Best noodles in Seoul
Long before instant kimchi noodles became an international pantry staple, innovative techniques, textures, and flavors were mastered to bring the world an endless selection of Korean noodles. Noodle guru Hanna Bae gives a detailed guide on where to get Seoul's most impressive noodles and why they stand out.
The best cure for a sweltering day in Seoul is an icy bowl of naengmyeon.
Of the two different kinds of Hamheung or Pyongyang, urban epicure Jeong Dae-won explains, “Pyongyang naengmyeon has buckwheat in it, so it’s softer when you chew it and you can bite through the noodles easily, while Hamhung naengmyeon noodles contain potatoes so the noodles are a bit tougher.”
The differences are more apparent to the mouth. In recommending Hamheung Naengmyeon, Jeong says the noodles here are better than those found in Seoul’s naengmyeon mecca of Ojang-dong.
At Hamheung Naengmyeon, the hoe version is most popular, says manager Hong Myoung-hee.
The raw fish in the house specialty is stingray, whose fleshy, toothsome texture is a nice match for the noodles’ remarkable tensile strength (there’s a reason why there’s a large pair of scissors at each table).
A bowl of Woo Lae Oak’s Pyongyang naengmyeon stimulates totally different taste buds.
Salty and umami flavors burst forth from this cool, meaty beef broth, with firm slices of beef brisket swirled in with the softer noodles.
Fun fact: The Washington D.C.-area branch is where Hillary Clinton lunched with journalist Laura Ling after the latter's release by the North Korean government.
For the extreme foodie on the hunt for a truly authentic locals-only noodle experience , take a trip to the small town of Sokcho on the northeast coast of Korea, a two-and-a-half-hour bus journey from Seoul.
A shop called Jin-mi Makguksu will overwhelm you generous portions of ice cold buckwheat Makguksu noodles, topped off with seaweed, white kimchi, spicy red mu kimchi and half of a boiled egg.
Hamheung Naengmyeon. 7-32 Yeongdeungpo-dong 3-ga, Yeongdeungpo-gu (영등포구 영등포동3가 7-32), +82 2 2678 2722
Woo Rae Oak (main branch). 118-1 Jugyo-dong, Jung-gu (중구 주교동) +82 2 2265 0151, home.moatv.com
Jin-mi Makguksu. 1346-8 Sokcho-shi, Gangwondo (강원도 속초시 청호동 1346-8); +82 33 638 8294
Comforting kalguksu is knife-cut in ribbons from a block of wheat flour dough, then simmered in a rich, seafood-based broth. The most famous kalguksu restaurant, beloved by tourists and locals alike, is Myeong-dong Gyoja.
You may be startled by brusque wait staff, but you just have to keep coming back for their smoky, dumpling-laden noodle soup.
If service with a smile and an authentic, down-home atmosphere is more your style, visit Halmeoni Kalguksu.
Nestled in a cranny near downtown’s Jongno 3-ga, this wildly popular eatery gets a lunch-hour lineup of some 50 people. Manager Cho Soon Hee reigns over the bustling open kitchen and dining room, yet manages to chat to waiting patrons and welcomes snapshots.
Her freshly handmade noodles swim in a hearty broth sprinkled with dried seaweed, chopped scallions and bits of torn noodle dough called sujebi to create happiness in your mouth.
Myoungdong Kyoja. 25-3 and 33-4 Myeong-dong 2-ga, Jung-gu (중구 명동2가 25-3, 중구 명동2가 33-4); +82 2 776 5348; www.mdkj.co.kr
Halmeoni Kalguksu. 49-1 Dongeui-dong, Jongno-gu (종로구 돈의동 49-1) +82 2 744 9548
For generations, memilguksu fans have flocked to Gwanghwamun Mijin Memilguksu for its soba dish of stretchy noodles and salty broth, which waitress Han Moon Gyeong says is a combination of anchovy, kelp-based dashi, radish and onion.
“It gives you energy,” she says. The restaurant serves over 1,000 customers daily in the summer.
Adjacent to the ancient royal palace Gyeongbokgung, Maemil Kkotpilmuryeop (The Buckwheat Season), meanwhile, represents a quieter era of modern Korea.
“There are too many cute and pricey restaurants in Seoul serving mediocre food, so it's refreshing when no-nonsense decor and service is matched with delicious noodles and crisp buchim pancakes,” says frequent customer Matt Kelley.
The homemade noodles here have a more rustic texture, and you can see the tiny buckwheat fibers in each tendril. Waiter and sometime cook Kwak Sang Cheol says the seasonal recipes come from his grandmother, who lives in Gangwon Province, famous for its buckwheat fields.
The upcoming menu switch for warmer months will bring to the menu buckwheat versions of kongguksu, served in a cold, creamy ground soybean soup, and spicy bibimnaengmyeon.
Both buckwheat-focused eateries also offer tasty pancakes, with Mijin’s rolled and stuffed with chopped tofu, kimchi, pumpkin and pork.
Gwanghwamun Mijin Memilguksu. Le Meilleur Jongno Town building 24 Jongno 1-ga, Jongno-gu (종로구 종로1가 24번지 르메이에르종로타운); +82 2 732 1954; 10 a.m.-11 p.m.
Maemil Ggotpilmuryeop. 7-23 Tongui-dong, Jongno-gu (종로구 통의동 7-23); +82 2 734 0367
Jajangmyeon and jjamppong
Is it a sin to lump these two loosely Chinese-influenced dishes together when you can get exceptional takes on both at one restaurant?
Korean-Chinese food may be a delivery staple in Seoul –- in fact, the popular smartphone app, Baedal ui Minjok (Delivery for the Nation), has a whole section marked with a cartoon icon of jajangmyeon -– but for the best of the best (at least within Seoul’s city limits), take a trip to 60-year-old Hyeonraejang.
Their noodles are a feast not only for the stomach, but also the eyes, as the glassed-in kitchen provides an excellent view of their noodle chef as he hand-stretches his noodles.
After 40 years of the craft, the chef's dexterity and shoulder strength are worth marveling over.
This lively kitchen churns out bouncy noodles topped with its thick, sticky signature black sauce mixed with crunchy vegetables.
Firebreathing types may prefer the samseon jjamppong, a spicy, tomato-red soup bursting with the fruit of the sea – sliced sea cucumber, fat shrimp and the like.
Oh, and they deliver within the Mapo neighborhood.
Hyeonraejang. BBS Building. 140 Mapo-dong, Mapo-gu (마포구 마포동 140 불교방송 빌딩 ); +82 2 715 0730; www.현래장.kr