemade gochujang. It's always surprising to me how sweet the mass-produced gochujang are these days but the depth of her homemade gochujang is something else.


Gaedojip (개도집)
5, Namsanbuk 6-gil, Yeosu-si, Jeollanam-do, Republic of Korea
전라남도 여수시 남산북6길 5
061-666-1381


We took a simple walk around the Gyodong Market, right next to restaurant, but most of the stores were closed because it was still early in the day. Still, stalls selling fruit, vegetables, seafood and such were spotted around and prices were quite low.



Gyodong Market (교동시장)
15-10, Gyodongsijang 1-gil, Yeosu-si, Jeollanam-do, Republic of Korea
전라남도 여수시 교동시장1길 15-10

After checking into our Airbnb from the long drive from Seoul, we decided to take it easy and do a simple beach day. Mosageum Beach was said to be rather quiet and private although a bit further out so we decided to make the drive up north to it (around 20 mins?). Once you made your way out of the main Yeosu city section, there was this interesting cave tunnel for vehicles one had to pass through. The tunnel is narrow to the point that it's only big enough for one lane and as such there are traffic lights that gives a few minutes time to either directions to completely pass through the tunnel.




If that sounds claustrophobic, do note there are quite a few shoulders in between one can pull over in case of an emergency and the entire time it takes to pass through is only around 2 minutes?

The Mosageum beach itself is located in a bay and the narrow coastal road leading up to it passes through a small town which I imagine gets quite crowded in the peak summer season.


Because it was still early June, the beach itself was rather empty with plenty of space between groups for laying out on the beach side. The darker sand is fine although there are quite a bit of shells around.

Water is quite clear and clean and temperatures were cold but certainly not on an icy level. There were plenty of people wading in the water (although I didn't see anyone doing any full swims or dives). Waves were gentle enough there were a few small children out and about with their parents in the waters. Great place for a beach day!



Mosageum Beach (모사금해수욕장)
69, Ocheon 3-gil, Yeosu-si, Jeollanam-do, Republic of Korea <-- This is the address of a random pension right next to the beach since the beach address isn't so readily found
전라남도 여수시 오천3길 69
061-690-2437

After freshening up back at the Airbnb, we decided to head out to the main central area which stretches from the Lee Soon Shin Plaza, along the coast, to Geobukseondaegyo or Geobukseon Bridge. This coastal block is a lively one, sandwiched between the harbor and the numerous shops, restaurants, and live musicians performing. Made particularly famous by Busker Busker through, what is now unofficially the theme song of Yeosu, "Yeosu Night Sea", its particularly become a sort of pilgrimage site for young couples and aspiring musicians where the youthful optimism and young love is said to permeate the air.


Interestingly, one of the more famous attractions in this spot is "Nangman Pocha (낭만포차)" or "romantic pojangmacha", which is the name given to the rows of street tents offering quick seafood options paired with a range of cheap alcohol. Now the general romantic image people have which draws so many to these tents is the idea that young friends and lovers can enjoy soju and cheap seafood right next to the beach under the glow of the tent lights and the warm ocean breeze. The reality is that these tents are generally teeming with people, (expect lines at many of the stalls on weekends) making it seem more a live market affair than a romantic setting while the seafood is dished out in a factory-like setting. Note also that prices aren't exactly cheap either.




The most popular option here is the samhab- the area's take on the normally pungent fermented skate, samgyeopsal, and kimchi combo. Here the fermented skate fish, very much an acquired taste, is absent and instead replaced with a medley of seafood including nakji, abalone, pen clams, and joined by vegetables, kimchi, and samgyeobsal. In variety alone this seems like a great deal except the seafood are mostly frozen (honestly, I'm not even sure if the seafood is from Yeosu), the kimchi obviously a mass produced one from some factory (probably in China), and put together and dished out with all the efforts and emotional resonance of a teenage worker at McDonald's (except you are definitely not paying McD prices).

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There's a sense of childhood nostalgia attached to tteokbokki for Koreans that has propelled this humble dish over the last half century to unofficially become the nation's #1 snack food, much in the same way a PB & J sandwich might do the same for Americans. Perhaps because I didn't grow up here I don't share nearly the same level of endearment to tteokbokki as the locals do but occasionally I come across a tteokbokki place that is noteworthy and actually draws me back.

Today's featured tteokbokki restaurant is one of those handfuls I would recommend which is rather odd as it's not at all innovative nor healthy in any way. In fact it's incredibly simple and generous with the MSG but boy does it hit the spot when you're craving that old school bunshik-style tteokbokki. With that irresistible balance of sweet, salty, and spiciness this is, to me, the most representative form of tteokbokki in that after school form from long ago. Did I mention the prices are also primary school level as well?




