Review: Veteran Kalguksu at Express Bus Terminal
A couple of months ago, as documented in this post, I spent a day or so in Jeonju, the culinary capital of Korea, eating and drinking my way round some of the signature foods of the region. There were lots of good things packed into that 24 hours or so, not least a really nice bibimbap on our way back to the bus station, but the undoubted highlight for me was – wait for it – a bowl of soup. No ordinary soup, this was the kalguksu (noodle soup) at the mighty Veteran in central Jeonju. A thick, hearty, lifechanging bowl of soup, a soup that brought me closer to Jesus and all His saints, a soup to make a man smash out all his teeth just to have an excuse never to eat solid food again. I supped on the broth in my dreams, and woke up sweating.
In case I’m being unclear, I really liked the soup.
So when my friend Sky casually dropped into conversation a couple of weeks back that there was a branch of Veteran in Seoul, I felt like strangling her with a knife-cut noodle. Why didn’t you tell me, I shouted, almost weeping with the injustice of it all. Why have you allowed this soup to be absent from my life for even a moment longer than necessary? There was not a moment to waste. I buried her body in an unmarked plot near the river and made a beeline for Express Bus Terminal, where this soupy nirvana was promised to me.
All buses were leading to Express Bus Terminal! It was a sign from Jebus, or perhaps the Flying Noodle Monster – He (or She) wanted me to be one with everything, but particularly with the soup. I jumped off the bus while it was still moving, I strode through the doors on a mission. Commuters parted before me, probably assuming I was late for a bus, or perhaps running for a tearful reunion with a loved one, which in a sense I was. And suddenly, there was the sign.
I hadn’t been this excited since Uma Thurman wore a leather catsuit in The Avengers back in 1998. There were a couple of other items on the menu, but my focus was laser-like. Within a couple of minutes, out came the soup. It looked the same. It smelled the same. Was it the same?
Atop the soup, all present and correct, are the Holy Trinity of savoury flavourings that elevates this bowl of noodles past the ordinary: gochugaru (red pepper flakes), roasted seaweed flakes, and ground perilla seeds.
It’s this last that makes Veteran’s kalguksu, if not exactly unique, at least different. I only discovered yesterday that the deulkkae seeds, (들깨 in Korean) also known as wild sesame, are the seeds of the perilla leaf, or gaennip (깻잎), which is one of my favourite parts of any Korean BBQ meal, so much more interesting than flavour-killing lettuce. So the perilla plant is now my favourite plant, albeit in a less than crowded field. In its seedier form, the perilla gives an edge to the broth that I can’t quite describe – a bit nutty, and indeed a little like roasted sesame seeds. Or maybe coriander seeds. Whatever. I like the seeds.
Veteran’s kalguksu also boasts a broth far richer and cloudier than the norm, thickened with egg and, no doubt, all sorts of other goodness. I take a tentative sip: so far, so good. Just look at that f*cking broth.
But now comes the ultimate test; the noodles. Are they the same as the original? I grab the slippery strands with the chopsticks and bite.
There’s no doubt that Veteran, sited as it is in the middle of the busiest bus terminal in the country, lacks the atmosphere and majesty of the Jeonju headquarters, and it suffers a little from the holiday wine syndrome – that bottle of cheap vino blanco that tasted like heaven at a little table on the beach with freshly-caught white fish somehow loses its charm when you uncork it on a wet Wednesday night in Huddersfield.
But, having been back a couple of times now, I’m convinced that the soup itself remains of the very highest quality. It’s bursting with flavour, feels healthy even if I’m sure it’s not, and endlessly warming and filling – this would be great in winter, I think. It doesn’t seem to get much love from users on Naver, which puzzles me. Maybe there’s something about the herbiness of the soup that doesn’t make everyone happy. Well, if that gets me a seat at lunchtime, so much the better.
Can I honestly recommend that you travel halfway across the city just to try it? Well, if you do, half of you will fall in love and the other half will be wondering why the hell I was raving about it. If you’re not the sort of person who thinks they could fall in love with a bowl of soup, then you should probably look elsewhere for your lunch tomorrow. But I do think everyone owes it to themselves to try it, and find out if you hear the angels singing to you as I did.
Judging by the popularity of this place at lunchtime – I walked in at ten past two on a Friday and it was full – it’s only a matter of time until other branches open around the city, if they haven’t already. Until then, all roads lead to Veteran.
- Category: Korean
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Please don’t ask silly questions.
- Subway: Express Bus Terminal exit 8, follow the signs for Central City and/or the Honam Line.
- Directions: Veteran is on the left as you enter the building from the main city bus dropoff point / subway exit 8. It’s a bit of a maze in there, so good luck.
- Hours: No idea. Sorry!