Food Report: Kalguksu and Mandu at Myeongdong Kyoja (Seoul, South Korea)

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Piping-hot kalguksu and freshly steamed mandu, with a limitless supply of spicy kimchi on the side. Nothing better for warding off the winter chill after a long day of sightseeing in Seoul.

OVERVIEW

Name? Myeongdong Kyoja (명동교자).

Speciality? Kalguksu (칼국수), knife-cut noodles served in hot soup.

Where? Myeongdong Kyoja has two branches, both located in the same area of Seoul’s Myeongdong district. The main branch (which I’ve documented in this post) is a few minutes’ walk north of Exit 8 of Myeongdong Station. Directions are available on the official site.

Operating hours? 1030-2130. (source)

How much? 8,000 won for a bowl of kalguksu. 10,000 won for a tray of 10 mandu.

English menu? Available on request.

Links? Click here to access the restaurant’s official English-language site.

Date of this restaurant visit? 09 February 2016. I visited the same restaurant almost exactly a year later, on 29 January 2017, and nothing much – indeed I’d say nothing at all – has changed.

Time of day and type of meal? Midday, lunch.

DIEGO’S EXPERIENCE

Having spent a good chunk of the morning outdoors in single-digit temperatures (read more about it here), I certainly stood to benefit from foregoing my usual hasty impatient-tourist-in-the-middle-of-Seoul lunch – likely to be from a convenience store, likely to be unhealthy, and (worst of all) likely to be straight-from-the-chiller cold – in favour of freshly cooked, perhaps slightly healthier, and assuredly piping-hot nourishment.

Off I went to Seoul’s Myeongdong shopping district, carefully homing in on a restaurant I’d read about before this trip – one whose speciality was just what I needed to regain some of my lost warmth.

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Founded in 1966 (under a different name), Myeongdong Kyoja began life in another part of Seoul before moving to this area of the city a few years later. It’s probably best known for their version of the hearty Korean noodle dish kalguksu: thick, knife-cut noodles made from wheat flour and served in a bowl of hot soup. That’s the basic idea anyway, but of course every shop and every chef will have their own way of preparing the dish, and we’ll see how this place does theirs in a moment.

I’ve been here twice, first in 2016 (the subject of this post) and again just a couple of weeks ago. There was a queue on both occasions, but as a solo customer I was accommodated in relatively short order since they’ve got a few tables specifically for people dining alone or in pairs.

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With the thick lunchtime crowds, I didn’t dare take a wider shot of the dining hall – my personal practice is to blur out faces and editing that sort of picture would have taken forever – but there are more images on the official site if you’re curious. Most tables are designed to seat families or groups, but a few have been set up like the one above: wooden partitions along the middle, individual water pitchers and paper towel dispensers, duplicate condiment trays and drawers stocked with utensils on either side. I usually travel alone, which of course means that I usually dine alone, and I’m a huge fan of places like this that cater to the needs of solo customers. (Is it any wonder I visit Ichiran so often?)

Feel free to ask for a menu – English-language versions are available – unless you’ve already made up your mind by glancing at the selections posted by the door.

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They’ve only got a few dishes on offer, but then again variety isn’t everything. I settled on two items: a bowl of their signature kalguksu (8,000 won) and a tray of mandu (10,000 won for ten dumplings).

Now this isn’t the sort of fine-dining place where patrons linger for hours and crisply attired waiters spend ages explaining why the wilted watercress garnish alone will max out your credit card. Think more along the lines of your typical ramen joint: gulp the food down as fast as possible and get the heck out of your chair to make way for the next chap. Well, not quite; no one will force you out after ten minutes, and I’ve observed people taking their sweet time with lively mealtime conversation. But it’s certainly a no-nonsense place, with no-nonsense service to match, all seemingly designed to get you filled up as efficiently as can be managed and ready to vacate as quickly as possible.

So it was that I was shown to my seat without ceremony, my order taken without fuss, and my payment accepted without the slightest obsequiousness. (Note that they’ll ask for the cash up front at the time you order, not after the meal.) In a place such as this, turnover is key and turnover is rapid: I never bothered to peek into the kitchen but I wouldn’t have been the slightest bit surprised if I’d seen a conveyor belt in there with dishes put together in assembly line fashion, possibly by an army of robots. Either way, my order came out in double-quick time.

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It might not be apparent from the picture, but the portion size (especially for the noodles) was quite generous. I’ve got a substantial appetite and I was also quite famished at that time, yet midway through the meal I felt as if I’d ordered too much.

Myeongdong Kyoja make their soup using chicken broth, and finish off each bowl with meat and veg; textbook kalguksu stuff for the most part. But there was also something else in my bowl that I’d never seen in pictures of kalguksu before: four triangular mandu nestled comfortably amongst the noodles and other toppings. Daebak.

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Everything in the bowl, whether solid or liquid, was good stuff – not fantastic but something I’d happily come back for. The thick white noodles…

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…reminded me a lot of udon, yet not quite as firm, and if I had to nitpick I’d have preferred them a little less soft. A trivial complaint though, and it certainly won’t stop me from ordering the same dish again.

Now for the mandu.

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Juicy nuggets of glory, these things: finely minced pork, blush of sesame oil, delicate soft wrapper. Nicely enhanced by a moment’s bath in the dipping sauce…

…and perhaps a morsel of this.

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It’s not often that one finds a good restaurant’s main courses in danger of being overshadowed by a side dish, but Myeongdong Kyoja’s fantastic kimchi nearly transformed this meal into a case study of that scenario. The noodles were very good, but not the best I’ve ever had; the dumplings were very good, but I’ve tried better; now the kimchi … easily the most delicious I’d eaten up to that point. (The best part, of course, is that one can always ask for more.) I’m no aficionado of this indispensable element of Korean cuisine, and I’ve no doubt that experienced kimchi enthusiasts can easily point to many others that they’ve found more worthy of praise, but my unrefined and unsophisticated palate has come across no tastier specimen. Boldly flavoured and ferociously spicy, their kimchi is probably the one thing I’d look forward to the most when I eventually – perhaps inevitably – return.

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One response to “Food Report: Kalguksu and Mandu at Myeongdong Kyoja (Seoul, South Korea)

  1. Pingback: Field Report: Three Galleries and a Plate of Dumplings, Seoul, South Korea (29 January 2017) | Within striking distance·

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