Snapshots from South Korea: Kalguksu from Myeongdong Gyoja
Earlier this month I visited Seoul, South Korea, for the first time. Here's a look at something I ate from my one-week trip.
Myeongdong Gyoja is the only sit-down restaurant I've every been to that requires payment right after you order at your table and provides you with gum—Lotte xylitol gum to be exact—before any food appears. Paying up-front wasn't that strange, but what was the gum for? I'd find out very soon.
Myeongdong Gyoja is famous for their kalguksu, knife-cut noodle soup. My fooding partner Dan Gray of Seoul Eats told me that lines frequently form out the door for this 40-year-old restaurant, which he described as making "the Model T of kalguksu." (We happened to arrive at a down period when the restaurant was bustling, but line-less.) They also serve jjolmyeon, kongguksu, and pork mandu (each dish costs just ₩7,000, about $5.54), but my group of four, including Fat Man Seoul and Rachel Yang, only ordered the kalguksu since it was the first stop during a night of multiple meals.
We didn't just eat noodles though. Rice and kimchi came with the meal—insanely pungent, quickly fermented kimchi. The cabbage kimchi was flavored with dried chiles, ginger, and packed with more garlic flavor than possibly anything else I had ever eaten, aside from straight raw garlic. My first bite of the kimchi tasted like fresh cabbage with a bit of hotness; seconds later, it was a face-screwing garlic punch in my face. So that's what the gum was for. Although the kimchi was tasty, I couldn't eat a second bite knowing what horrors would be unleashed upon my mouth (I immediately tried to counteract the kimchi by shoving a wad of rice in my mouth). Obviously most people are stronger than I am or else the kimchi wouldn't be so popular.
The kalguksu came in a flavorful beef and chicken broth that you can further enhance with a garlic, ginger, and onion sauce on the side (another reason you may want that after-dinner gum). A mound of long, flat, mildly chewy noodles was topped with ground beef, zucchini slices, chives, and thin-skinned pork mandu. Although the bowl is massive, I could see why they offer free refills; it's addictive, umami-filled stuff. If the four of us weren't sharing one bowl (no refill for us, of course) I'd definitely finish my own and endure the subsequent bloated sensation. They seem to have one U.S. location in Los Angeles (here's a review from Eating Korean); if anyone from Myeongdong Gyoja can hear me, please open a location in New York City. We've got loads of ramen and Chinese hand-pulled noodles, but for no good reason Korean noodles have yet to take the city by storm.