seoul eats: the best noodle soup in town

Is there anything more comforting than steaming bowl of noodle soup?  It’s like a warm, loving blanket wrapped around your belly, taking away all the worries of the world and transporting you to a place of calm.  Suddenly, everything is right again.  That is the power of noodle soup.

The noodle soup that hits closest to home (and heart) is 칼국수 (“Kalguksu”), literally translated as “knife noodles”, so aptly named as they’re hand-cut (by a knife, of course).  One of my favourite childhood photos is of my 9-month old self in the arms of my mom, watching intently as my grandma expertly cut her homemade kalguksu.  You could tell, even from that early age, that I was destined to love noodles for life.

In that respect, this is one of the reasons why Mark is my soulmate.  He might be the only person I know who loves noodles more than I do.  He’s the most content and stress-free when digging into a bowl of noodles, whether it be pho, spaghetti, chow mein, or kalguksu.  I think he would’ve married a bowl of noodles if it were possible.

Tracking down a delicious bowl of kalguksu was a top item on our list of “must-eat-in-Korea”.  Lucky for us, Mark had his handy Lonely Planet guide to Seoul with him that recommended Myeongdong Gyoja (명동교자) as a top place to eat in the frenetic Myeongdong market area.  The guide also warned us that this place was consistently busy and to prepare to wait in line for a table.  We figured, what’s a short wait for a bowl of delicious noodles?

exteriorJust as the guide had warned us, the line-ups looked insane.  The place itself is multi-story (my best guess is that it’s three or four floors).  We took our place in the line-up that was spilling down from the staircase that lead to the main dining area.  As we waited, more people joined the line-up and pretty soon it was out the door.  Surprisingly enough, a steady stream of diners were exiting the restaurant at the same pace that the line was moving.  In the true fashion of Korea’s “hurry hurry” culture, the servers were experts at herding people up to available tables by communicating with each other via radios, and making sure that people lined up appropriately as not to block people from exiting.  It was actually quite impressive to see them work like a cohesive unit.  And the wait?  It wasn’t that long at all.  I’d say it was 10 minutes, tops.

I wish I would’ve taken more pictures (for example, the lines and how PACKED the place was), but the general crazy pace of the place and the amount of people were a tad overwhelming for me to pull out my camera.  As we were escorted to our table, we passed occupied tables full of bowls of noodles and dumplings, servers balancing large trays filled with food (which, if handled by amateurs, could surely end up in a nasty accident).  We were taken through the main dining floor, up to the second floor, through the second floor, and up to the third floor where our table was right at the back by the air conditioning unit (bonus for being close to cool air!).

The menu is simple and straightforward – only a select handful of regular menu items to choose from.  Mark and I both got a bowl of kalguksu, while Rachel and Jason opted to share a bowl.  We also ordered the dumplings as an appetizer.  What I found interesting (and quite efficient) was that once we gave the server our order, she told us how much and we paid in full upfront.  No need to wait for a bill or add on tip (side note: not having to tip was the single best thing about dining in Korea).  The food came out in lightning speed; I swear we waited maybe a couple of minutes before our food arrived.

dinnerAs is common with the majority of meals in restaurants, they provide free side dishes.  Fresh kimchi was their offering.

manduThese little morsels of goodness were just the perfect thing to start off our meal.  Steaming hot, flavourful, meaty filling encased in a soft, yet chewy wrapper…. mmmmm…

kalguksuThe true star of the meal was this bowl of kalguksu.  If you go to the Myeongdong Gyoja website, it describes in detail the history of the place and the components that go into making this dish (which I won’t rehash here).  It’s essentially a chicken broth-based soup that’s thick and rich, with just a slight spiciness that adds a beautiful depth and body.  The pyramid-shaped dumplings are light and airy, and the meat garnish is the perfect savoury element to pull it all together.  As for the noodles?  Absolute perfection.  Thick, but not overly, soft and perfectly cooked, they were just so delightful.  I don’t think we came up for air while devouring this bowl of noodles and soup, it was just that good.  If I hadn’t been so full, I would’ve asked for a free refill of noodles and soup.  That’s right – they offer free refills!  Now that’s what I call customer service.

This meal in total was only about $30.  Add in the freebies and it’s an amazing value.  Cheap Korean dining at its best!

The generally accepted social protocol in Korea is, once you’re done eating, it’s time to go.  No sitting and chatting afterwards.  It’s considered rude to linger, since there’s so much demand for a table at this place.  The lines were relentless; it actually looked busier as we were leaving.

We returned a second time when it was slightly less busy and got a seat on the second floor (didn’t have to go all the way to the air conditioning unit table this time).  The kalguksu and dumplings were still as good as the first time and we left with our bellies full and happy.

We told my parents about our experience at Myeongdong Gyoja and they both nodded knowingly.  I guess it’s one of the most well-known kalguksu places amongst Koreans.  I recommend it as one of the must-visit restaurants in Seoul.  As crazy busy as it is, the lines move quickly, you get your food pronto, and you get a ton of bang for your buck.  This was the best noodle soup I had in Seoul, hands down.

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