There aren’t many opportunities for people to say that they’ve eaten at Seoul’s oldest restaurant. Well, that’s exactly what I did on my last visit to Seoul. After coming across an article that lists Seoul’s 30 oldest restaurants (the original has a top 100), I’ve been trying my best to make a visit to each and every one before they disappear. Some people have asked what my interest (or slight obsession) is in this endeavor and it’s very simple: Korean restaurants — particularly old-school restaurants — are a dying breed these days and they’re being replaced by newer, more modern and foreign-friendly establishments. If that wasn’t worrisome, on my last two visits to Seoul, three of my regular places with a combined 50+ years of experience just vanished, literally. Here is one of the sad victims called Yogi Guksu that I used to frequent when living in Hongdae.
Before any more places disappear, a visit to Korea’s oldest restaurant, Imun Seolleungtang, was a must for me. The place is iconic for its food and history, also serving as a place of nostalgia for many generations and elders in the Jongro district. And believe it or not, they’ve been open so long (1904 to be exact) that the Joseon Dynasty ended their reign just a decade or so earlier! The only thing that bummed me out was learning I missed out eating at their original location housed in a rustic hanok a few blocks away. Regrets aside, this “newer” location was just as humble and unpretentious just as I imagined. The drab and simple decor was one surefire sign that their focus was on the food and nothing else. And speaking of the food, the order of seolleungtang (beef bone soup) and doganitang (beef cartilage/kneecap soup) were both solid. The milky-white beefy broth provided an invigorating, refreshing component while the chunks of meat/cartilage/kneecaps kept our mouths busy with different meaty textures. This was my second time ordering doganitang, (a dish that I detested when I was younger due to its indiscernible pieces of meat), but I must admit that I now prefer it over the more popular seolleungtang. With any good seolleungtang restaurant, you gotta have solid banchan (side dish) and they do — kimchi and kkakdugi (cubed radish kimchi) were deliciously fresh, crunchy, and well-seasoned. With their time-tested recipe untouched for all those years, I can definitely see why this place has flourished even during the most tumultuous of times.
Per custom, I was fortunate enough to have an informal interview with the ajumma/emo (middle-aged woman/auntie) who was kind enough to answer some questions during her downtime. Here are her thoughts about the food and the restaurant: “The broth is made by boiling ox bones, brisket, parts of the cow’s head, and some intestinal parts with different vegetables overnight. The recipe has basically stayed the same all these years. Honestly, there is nothing special about it in terms of how it’s made, but nostalgia and history have maintained our loyal customers for all these years. I’ve worked here over 30 years and many of the workers in the kitchen have been here two decades or more as well. The word Imun comes from Imun-gol, the now-obsolete name of the restaurant’s location when it first opened and remembered as a gate door that led into the larger street. The restaurant’s name comes from the old variation of the word seolnongtang 설농탕 so you’ll rarely see this spelling at other restaurants. Family ownership has remained intact, being passed down from one generation to the next since its inception and will continue that tradition for future generations.”
“Food, in the end, in our own tradition, is something holy. It’s not about nutrients and calories. It’s about sharing. It’s about honesty. It’s about identity.” ~ Louise Fresco
Food ★★★★ out of 5 stars
Service: ★★★★ out of 5 stars
Ambiance: ★★★½ out of 5 stars
Value: ★★★★ out of 5 stars
Imun Seolleongtang 이문 설농탕
Address: 38-20 Ujeongguk-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul (Gyeonji-dong) 서울특별시 종로구 우정국로 38-20
Hours of Operation: 8am ~ 9pm
Directions via Naver map: http://me2.do/xO6lq4Nw