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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. 

Cooking Johnny Dumpling (쟈니덤플링) by momsecret


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.

Cooking Chungmuro Jjukkumi Bulgogi (충무로 쭈꾸미 불고기) by momsecret




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.

Cooking 4.5 Pyeong Udon Jib (4.5평 우동집) by momsecret


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.