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.
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.
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.
Regular Korean alcohol varieties available
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).
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.
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.
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.
Regular Korean alcohol varieties available
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
Regular Korean alcohol varieties available
You can always add extra mushrooms and vegetables or extra noodles when you order the kalguksu.
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.
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.
9:30 AM - 9:30 PM everyday
Closed on the first and third Mondays of the month
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.
Soojeong Sikdang is a long-running joint that's found in the older Jongno District, in the Euljiro vicinity. Although technically a barbecue restaurant, its ssambap special is perhaps what it is best known for not only for its superb value but its taste and variety as well.
Soojeong Sikdang is located in the same alley as another favorite cheap eat in the area, Ddookbaegi Jib, which I previously wrote about
. The vicinity has a couple of linguistic hakwons, attracting a lot of students and young job-seekers so the majority of the restaurants in the area tend to be on the cheaper side.
For a barbecue restaurant, it's quite abuzz with activity during the day which is due predominantly for their ssambab jeonshik which sets diners back a mere 8K for rice, sides, stew, barbecue, and an array of leafy vegetables and homemade jang for making ssam.
The variety of sides, including dwenjang jjigae, alone makes this a great value but the real value add-on comes from the open grill that's located right by the restaurant entrance. Here, over an open flame the marinated pork is grilled expertly by the aunties to give it that irresistible smoky touch that's not easily recreated at home.
The restaurant has floor and regular table seats and even in off hours there will likely be a mix of diners from hakwon students to families.
The rice and side dishes come out first usually followed by the jjigae, barbecue pork, ssam, and ssamjang.
The sides are not only homemade but seasonal so it changes a bit every so often. One way restaurants tend to cut corners in their side dishes is by offering cheaper offerings such as uhmook (fish cake) bokkeum, soybean sprouts, etc. But you'll note that the sides here are quite diverse and the offerings are unlike one a Korean mother would feed you from the kong jorim (braised black beans), sesame oil cooked broccoli, gyeran jang jorim (braised hard boiled eggs), etc. And they're all quite good too! The broccoli still retains its crunch with the sesame oil and light seasoning quite lovely, the braised eggs so good with the rice.
You'll note also that the rice is not the plain rice but mixed for a healthier option.
The dwenjang jjigae is unmistakably homemade with the dwenjang having that rustic, countryside kind of tang to it. It has depth to it and comes bubbling hot from the stove straight to your table.
So too is the barbecue pork which comes sizzling in a tray lined with aluminum foil. The smell of the savory, spicy flavors of the barbecue alone makes your mouth water but that bit of chopped garlic that's sprinkled atop just before serving is heavenly. The barbecue pork is served "wet" with most of its natural juice and seasoning in the tray so the meat stays nice and tender to the end of your meal.
The marinade is milder than it looks with a more mellow savory and hint of spiciness to it than fiery and sweet. Methinks they chose to keep the marinade's flavors at bay to help with the flavor balance when this guy comes in.
Although many will think the main protein is the key component of a good ssam, many ssam lovers will tell you it's more about how fresh the leafy vegetables are and how good the ssamjang is. A good ssamjang should carry a range of flavors without one component overpowering the other. In essence, it acts as that bridge between the greens and the fillings be it meat, seafood, rice, fresh ingredients like garlic and pepper, etc.
Happy to say that the ssamjang at Soojeong Sikdang checks all the boxes. Earthy, savory, a hint of sweetness... it packs umami and flavor without being salty making it all the better with the greens which are fresh and a solid variety.
For an older, popular establishment, I was also pleasantly surprised at the service which was not only fast but the workers quite friendly. They didn't sound bothered when you called for them nor did they give you any stink eye when you asked for refills of sides. Solo diners should be happy to note that this meal is available for a single serving as opposed to the minimum two person order that many set meal places enforce.
Final Thoughts:Value, value, value.
The variety, the quality, and taste is the equivalent of a homemade meal made by your Korean auntie with the balance of meat, veggies, rice, and stew a quintessential Korean meal. And no judgement on their part whether you're here with a friend or just here alone.
