Seoul's Best Cold-Noodle Restaurants
Novelist, scholar and late Korean independence movement activist Yudang Choi Nam-son chose ‘Pyongyang Nengmyeon’ as one of the three major dishes representing the province of Pyongan.
Nengmyeon has a simple taste and seems to consist of only a few ingredients. However, it is difficult to make. That is why many actors who fled from North Korea during the Korean War opened nengmyeon restaurants in the South, but the places did not last for too long.
If one goes to the well-known nengmyeon restaurants in Seoul, it is not rare to hear elderly men sitting at nearby tables speak Korean in Pyongyang accents though not many youngsters can be found at the places, despite their fame. The reason being that young people do not like the plain taste of traditional nengmyeon.
Here are half a dozen restaurants specializing in nengmyeon:
The owner of the Myonwolgwan restaurant in Pyongyang fled to the South in 1946 and opened the WooLaeOak (Tel: 02) 2265-0151) in Mugyo-dong, Seoul. Now passing through the family’s third generation, the restaurant grew into a vast international chain, ranging from a second branch in Daechi-dong, Seoul to Washington DC in the United States, famed for its traditional flavor and elegant beauty. There is an overall balanced equilibrium in a bowl of nengmyeon at this particular restaurant. The buckwheat noodle retains the scent of buckwheat, but also is easily bitten into, yet maintaining its "al dente" quality.
Eulji Myeon Ok
By the cinemas in Jongno 3 ga at Jongno, Seoul, there is the Eulji Myeon Ok (Tel: 02) 2266-7052). A bowl of the restaurant's nengmyeon washes away the summer heat and the noodles are easy to chew. The meat soup is not oily but includes sliced spring onions and pepper powder, which makes the dish the closest to traditional Pyongan Province style nengmyeon. The taste differs according to the weather and when it produces its best taste, no other nengmyeon house can imitate this restaurant's specialty.
Pyongyang Myeon Ok
The Pyongyang Myeon Ok has two branches, the main branch in Jangchung-dong (Tel: 02) 2267-7784) and a second branch at the junction near Anse Hospital in Gangnam (Tel: 02) 549-5500), and the place takes pride in its slightly unshapely, traditional nengmyeon. The soup is a bit sweet and the noodles are bitten through clearly, unlike most buckwheat. Vegetarians can order a simple nengmyeon, "minjja," which is the same as ordinary nengmyeon, but is served without slices of meat. One family manages both restaurants, but the noodles taste slightly differently at each branch.
Pildong Myeon Ok
The Pildong Myeon Ok (Tel: 02) 2266-2611) has made its name with nengmyeon, thanks to its simple yet refreshing soup. The noodles are soft which also blends harmoniously with the soup. The restaurant’s regular customers say they prefer the nengmyeon offered before its interior renovation, however, it still keeps its traditional taste and its own fresh attractions.
Nampo Myeon Ok
As soon as one goes into the Nampo Myeon Ok restaurant (Tel: 02) 777- 2269), one can see earthenware pots, which have dates inscribed on them and contain white turnip kimchi, or ‘dongchimi,’ to go with the cold noodles. The place is famous for its soup rather than the noodles, as it mixes meat soup with the salty, but tasty water from the dongchimi. The main branch is in a small alley on the opposite side of the road of the Kolon Building behind Seoul City Hall and a second branch (Tel: 02) 541-0808) is on the junction near the Customs Office.
Rather than following the traditional method of preparing nengmyeon, the Eulmildae (Tel: 02) 717-1922) can be described as a restaurant exercising modest craftsmanship, such as serving nengmyeon with ice cubes floating on the soup and boiling the meat soup with generous amounts of ox bones, beef shanks and top round cuts, and then quick-freezing the liquid.
Of course, most of the restaurants above offer nengmyeon as a sort of a dessert course, which is to have after eating grilled meat, such as bulgogi (seasoned beef) or galbi (ribs).
Whenever people have nengmyeon, they want the waiters to cut the noodles with scissors for them, but this is not recommended. The metal of the scissors alters the original flavor of the buckwheat noodle and therefore, if one is determined to taste the real thing, one should carry a pair of wooden or plastic chopsticks to the nengmyeon house and leave the stainless chopsticks offered at the restaurant unused.
Compared to other noodles that are much easier to eat, like udong and ramyeon, nengmyeon can seem too mild, but this no-taste plainness and simplicity is the very gist of the dish's taste.
(Weekly Chosun's Food Columnist Go Hyeong-uk, firstname.lastname@example.org)