I love dakgalbi. For some reason – I don’t know why – the Korean tourist and food promotion agencies don’t believe me. Their marketing campaigns concentrate, usually witlessly, on the undoubtedly healthy properties of bibimbap and the much more dubious health-promoting properties of kimchi. Whenever the authorities are asked what they think foreigners want, the usual foods come up again and again – see this 2010 post at ZenKimchi, for example – but dakgalbi is often nowhere to be seen. A shame, because for me it encapsulates so much of what Korean food is about – a huge bubbling dish, cooking at the table and waiting to be shared, red as the fires of hell and hopefully just as hot. In addition, I don’t review enough Korean restaurants on this blog, and one of my resolutions for 2016 is to write up some more of them (this is not a kimchi-free zone ㅋㅋㅋ).
So when my friend Peter Kim posted on Facebook about a place in Hyehwa serving up huge portions of savoury, chicken-heavy dakgalbi at rock bottom prices, I knew I had to try it for myself. Even though his photos made the food look amazing, I didn’t entirely trust them – you see, Peter specialises in food photography, and his photos always make food look amazing (you can check out his website here), so the only way I could know for sure was to make the trip out there myself. Damn, I’m glad I did, because this was some of the best dakgalbi I’ve had.
Jongno Gopchang and Dakgalbi, to give the restaurant its full title, is a no-frills joint that does exactly what it says on the sign. It’s in a university district to the north of the city centre and on a Monday evening, the place was absolutely packed, so that we were lucky to get a table.
Most of the other diners seemed to be there for the gopchang, but it was chicken we were after, not intestines. Given that we were hungry, and with each portion costing only 9,000 won, it seemed reasonable for us to order three servings between the three of us.
Bloody hell. The photo perhaps doesn’t do justice to the sheer scale of the dish. By dakgalbi standards, what immediately struck me was how big a mound of chicken there was underneath the noodles, rice cakes and gaennip leaves. The ratio of chicken to veggies was very high, which straight away counts as a big plus point in my book, as stingy cabbage-heavy portions are the one thing that often annoys me about this food. There was no danger of that here.
The chicken came to the table already part-cooked, so we didn’t have to wait too long until the dish was ready to eat. It was terrific. The sauce was spicy but not overly so; all three of us were sweating by the end, thanks to the cumulative effect of the chilli and the warm evening, but I wouldn’t have dialed down the Scoviles even half a notch. I’ve had a lot hotter.
As advertised, the dish was dominated by the chicken, not random chunks of cabbage. The flavour was only enhanced by the onion and gaennip leaves. Halfway through we paused for breath, mopping our brows, worrying out loud that we’d never finish. There was just so damn much of it. I don’t think 27,000 won has ever bought so much food in my life.
Onward we ploughed, but our spoons seemed to make no inroads into the huge pile of spicy chicken and noodles; like Andy Dufresne trying to tunnel his way out of Shawshank with a miniature rock hammer, we feared it might take us twenty years to finish our quest.
An aeon later, there was light at the end of the tunnel. In hoarse whispers, we ordered a couple of portions of bokkeumbap to stir fry in the remaining sauce. We could barely move by this point, but a Korean meal isn’t really complete without rice, so they say, so it seemed rude not to.
I had brought a friend, visiting from abroad, to try dakgalbi for the first time. As we staggered, blinking, into the neon night, he was muttering over and over to himself, “I have to move here. I have to move here.” I may move to Hyehwa.
- Category: Korean
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Dakgalbi (9,000 won per portion)
- Subway: Hansung University Station (한성대입구역) exit 1
- Directions: Coming out of exit 1 of Hansung University station on line 4, walk straight and then turn right onto the first sidestreet. The big purple sign will greet you about fifty feet down the street on your right. It’s also worth pointing out that bus 143 from Noksapyeong / HBC stops almost directly by exit 1, so if you live near there you can simply take the bus.
- Hours: Unknown, but may be closed Sundays. It is certainly open Mondays, though.