The Mapo-Gongdeok area is perhaps best known for its numerous barbecue restaurants that have long been around but there's a smattering of tteokbokki restaurants, all within the same vicinity, that have also not only been around but draw mentions from tteokbokki enthusiasts. Kokkiri Bunshik (KB) is one of them and interestingly sits directly next to another famous tteokbokki restaurant called "Mapo Wonjo Tteokbokki" (MWT). With a name that literally means "the first Mapo tteokbokki", its easy to assume the latter is the prima donna of the Mapo region tteokbokki spots but as any longtime resident of the neighborhood will tell you, the original was Kokkiri Bunshik. In fact, KB was the spot that used to draw lines until MWT was featured in the famous chef Baek Jong Won's TV show which, of course, drew the crowds to it for a while.

There's actually a number of Korean blogs that have done a comparison of the two, the conclusion mostly being that A. The two restaurant's tteokbokki style is different and B. If they had to choose, however, Kokkiri Bunshik is better. If you're truly curious, I'm sure you can do your own comparison but the first point is correct in that MWT is a sweeter, spicier tteokbokki where the food is served without cooking at your table while KB is a less sweet tteokbokki that cooks at your table side (this style of cooking at your table is called "즉석" or "jeukseok").



The restaurant is very humble with the dining area able to accommodate maybe 15 or so at most and the smaller, open kitchen directly adjacent to it. The restaurant's sign outside is perhaps the only "newer" aspect of the restaurant which is unabashedly modest in every way. Outfitted at every table is a gas burner and the stoic ajummas will ask what you want even before you're seated.


Tteokbokki is the only thing on the menu and then options to add to it which includes ramen noodles, jjolmyeon noodles, odeng (fish cakes), fried mandu (3 of them but the cheap bunshik kind where its filled with only glass noodles), hard boiled egg (2 of them), and then the option to fry rice at the end. Pretty typical of any bunshik joint but take a look at the jaw-dropping prices: tteokbokki serving for 2 is 2K, the various noodles and fish cakes are 1.5K each, the fried mandu and hard boiled eggs 1K each and fried rice 1.3K, 2.3K, or 3.3K depending on if you want 1, 2, or 3 bowls. To put how unbelievably cheap this is, whether you go alone or with a friend, you could easily enjoy a meal for two at around 6-8K. There's no alcohol served here (it is a bunshik place after all) and I'm not sure if they sell any other soft drink besides the Coolpis which I've seen.

They're very strict on the fact that one must order all their add-ons (except the fried rice at the end) at once in the beginning. So if you decide mid-meal that you want to add some fried mandu to your dish, too bad. There's also a number of other warnings and rules plasted in handwritten signs all over the restaurant telling you that water is self-serve, aprons must be put back after you finish eating, and that (interestingly) if you order hard boiled eggs, you should be careful not to overcook the tteokbokki at your table as the eggs might explode!


I mentioned they take your order basically before you're seated and as soon as you do so, the ajummas in the kitchen get to work adding whatever toppings you ordered into your tteokbokki in a near assembly line fashion and then bringing the whole pan to your table along with a small side of the neon yellow danmuji (pickled radish).



The tteokbokki itself is already pre-cooked but the additional cooking time at your table is meant to bring it together with your various add-ons and it takes only about 5 minutes for everything to be boiling. It's a simple, no-frills tteokbokki with only a sprinkling of red chili flakes at the end. It's also a soupier tteokbokki unlike the thicker sauces that are more commonly found today. The soup is also absent of the cloyingly sweet flavor you'll find in most tteokbokki dishes today. Instead, the initial hint of spiciness hits you followed by a savory and umami-rich taste that reminds one more of a Korean spicy ramen. You'll notice that the soup has bits of cabbage in it which, aside from the chili flakes, are probably the only ingredients even remotely close to a vegetable in the dish. Make no mistake though, this is tteokbokki that's blatantly propped by MSG and which is what makes all the other add-ons such a deliciously addictive treat.


The rice cakes are flour-based which makes it sop up the addictive sauce much better than rice-based rice cakes. I would advise getting the ramen noodles over the jjolmyeon noodles as the soup also tends to cling better to the former. In fact, with the ramen noodles, the overall dish- both in flavor and aesthetics- takes on a more ramen-tteokbokki hybrid which is perhaps what makes the tteokbokki here so beloved. After all, there may be some who don't like tteokbokki but the day I come across anyone who says they don't like the lip-smacking umami flavors of instant ramen will be a momentous day indeed!


KB also knows the flavors and characteristics of their sauce well enough to limit the add-ons to a few they know does pair well together. You won't find things like cheese or perilla leaves which would pair better with the spicy/sweet tteokbokki variety. But ingredients like the crispy friend mandu (which amazingly keeps most of its texture through the cooking) or the egg (try breaking and mixing in some of the hard boiled egg yolk into your plate of soup) come together as though they were meant to be.


