Cold buckwheat noodles is now a popular dish in South Korea but many are aware that naengmyun is regional food originated from Pyeongyang, the capital city of North Korea. ㅡMy local friend who is in love with Pyeongyang-style naengmyun told me that I must try Wooraeok, one of the oldest restaurants and a pioneer responsible for popularizing such significant dish in Seoul.
I stumbled upon the restaurant by coincidence; I was walking along the Bangsan Marketplace being amazed at the sheer size of the market. I then came across a back alley with huge parking lot. Across from the parking lot stood a big, rectangular building that I did not recognized as a restaurant at first. The building was not what I would have expected. For a restaurant that is more than 70 years old, the building was clean and modernized. Must have done a grand renovation, I figured, like how it often is with famous diners in Korea.
I read about Wooraeok from a book that I borrowed from Seoul Metropolitan Library last week. The book is called 백년식당 (100 year-old restaurants) and is written by chef and columnist Park Chan-il. He traveled around Korea to visit old, historic restaurants and analyzed the secrets behind their long-term success. I remember reading that one thing the old, successful restaurants have in common is the employees that are as old as the restaurant itself who have been serving for decades. He mentioned Wooraeok’s front manager and how most patrons assume that he is the owner of the place. The manager has been in charge of the hall for more than 50 years so no wonder the old man is mistaken for the owner.
Unfortunately, the reception table was vacant when I walked in. It was a little after 3pm on Thursday so maybe the infamous front manager was at his break. I was glad that I avoided lunchtime as I knew that for most of the time there would be a lineup. There were some empty seats so I was fortunate to be served right away. A bowl of Pyeongyang-style cold buckwheat noodle soup. Time to see for myself what the 70 years of history has to offer in a single bowl of noodles.
The broth was significantly different from other buckwheat noodles that I have tried. It looked clear but had the taste of thick beef broth. When Chef Park visited the kitchen he asked for the secret behind their broth, and the answer he got was, “you just boil the meat”. Unlike other naengmyun places, Wooraeok would not add any other ingredient to their beef broth. It’s only the plain old beef juice that was cooled. I was surprised that it was not so bland. Maybe because the flavour was not too strong, I was able to taste the buckwheat in the noodles better which was aromatic.
In the end, I finished the entire bowl by myself which doesn’t happen too often. I was a little sad to walk in to a modern building instead of 70-year old shack but after tasting the food I realized that the history continues not only on the walls but in a bowl as well.