18 Jongno 16-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul
서울특별시 종로구 종로16길 18
From exit 15 of Jongno 5-ga Station, walk straight along the main Jongno street for about 250m until you get to Jongno 16-gil and turn left. Walk south along the street for about 90m (passing Ddoogbaegi Sikdang) until you see Soojeong Sikdang on your right.
The hours listing states 0:00 ~ 24:00 so it sounds like its 24 hours? They are, however, closed on Sundays.
Korean beer, soju, and regular alcohol available
This restaurant is closed on Sundays.
If you've had a friend who has been to Seoul at all before, there's a high chance that he or she dined here at one point or another. Covered by so many guide books and blogs abroad, I'd daresay Myeongdong Gyoja has become a near rite of passage for visitors to be able to say they've actually been to Seoul. And while the long lines at both the original and second location in Myeongdong (both located just a few hundred meters from each other) may give the impression that this is a touristy joint, look carefully and you'll see that more than half the clientele on a regular basis is comprised of locals. That is to say, it's thatfamous and sought out by locals just as much as visitors.
As the restaurant makes known, Myeongdong Gyoja traces its history back to 1966 when it first opened in Suhadong, near the portion of Cheonggyecheon Stream that's between Euljiro 1-ga and Jonggak stations, under the name "Jangsoojang". The restaurant's signature kalguksu did not happen by chance though and was a result of many historic factors at the time. In the 60's there was a rice shortage in Korea to the point that school children had to bring barley (instead of rice) for their lunch boxes and restaurants were even banned from selling rice or rice-based food on certain days and hours. At the same time, flour was steadily growing in popularity since its mass importation from the US following the Korean War.
Business filing from 1970
Image source: Myeongdong Gyoja homepage
Developing their own recipe using a chicken stock-based soup and adding its own distinct flavor to the dish with their pan fried onion, squash, etc, their beloved kalguksu was a hit from the beginning. Not too long after, in 1969, the restaurant moved south to Myeongdong, which was already a major central district of Seoul at that time. Records show that a year later it registered and changed its name to "Myeongdong Kalguksu". The taste and popularity soon sparked numerous imitators to open up shop- all under the same, or similar, moniker. Later, these imitation restaurants were opening up not just in the vicinity but around the nation, all with the same name but with no association with the original. What was worse was that these copycat shops were cutting corners in quality and taste to the point the "Myeongdong kalguksu" was becoming associated as a cheap, low-quality food. Having no other choice to save their reputation, the restaurant would undergo its third and final name change, registering the "Myeongdong Gyoja" name in 1978 which is what it still goes by. This last name change wasn't without major confusion for its diners and there are still older generations of locals here who refer to this restaurant as Myeongdong Kalguksu. The restaurant still emphasizes heavily that the two restaurants in Myeongdong are the only Myeongdong Gyoja in the entire nation and that any other with even a remotely similar name is completely non-associated with them.
Whew.So that's the long and illustrious story behind the restaurant but all this is to say that they must be doing something right if they've been so beloved for decades.
At either the original store or the second location, you'll encounter lines during peak meal times. Luckily, after decades in business, they've got the whole system down where an usher near the entrance will let you know where to go for your table after you let them know how many are in your group. Menu is also kept simplified with only two options: kalguksu and mandu (dumplings) although there is a seasonal kongguksu (cold soybean soup noodles) for summer. Kalguksu sets you back 8K while a plate of steamed mandu is 10K. The popular order is for each individual to get his or her own bowl of kalguksu while splitting a plate of mandu.
To help speed things up, Myeongdong Gyoja is one of those rare joints in Korea where you pre-pay. It makes sense for a busy restaurant like here and all the more smart of them to keep menu offerings simple so that almost all returnees basically order and pay within seconds of sitting down.
And just as fast as it takes to order and pay, the food is brought out including the infamous garlicky kimchi.
Let's start with the kalguksu which is already distinctive for its brown-ish hue. Most kalguksu comes in a rather white-ish or opaque hue but here the caramel stock is a testament to the rich broth. A generous mound of noodles sits in the soup which is topped with ground pork, some chives and four half-moon dumplings.