Once you're finished with the dish and left with the tteokbokki "soup" in the pan, let the ajummas know how many bowls of rice you want for the fried rice. They'll temporarily take away your pan to the back to mix in the rice which is at its most basic with rice, sesame oil, and crushed and roasted seaweed leaves. Let it cook again at your table burner for a few minutes and you are good to go. You can never go wrong with flavored carbs.

And as you leave, satiated in scratching your tteokbokki itch, marvel at the bill which I'm sure you can do greater damage at even a neighborhood kimbap store and join the chorus of believers in Kokkiri Bunshik.

Final Thoughts:
There's nothing healthy or innovative about Kokkiri Bunshik but much in the same way one can strongly crave a proper slice of pizza, or a moist brownie, or a bowl of spicy instant hot ramen, the tteokbokki at Kokkiri Bunshik is what will fix all your tteokbokki cravings. The only problem is is that by dining here, they get you addicted at the same time.


Address: 
29 Myeongdong 10-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul
서울 마포구 도화2길 3




From exit 3 of Gongdeok Station, turn around and you'll immediately see the Dohwa-gil road splitting off from the main Mapodae-ro. Follow along the Dohwa-gil for about 200m until you get to Dohwa 2-gil and turn right. You'll see Kokkiri Bunshik on your left almost immediately.

Telephone: 
02-717-9061

Hours:
9:30 AM - 9:30 PM everyday
Closed on the first and third Mondays of the month

Website:
N/A

Parking: 
N/A

Alcohol: 
N/A

Tip: 
It's also popular to order the tteokbokki for takeout.
I think I recall they take cash only?



























떡볶이를 푸짐하게 즐기고 싶은 날이면 즉석떡볶이가 생각나는데요. 마포 부근에서 즉떡으로 유명한 이곳. 말랑 쫄깃한 밀떡에 각종 사리를 먹고 나면 마무리로 볶음밥까지 먹는 즐거움은 즉떡에서만 느낄 수 있죠.


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The culinary aspects of both American and Korean university culture shares a few commonalities in the form of instant ramens and microwaveable dishes. But when it comes to eating out, things differ a bit. In Korea, there are no happy hours and there are very few daily restaurant specials cash-strapped students can take advantage of. Luckily for Koreans though, there are entire restaurants, including chains, that largely caters to the student crowd such as the various kimbap and bunshik restaurants found in many neighborhoods.

Such is also the case with the soondae bokkeum restaurants that have become Sillimdong's representative dish and from where many students of past recall fond memories of. The Sillim neighborhood itself has cleaned up considerably but time has largely stood still for the soondae bokkeum restaurants where the sizzling smell of pan fried soondae and vegetables and the clinking of soju glasses have echoed for decades.




Despite many of the soondae bokkeum restaurants in Sillidong carrying the word "wonjo" or "original" in their name no one knows for sure which restaurant or even who first started dishing out the cheap and crowd-pleasing dish. Food experts pinpoint it to the mid 70s however, and whoever did serve it first knew what he or she was doing as restaurants serving the dish popped up all over within the original Sillim Market. By the 80s, a cluster of 20+ soondae bokkeum restaurants were found in the market with the street becoming known as the "soondae" alley of Sillimdong.

Soondae, for those who are familiar with the dish, is blood sausages which has been a major dish for many cultures around the world. Proper Korean soondae is an arduous process to make with chopped vegetables, meat, and blood having to be properly seasoned and cooked to give the right consistency and taste without the gamey smell. In Sillimdong's case, what was used is the cheaper, glass noodle-filled variety which imitates the consistency of real soondae but without the pricier filling and tedious prep work.

Back then, there was only the option of opting for the "baek soondae" or "white soondae". In this dish, the soondae slices was cooked with vegetables but left unseasoned hence the "white" in its name. Then came the "yangnyeom soondae" or "seasoned soondae" which was largely the same as the white except mixed with gochujang before cooking. Then, as the Sillimdong area largely redeveloped in the 90s, the restaurants were all relocated to its current building, called "Soondae Town" transforming from a soondae alley to a cluster.

What initially drove, and continues to largely drive, the soondae alley's boom was the many, many students in the area. The prestigious Seoul National University (SNU) is not too far off and Sillimdong has, for decades, attracted thousands of SNU-aspiring students. Soondae bokkeum had everything university students could ask for: cheap prices, large portions, flavorful, and versatile to function as both a meal or a side dish with drinks. This remains the case to this day which is why a large portion of the clientele here are youngsters in their early 20s. Student couples on dates, school groups looking for a cheap gathering option, and students looking to satiate their hunger are all common clientele.




