“These are early Xmas gifts for you from friends living abroad. They’re helping a small sesame oil shop by purchasing their oils and they’ve asked me to donate to any restaurant that could benefit from them. I thought of you first.”
“Why me? I can’t accept these oils for free.”
“I don’t know if you remember, but I told you it’s not right that you only charge 6,000 won for your each of your kimchi jeon 김치전 and buchu jeon 부추전 while others easily charge over 10,000 won for lesser quality jeon. They were the perfect sool anju 술안주. Honestly, everything we ordered was so delicious that we kind of felt guilty paying what we paid for that night. On top of that, you let us sample dakbal 닭발 and haejangguk 해장국 without extra charge. You can’t get that kind of service anywhere else.”
“I don’t know what to say. You have to promise me to visit again with your friend—I will make something delicious for both of you. I will use them well, thank you.”
“Yes, we will visit soon. Merry Xmas.”
Memorable and very comforting kalguksu in this wicked cold spell that Seoul is experiencing right now. But, what makes this bowl of thick noodles even more special is the fact that the gracious halmoni wouldn’t dare accept my money after gifting the oils a few days ago – telling me she had nightmares and premonitions thereupon receiving them. Being respectful of her wishes, I agreed on one condition: I would buy a few cans of my favorite drink Dr. Pepper. Yep, that’s right, Dr. Pepper sold proudly at an old-school, traditional restaurant located in the foreign-friendly district that is Itaewon.
Sharing the last set of photos from this hidden gem in Itaewon – run gracefully by a lone halmoni who I think is the epitome of Korean food. Even before the complimentary kalguksu 칼국수 from my previous visit, my friend and I were treated like family as we were spoiled with terrific homestyle dishes one after another. This includes, among many, delectable bites of mool mandu 물만두 and her signature janchi guksu 잔치국수 – a wholesome, flavorful bowl of thin noodles in a light yet savory seafood-based broth. We ordered one bowl of the latter, but she insisted we accept a second bowl on the house because she “made too much.” Pictured is the second bowl for reference.
As much as the past year was a pile of for me and many others due to the virus, there are people far worse off and have limited options at their disposal. For instance, this halmoni was forced to vacate her previous restaurant/home after 23 years of business, the greedy landlord raising her rent despite being a vital fixture in the community. Her move to a nearby location is, needless to say, off the beaten path and not easily accessible unless you’re familiar with Itaewon. But, even with that, no restaurant in that area is immune to higher rent and forced eviction due to gentrification. She has about a year or two remaining on her current contract, which means she’ll again be at the mercy of the landlord.
With all that said – and recently visiting her eerily empty restaurant at noon (peak lunch hour) on a weekday – I’ve decided to restart a monthly social dinner that I once ran long ago. Tentative plans will be gathering with like-minded food people and sharing these amazing dishes with hopes to provide some support to these underappreciated restaurants. More details will be provided after Covid-related restrictions are lifted so, until then, I wish everyone a Happy & Healthy New Year!
Food: ★★★★ out of 5 stars
Service: ★★★★½ out of 5 stars
Ambiance: ★★★★ out of 5 stars
Value: 5 out of 5 stars
Ihwa Guksi 이화국시
Address: 57-1 Itaewon-dong Yongsan-gu (용산구 이태원동 57-1)
Hours: Open every day 10:00 am ~ 9:00 pm except Sundays
Click here for an interactive map: http://naver.me/FpXpc988