Some of the great things about having a food blog is that I get to eat more than my fair share of delicious food (pretty obvious, right?), and in the process, I get to meet some pretty cool people along the way. Not too long ago, I was able to meet a cool person by the name of Graham Holliday, a freelance journalist/blogger/writer, and most importantly, a Korean food lover like me. He was in Jeju to sample the island’s traditional food and to collect information for his book on Korean regional cuisine. For a few short days, we got to chat about life (particularly our nomadic lifestyles) and tried some delicious Jeju dishes in the process. However, the highlight was introducing him to the local haenyeo (female free divers) that live and work in my neighborhood. For obvious reasons, they were reluctant to give an interview on such notice because, according to them, it’s not an everyday occurrence where a strange foreigner comes asking for an interview on the spot. Thanks to Graham’s calm and sincere demeanor (plus some of his own Korean), the haenyeo halmonis (aged 74 and 77) really opened up to Graham during the interview. I was thankful to learn just as much during this exchange and captured some pictures on my haenyeo Facebook page. Fast forward to our rather impromptu meeting in Seoul, some personal obligations brought me back to the city while Graham finished up his trek from the southern provinces working his way up to the big city. Being big fans of the traditional stuff, we hit up some of Seoul’s oldest restaurants during our two-day food binge. My faint memory recalls visiting legendary places like Imun Seolleungtang (Korea’s oldest restaurant), Gwanghamun Jip (an iconic kimchi jjigae joint), Byukdam Pocha (a hole-in-the-wall pocha shack), Ungteori Tongdak (one of my favorite KFC places), and this review of a hidden gem in Myeongdong Halmae Nakji.
Open for over 65 years in the bustling, tourist-friendly area of Myeongdong, the restaurant has been doing some delicious things with their signature dish of nakji bokkeum (spicy stir-fried octopus). They have two varieties with minor differences: nakji baekban–a set meal with spicy octopus, rice, and side dishes for 9,000 won person; nakji bokkeum–a larger portion of spicy octopus and served on a platter with sides but no rice (an additional 1,000 won, if needed). The cool thing about the place is the open kitchen concept (not sure if that was deliberate or not) where the veteran ajumma stir fries the spicy octopus right in front of you. We ordered the nakji bokkeum, a conspicuously-looking, fiery red dish that looked small at first glance but ate like a hearty meal. The spice level was not nearly as painful as we expected, Graham handled it with little or no sweat while I needed a few napkins and cold water at my side. Honestly, I think the ajumma toned down the spice level because, according to many older Koreans, foreigners can’t handle spicy food (lol). Little do they realize that many Koreans (or Korean-American like me) can’t tolerate mouth-burning dishes as this was supposed to be. Anyways, I really enjoyed the dish–the combination of super tender pieces of octopus and sauce paired perfectly with the blanched sprouts, which helped alleviate all the spiciness. This is simple, straight-forward, unpretentious food that fits the mold of a 65-year-old restaurant. We both gave it two thumbs up and did 2 cha (2nd round) at the aforementioned fried chicken place. 🙂
Food ★★★★ out of 5 stars
Service: ★★★★ out of 5 stars
Ambiance: ★★★½ out of 5 stars
Value: ★★★★ out of 5 stars
Myeongdong Halmae Nakji ( 명동 할매낙지)
Address: 31-7 Myeongdong-2ga, Junggu, Seoul (서울특별시 중구 명동2가 31-7)