The multi-storied soondae town building itself is worn and aged. Certainly not the fanciest of places and some of the stalls can be quite aggressive in attempting you to get you to dine at their restaurant. Just like any food alleys (or "town" in this case), if you know of any frequent diners here, he or she will recommend you their favorite store. In my case, our friend took us to her favorite spot, the aptly named "이모네"/"Emo neh" or Auntie's place which was located on the building's third floor.



The menu is the same for every store with either an order of the baek soondae or the seasoned soondae costing 15K. This may seem a bit high for what I described as a cheap meal for students but this 15K price tag is for a two-person serving. Bowl of rice is 1K a bowl while fried rice (for the end of the meal) is 2K.

I mentioned the soondae bokkeum town is a big draw for the students as a drinking spot and the menu reflects that in the sheer number of options for your drinks. Soju, beer, makgeolli, maehwasoo, bokbunja... etc, you name the standard Korean alcohol and they'll likely have it. Makgeolli goes for 3K, soju and beer 4K, all the way up to bokbunja which is 12K a bottle.


The popular thing to do, if you're in a group with more than 4, is to get an order of each. You can also get the spicy stir fried entrails (gobchang bokkeum) for 18K which is also meant for two people but at this specific restaurant, as the ajoshi of this establishment proudly explained, they give a bit of the gobchang bokkeum as "service" (freebie). He claimed this was unique to their stall but not sure if that was a stretch or not. Regardless of which stall you go to, however, the set-up is the same: at every table is a portable gas burner with a metal pan on which your bokkeum will go atop.




What differentiates each stall though is each place's house-made "sauce". Consisting of a base of gochujang, the sauce is joined by other seasonings and ingredients like ground wild perilla seeds, minced garlic, sesame oil, etc which is meant to be eaten with the white soondae (as ketchup is meant to be dipped in fries). To be fair, the white soondae bokkeum on its own is largely flavorless, mostly spiced by the heaps of ground wild perilla seeds it's cooked in, but it's the sauce that really brings the people back. Each house has their own recipe and the owner lady of the stall I ate at had a lot of pride in her sauce to which she boasted quite a number of times that hers was simply the best. The only other side offering are perilla leaves which are the popular wrap of choice for soondae bokkeum here.




Once the burner gets going, the server will unceremoniously scoop out your soondae bokkeum onto the hot pan to cook. The white soondae is, as described, largely white in color not only due to the absence of any sauce but because it's comprised of ingredients like cabbage, slice rice cakes, jjolmyeon, etc. The red, in the center, is the gobchang bokkeum offered as service here. On a separate pan, the spicy soondae bokkeum is cooked which is the same makeup as the white soondae bokkeum, but seasoned with the sweet, spicy glaze.


The seasoned soondae bokkeum is fine. Not unlike many soondae bokkeum restaurants and bars that offers this popular dish. It's however the white soondae that is unique. The heat from the pan helps intensify many of the dishes ingredients such as the peppery perilla leaves and the nutty wild sesame seeds. With these flavorings "activated" in a sense, it helps create a unique smoky edge once the soondae and ingredients are dipped into the sauce. I'm particularly a big fan of the strands of chewy jjolmyeon noodles which the flavorings and sauce cling quite well to and are released further with chewing.





You can eat the ingredients separately but you can't leave ssam (or wraps) out of a popular shared dish like this and at the soondae bokkeum restaurants here, perilla leaves are offered in stacks for making bite-sized wraps.



That isn't to say this dish isn't one to knock your socks off. The ingredients are simple with chopped vegetables, cheap jjolmyeon, and glass noodle-stuffed soondae (the cheaper kind) combined with basic Korean seasonings. But at its most basic, this is Korean-style classic comfort dish designed to fill up the stomach and tantalize the taste buds and shared in a communal way to encourage the kinship between individuals. In fact, the main decisive ingredient I'd say that keeps folks coming back for years is the memories- both fond and not so much- that leaves an impression. It's a taste that comes to be closely connected with friends and events and why the drinks easily flows in this place.

Final Thoughts:
From a variety of angles (taste, setting, or quality) there's absolutely nothing fancy or dressed up about the famed Soondae Bokkeum Town. But the atmosphere is rich with history and conversations that largely makes up the drawing factor of the humble dish served here and which makes the taste linger on one's mind.

Address: 
서울특별시 관악구 신림로59길 14
14, Sillim-ro 59-gil, Gwanak-gu, Seoul, Korea


From exit 4 of Sillim Station, walk 50 meters before turning right on Sillim-ro 59-gil. Walk another 50 meters and you should see the Soondae Town building on your right. Emo neh, the restaurant featured in this post, is on the third floor

Telephone: 
02-888-1125 (For Emo neh)

Hours:
12PM - 1AM everyday

Website:
N/A

Parking: 
N/A

Alcohol: 
Regular Korean alcohol varieties available

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