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Thursday, 30 May 2013

Streets of Seoul, Part II: Mugyodonggil, Hangover Reliever Alley

Eris likes dry pollack soup. As I expected: Cats.

Extract from hancinema.net:

For Korea's young, post-war generation during the late 1960s through the 1970s, Mugyo-dong in Seoul Jung-gu was "the place to be", according to Shin Dong-min, manager of Yonggeumoak, one of the oldest restaurants in the area.

"This area was filled with people who simply came to have a good time", said Shin, who operates the Korean restaurant that opened back in 1933. 

"Most of the time, people didn't even set a time to meet - they simply came to the area and hung out until late at night". 

For the younger generation who yearned to break free of post-war depression and experience something new, Mugyo-dong offered just that, with numerous restaurants, cafes and music lounges serving beer and playing Western pop and rock records. 

One of the most popular music lounges at the time, C'est Si Bon, was located in the neighborhood. The venue was where folk musicians including Cho young-nam, Song Chang-sik and Yoon Hyeong-joo first met and played music together. Later, these musicians would help shape the arc of modern Korean pop music with their Western-influenced folk rock. 

To this day, the street, stretching around 500 meters from Jungbu Fire Station with Mugyo-dong and Dadong on both sides, is flooded with restaurants, theaters and nightclubs, and includes some of the oldest, most popular specialty restaurants in the country. At present, the Mugyo-dong food alley is known mostly as a post-drinking hangout, with a lot of traditional hot-soup restaurants serving hangover-cure dishes. 

Inside Yonggeumoak, a couple of elderly folks huddled around a large wooden table, visibly immersed in a conversation about politicians.

"Back in the old days, this area was where all the press buildings and even the National Assembly were situated", Shin said. 

Although the restaurant serves a handful of different dishes, it is known primarily for its chueotang, or ground loach in hot bean-paste soup. The owner says the modest, classic recipe used more than seven decades ago is still used today. 

Nearby, Nampomyeonoak, which has been in the Mugyo-dong area for more than 45 years, features North Korean style soups and noodles including naengmyeon, or cold buckwheat noodles, and abokjengban, or beef and vegetable broth stew.

The restaurant had humble beginnings. In fact, when it opened it wasn't a proper restaurant at all, but actually the living room of the current manager' grandfather where the family served naengmyeon to friends and acquaintances. 

Abokjengban is a delicacy from North Korea that is often compared to sinseonro, served in a brass chafing dish for the royal family in Korea.

"If sinseonro is regarded as a gourmet meal, abokjengban is more of a dish suited for common folk, using ingredients that were easily affordable to the public" said Lee Jun-ho, the current manager of the restaurant. 

Not far from Nampomyeonoak is Bugeogukjip, which roughly translates to "the dried pollack soup house". Opened in 1968, the restaurant features just one item on its menu: dried pollack soup. Though the only garnishes of this simple soup are tofu and egg, the clean, minimalist flavor of the broth and chewy pollack bits ensures that customers keep coming back. The soup itself is made with beef leg bones boiled for 11 hours. 

According to owner Jin Kwang-sam, the customers at Bugeogukjip  are usually over 60 years old, but nowadays many tourists from Japan and the United States visit as well. 

"The food is very affordable and they give free refills for everything, including the rice, soup and side dishes", said Young Ji-eun, a regular at Bugeogukjip

"You'll regret it if you don't try this soup at least once in your lifetime". 

The restaurant is near the Cheonggye Stream, across from two other popular destinations offering simple menus at affordable prices: Won Daegutang and Woojeong Nakji, both in the same building. On the upper floor is Won Daegutang, also serving only one item on its menu - daegutang, or hot cod soup. Customers say that its deep yet refreshing broth, devoid of spicy heat, is a perfect cure for hangovers.

Hong Seong-pil, a close friend of the owner and a regular, revealed what he thinks were the first steps toward the Cheonggye Stream restoration project - that took place right inside the restaurant.

"Before President Lee Myung-bak became Seoul mayor, he had lunch at this place for almost a month and whenever he visited, he would look out that door", said Hong.

"I didn't know what he was up to then but now I realize he was planning the Cheonggye Stream restoration project". 

On the first floor of the building is Woojeong Nakji, one of the first places serving nakjibokkeum, or spicy stir-fried octopus, on this street. Currently, there are over five such restaurants serving nakjibokkeum and the street is sometimes referred to as "nakji alley", but according to regulars, Woojeong Nakji is the wonjo, or original. 

Over time, the area kept growing as the U.S. Embassy and multinational companies started building offices. Numerous restaurants serving Western food have popped up in Mugyo-dong - including Burger Hunter. 

With its all-American interior design and open kitchen, Burger Hunter is nearly reminiscent of a school cafeteria in the United States. 

The burgers themselves are handmade, served with potato chips on the side. 

"We use fresh ingredients that come in every morning, throwing out the rest at the end of the day", said Kim Mi-mi, the manager of the restaurant. 

Currently a chain restaurant, the establishment is doing well in its first year in Mugyo-dong, according to Kim.

Further up Mugyo-dong food alley and near the Gwanghwamun area are more restaurants serving European and American dishes, including Rosso Bianco. 

Opened in 2007, Rosso Bianco is a classy Italian restaurant, offering dishes with a specialty in pizzas. Starting this year, Rosso Bianco is using its new firewood kiln to deliver more authentic, homemade, Italian pizza dishes. 

Another European restaurant nearby is Italasian, sitting right across from Rosso Bianco. Italasian serves fusion Italian food, with a hint of Asian influences to suit the taste buds of Koreans. With both the sleek Gwanghwamun area and the more rustic Mugyo-dong side-by-side, the restaurant provides a panorama of this colorful area that deftly balances the new and the old, the traditional and the modern.