Review: Dongwon Jip Gamjatang at Euljiro 3-ga
Gamjatang is one of my favourite Korean soups, though even to call it “soup” is stretching a definition, as we’ll see. Made with pork neck bones, potatoes and a rich red broth, it’s one of the most visually striking dishes you can get, the huge bones poking out of the dark liquid like the skeleton of some fearful creature of the deep. It’s not entry-level Korean food and no mistake, but if you can get over the slightly scary appearance of your lunch – or if, like me, you see it and instantly want to try it – you really shouldn’t miss it.
Anyway, my mind turned to gamjatang this week when Dan Gray posted up his favourite five places to get this soup, over at Seoul Eats. When I saw his photo of the offering from Dongwon Jip, in the city centre, I knew what I wanted to eat. So I made the expedition to Euljiro 3-ga yesterday at lunchtime to see if the taste matched the photos.
Dongwon Jip is a little hole-in-the-wall place in the industrial area of Euljiro 3-ga, surrounded by little hardware shops selling copper wire, metal sheeting, paint and tools and God only knows what else. This is a dreadful old cliché, but it looks unchanged from what Seoul must have looked like in the 1970s, an ever-shrinking island of stasis in the midst of a sea of rapid change.
Daniel Tudor, the erstwhile Economist correspondent for Korea and co-owner of the Booth pizza pub chain, talks about how some people are Gangnam style while others are Gangbuk style, preferring north of the river to the clean open but characterless avenues of the south side of Seoul. Well, call me a Gangbuk saram, even if a big sweaty white guy sticks out in the streets round Dongwon Jip like a nun in a strip club.
This isn’t a place to take a girl on a first date, unless she likes sitting among soju-swilling ajosshis picking shards of pork off a huge pig bone. (If she does, for God’s sake propose to her immediately.)
It’s no-frills, and while there’s other stuff on the menu, the soup is the star. There are group-sized portions, as you’d expect, but at lunchtime most people are eating the individual servings for 7,000 won, so that’s what I got.
Gamjatang – here known as “gamjaguk” (감자국), but it’s the same stuff – can be fiddly to eat. The bones are cooked for ages, so that the meat is literally falling off them, but there’s still a bit of surgery to do with chopsticks and spoon to pull all the pork from the skeleton. I’ve been to places where this needed scissors or a very firm grip, but the meat is so well cooked here that it really does fall from the bones with just a nudge of a spoon.
As you slowly work your way through the bowl, discarding bits of spine as you go, you’ll occasionally encounter smaller pieces of bone in the bowl, so be careful. Again, this soup was so well made that was barely an issue. Despite its deep red colour, the broth wasn’t spicy, or at least not especially so. Instead, it was rich and flavourful, with lots of spring onion and garlic to pep it up. Huge chunks of potato help the soup live up to its name (though there is some dispute about whether the “gamja” in the name refers to the pork neck, the potatoes, or both). So filling, even for a big man like me.
You can eat the soup with rice and little bits of pork in it. Larger pieces can be smeared with ssamjang and maybe a small shard of garlic and eaten with chopsticks. I got some odd looks for pulling bones out of the soup with my fingers, but then again I was getting a lot of curious looks anyway, perhaps because I was a foreigner, or perhaps because despite it being lunchtime, I was the only person in the restaurant not pounding back soju.
The kimchi here is lovely, tangy and fresh, and there’s some radish as well to keep you going. I can’t imagine you’d need it – such a generous portion of soup for 7,000 won. I hate to imagine what the big size looks like.
Dongwon Jip serves up a really, really good bowl of soup. God, it was satisfying, hearty and rich. I was sweating like bejesus, more from the humid day than the spice of the soup, but it was totally worth it. I can imagine it being even better in winter. But there’s no way I’m waiting until then to come here again. About as down to earth a Korean food experience as you can have, but one of the best. Recommended.
- Category: Korean
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Gamjaguk (감자국)
- Subway: Euljiro 3-ga station / 을지로 3-가 역) exit 4.
- Directions: There’s more than one way to get here, but the easiest is as follows: come out of exit 4 and turn immediately left into the little alleyway in the second photo of this post. Walk along the street for a couple of minutes and you will come upon the restaurant on your right, next to a chicken place. There is no English signage at all, so you should look for the shopfront shown in the photos above. Once inside just ask for the gamjaguk. If it’s full, there’s a staircase leading up to a second floor, just to the left of the main door.
- Hours: Monday – Saturday all day until 10pm.