The soup is unabashedly meaty, not to the point that it's overwhelming, but there's a depth to it that doesn't come from just casually throwing some chicken into a boiling pot. But lest it should be known as simply chicken noodle soup, the broth has a dimension of smoky earthiness that comes from the pre-pan cooked onions and squash. The sweated vegetables adds both a natural touch of slight sweetness and an extra layer of flavor.
The noodles appear rather limp on first glance but they still retain their elasticity and bite which is another testimony to the restaurant knowing exactly how long to cook its noodles. The generous scoop of the cooked ground and seasoned pork adds extra flavor and a contrasting texture to the noodle soup.
On a scale of the depth of flavor for kalguksu restaurants, Myeongdong Gyoja stands firmly on the stronger end. It's perhaps fitting then that their famous kimchi packs quite a punch to hold up to the noodles. Actually, what's served here isn't kimchi but "geotjeoli" which is basically a less or non fermented kimchi (this is commonly served with bossam for wraps). But the geotjeoli has a trademark heavy-handed seasoning of minced raw garlic and chili flakes to stand off against the rich broth. That isn't to say the geotjeoli here doesn't have its antifans. Its copious and pungent amount of raw garlic probably isn't the best before a date or important meeting but for its fans you'll see them asking for refills of it by the bowlful.
The dumplings that comes with the soup is essentially the same as the separately ordered mandu but different shapes. Interestingly it was this half-shaped mandu found in the soup that was first released in 1977 which helped give the restaurant its name when it made the switch in title to Myeongdong Gyoja in '78 (gyoja is the Japanese word for mandu). In '83 their round shaped mandu was released which is the shape of how the plate of mandu comes out today.
Both forms of mandu are different from traditional Korean mandu in that the wrappers are extremely thin. It's to the point that the mandu is nearly opaque with the filling clearly showing through. The dumpling are about thumb-sized so they're not incredibly big but they are packed. Unlike the thick-skinned North Korean style mandu where you're almost eating a half-half ratio of dumpling wrap and filling, here the wrap is almost non-existent. The filling is heavily meat-based with just diced chives and other seasonings making up its composition. Ingredients like glass noodles, tofu, soybean sprouts, etc are all non-existent here making it a fan favorite mandu for meat-lovers. And at 10 pieces for 10,000 (or 1 for 1,000) they certainly aren't the cheapest but for carnivores, it's probably one of the best-value mandu you can get find.
So with overall great-tasting food it's easy to see why so many would be fans of the food here but certainly there are two other factors that have contributed to the restaurant enjoying its legendary status. First, the use of high-quality ingredients which are all Korean-sourced. As the menu says, the restaurant only uses Korean-based ingredients (from chili flakes to pork and the flour likely being the only non-Korean ingredient) all year-round. And all food that isn't consumed on the day it's made is discarded and made again the following day.Second, while the prices are already reasonable and portions filling, one has the option to order more noodles or rice, to his or her heart's content, during their meal. There are stipulations to this such as the rice and/or noodles having to be ordered after you're done with the rice/noodles you've already been given but this makes it a great value for patrons, particularly those with a bigger appetite.
Final Thoughts:I am admittedly a "born again" believer of Myeongdong Gyoja. I used to have it on and off while visiting Korea and then last had a 5 or so year stretch where I didn't have another bowl until last year. It's from that long period away and then coming back I realized just how commendable Myeongdong Gyoja is for its commitment to quality and taste. There are so many restaurants out there that specializes in dishes that are slight variations of others. But the variety of kalguksu offered here has no equals, no matter how many restaurants around the world have capitalized on the name. Myeongdong Gyoja will forever be Myeongdong kalguksu and you can bet 50+ years of history on that.
29 Myeongdong 10-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul
서울특별시 중구 명동10길 29
From exit 8 of Myeongdong Station, immediately turn left and walk north along Myeongdong 10-gil for about 160m and you'll see the original location on your right. The second location is located on the same street just about 100 m north of the original location.
02-776-5348 (Original location)
02-776-3424 (Second location)
10:30AM - 9:30PM
Closed on national holidays
Rice and additional noodles are free if you ask for it!