I read today that estimated 2 million people pass through Myeongdong everyday. It is a busy part of Seoul that has everything from high-end department stores and financial services companies (Citibank, Bank of Korea, HSBC, etc) to numerous restaurants and street vendors. I remember it being crowded and cramped in the past, but it now boasts skyscrapers and wide pedestrian friendly streets.
While you can easily find international chains such as Zara, H&M, McDonald’s, Starbucks, we went there this morning looking for a 70 year old restaurant. As with a lot of Korean restaurants, they specialize in just one thing. In this case, it was “gom-tang.” Gom-tang literally means bear soup but it’s actually made by boiling ox tail bones for an extensive amount of time (usually for over 12 hours) and the resulting broth is then boiled again with beef brisket and tripe. Ours was served simply with copious amounts of thinly sliced scallions and kkakdugi (radish kimchee), and we seasoned our own steaming bowls of soup with sea salt. The broth was opaque from having been boiled for so long and there was a depth of flavor I knew that I could not easily replicate. What also set this place apart was an interesting tradition of a guy who walked around offering kkakdugi juice from a large teapot. You could ask him to pour some directly into the soup, making the broth spicy and tangy. It was a hearty way to start our day.
We decided to stay in the neighborhood to explore the smaller streets and to check out both the modern shopping centers as well as various street vendors. There were some unexpected street treats that we wanted to try out but we just simply didn’t have the capacity. We saw something that looked like skewered Pringles (I think the locals call them “tornado potato,”) a hot dog on a stick covered with French fries and deep fried, spicy rice cakes, dried squid, soft serve ice cream, gimbap (similar to Japanese maki), and so much more.
When we were sufficiently tired from walking around and hungry yet again for more, we searched out another old establishment well hidden in a side street. This time, it was nangmyun- cold thin noodles made from sweet potatoes. This restaurant has been in business for 46 years and when we arrived, it was packed with hungry locals. It was so crowded that they didn’t have any tables for us, so rather than waiting we opted to sit in a traditional room. Again, this restaurant had nothing on the menu but their famous noodles so there was really nothing for us to debate over. And just like the restaurant we went to in the morning, they didn’t even have a proper menu; it was either cold noodle soup or spicy mixed noodles. The price and the names of the dishes were posted on the walls. All we had to do was to take off our shoes, sit down, tell the waitress we want three bowls, and pay the waitress as we ordered. Korea being a no-tip country, there is no fuss and no stress about getting your bill and calculating the tip. There are restaurants that ask you to pay up front (mostly very casual places) but what I’ve noticed is that people here don’t linger at restaurants, and they usually just walk up to the cashier on the way out to settle the bill rather than waiting for it at the table. When they arrive at a place, they know exactly what they want and as soon as they finish their meals, they are up and out of the restaurant. I think they tend to linger if they are drinking but I’ve seen families order, eat, and leave a restaurant in 20 minutes.
We happily followed what everyone else was doing and also didn’t linger. There was a whole lot more in Myeongdong to see! Some of the street vendors were not happy about having their photos taken (one of them screamed at us), but others were very friendly. We bought some walnut pastry and tried what seemed to be the most popular item of the day- soft serve green tea yogurt. It was expertly swirled 30 cm high and for less than $1.50 I thought it was a great deal. Then again, I think the food here is so delicious yet so cheap; it’s been hard for us to spend more than $10 per person per meal, except at very high-end restaurants. I’ve been here for almost a month now and I’ve had almost nothing but Korean food, and yet there is plenty more I’d like to try. Just in Myeongdong alone I think I can spend several weeks just poking around. I don’t have enough time!!!