In an effort to avoid falling too far into the routines of a normal life, I've decided to add a new, theoretically reoccurring, blog feature I will be calling 'Where Am I & What Is That?'. The basic idea is that I will occasionally (I'm thinking monthly at least) go to some random part of the city or country that I've never been to and ingest some sort of food/drink that I've never tried before.
For today's inaugural effort, I was wondering near Dongdaemun market. I was actually in the area scouting for a project I've come up with (to be revealed later if it works out), when I came upon Dongdaemun. Despite the fact that it's ranked pretty high on the tourist checklist, I'd never actually been there. Mostly b/c it's a giant shopping center and I have pretty much no interest in shopping. I didn't actually go into the market on account of a lot of stuff being closed on a Sunday evening and my aforementioned disdain for shopping. Instead, I wandered into the narrow, twisting streets in the hilly area North of Dongdaemun.
The area had a much older feel than the part of Seoul I live in and had an incredibly dense motorcycle population buzzing around. Unlike many parts of Seoul which are dedicated to a single product (the chair district or the pet district), the shops were pretty varied here. My favorite item being the spam & oil gift sets. Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera, but it's pretty much like one of those gourmet meat and cheese gift baskets only with Spam and oil instead. Guess what the family's getting next Christmas?
After a bit the street turned more residential and I veered left up a steep set of stairs to find myself walking alongside an old wall. I follow the wall to the peak and find myself on the top of Naksan. There's a sweet view of the city as the sun goes down and all the lights come on.
Just a little ways down the other side of the mountain, I come across a small restaurant advertising 설렁탕. Having no idea what that is, I decide it'll make for a good place to try something new.
The restaurant is small and has weird stuffed animals in a display case in the back and a chair, guitar and music stand set up in one corner. The owner (I assume), sporting a sweet fu-manchu to go w/ his black flair-legged pants, chef's jacket and stocking cap offers me a seat and says '설렁탕' a couple of times. I ask what it is. He gestures and says something. It sounds like he mentioned bibimbap, so I expect there will be vegetables and rice, probably in soup (탕) form. I nod and ask for some.
Lining the walls along the ceiling are 5 gallon jars filled with various vegetables soaking in liquid. Many appear to have ginseng and those are all connected with and elaborate tubing. Some other people come in and the owner points out the jugs and explains to them. I don't follow, but I'm guessing it's tea. There are also gum-ball machine looking jars that appear to have Makali in them. Apparently this guy makes most the drinks himself.
The food comes out and it's not as soupy as I expected. It appears to be just rice on top of bean sprouts. The owner dumps some spices and pepper on top and instructs me to stir it. After a bit, he gestures that it's stirred enough to eat. There's also a watery soup w/ some onions and some kimchi. The rice concoction isn't bad and after gesturing approval, the owner brings me a shot of makali and some tea. The makali is really good and goes well with the food. The tea's a strong and bitter, but pretty good as well.
I finish up and get up to pay and the guy tells me it's only 1,000 won (< $1). This makes no sense to me and I kind of stare at him. He and the other people in the restaurant are amused and assure me that it really is only 1,000 won. I have no idea how that's possible. Rice and bean sprouts might be cheap, but that price doesn't even make sense. I assume this guy must be some sort of rich retired guy who opened the restaurant for his own amusement. I don't know how else you'd get away with charging that.
I wonder on down the hill past a bunch of coffee shops towards Hyehwa station. Near the station are a bunch of theaters (play style not movie) and many more coffee shops and restaurants. Strikes me as a fairly new college-y type area.
So, verdict is: 설렁탕 is ok. That restaurant is awesome. And the Naksan/Hyehwa area is definitely worth a visit.
Next time I'll have to bring a camera.