A top ten favorite food list for almost any Korean (and Korean food lovers) is almost sure to include jajangmyun. This black bean sauce-based noodle dish is rooted in Chinese cuisine from the Shandong region but has transformed over the last century into a hybrid Korean dish that's beloved by all around here. The base sauce is called "chunjang" and is made from darkly roasted soy beans and caramel, which is then stir fried in a hot wok (which then becomes "jajang") with diced vegetables and meat (usually pork but sometimes other protein including seafood). Some starch and stock may be added to enhance flavor and texture and then the thick black incorporated sauce is poured over thick, chewy wheat-based noodles, which are often pulled by hand.
I kind of liken the dish, and its fellow Chinese inspired Korean cuisine, to Tex-Mex food in the States. The root of Tex-Mex food is also undoubtedly "foreign" but it's since been adapted and transformed into its own category within American cuisine and is also widely loved and thought of as a comfort food for many Americans, especially when they're abroad.
While jajangmyun places are found all over Korea, and are probably one of the most common restaurants around, to go to the Korean birthplace of it, one must venture out to the historic Chinatown area in Incheon.
Incheon's Chinatown is Korea's only official Chinatown and has been found in this western neighborhood of Incheon since 1884. You'll find rows of Chinese restaurants which serves Jajangmyun and other Chinese-based dishes popular with Koreans in this area. Many of these establishments have been run in the same family for generations. So beloved is the jajangmyun dish that there's even a museum dedicated entirely to the black noodles in Chinatown.
Having to run some errands in Incheon one day, I stopped by Chinatown to grab jajangmyun for lunch with a friend. The place I was recommended to was Taehwawon by a family friend which is where we decided to go.
Taehwawon has been run by the same family for three generations and its popularity was evident on my visit even as we approached as the parking lot was comparatively full while neighboring restaurant lots were quite empty.
My friend and I opted to get an order of the 간자장 (Gan Jajang), in which the sauce ingredients are more prevalent and served separately from the noodles, while I got the 짬뽕 (Jjambong), which is noodles served in a spicy seafood-based broth. We also got an order of their fried dumplings for kicks.
After placing our order, a pot of chilled tea (it is summer after all) arrived alongside these must-have sides at any Korean-Chinese restaurant:
Dan mooji (pickled radish slices), chunjang sauce, sliced onions
These are sides that are considered a must (kind of akin to fries with burgers) for jajang myun or jjambbong. Koreans love to sprinkle a bit of vinegar found at the tables on the onion and dan mooji for an extra kick. The chunjang sauce is meant to be dipped into with the onion. The onion and chunjang is good stuff but make sure you weren't planning on holding an important face time meeting with anyone in particular afterwards...
As a sign that they really do make the jajangmyun to order, our main dishes took a good 4-5 minutes to come out. Not really a long time but for those a little more impatient it's something that should be noted. Just relax and remind yourself you are getting your noodles fresh to order!
As soon as our noodles arrived, one could already see a clear visual difference between Taehwawon and other places. To begin with, the mound of noodles was a clean yellow color and "springy" to touch. It wasn't soggy or clumping together, meaning the noodles had been cooked fresh within the past hour or so....
The gan jajang itself was also a sensual treat. Unlike the jajang at other places, one could clearly tell apart the various chopped vegetables and pork in the dish. In many other place it's just a black sludge-like thing in which diced things are found but you can't really tell what they are.
No questioning over what's gone into your jajang here!
The fragrant jajang scent was sweet and pungent with hints of the hot stir-fried veggies and pork. Immediately I poured the hot gan jajang over the noodles to begin the mixing....
Look at how beautifully mixed and coated the noodles are!
With your first bite of Taehwawon's jajangmyun, it's the amplified taste that catches you. The jajang's taste is deeper and I'd even add more complex than other jajangmyun. It's rich and for those who have never tasted jajang before, it might even come off as slightly salty but it's a fascinating mix of sweet, pungent, salty and other flavors that comes together beautifully. At Taehwawon, they make their own chunjang and it makes all the difference in the jajangmyun's taste. Richer, bolder and more broad-spanning, it's like the difference between factory-made dwenjang (bean paste) you buy at the store, and the real ish the grandmas make in the big earthenware pots by hand.
The diced veggies were cooked just right so they didn't fall apart into mush when chewing but with an ever-so-slight crunch. While the noodles is often the highlight of jajangmyun, the jajang sauce here was really the star and it would have been an excellent topping for rice to make jajangbap (jajang sauce over rice).
The jjambbong was also very good. Good amount of wok-fried veggies, squid and a shrimp for good measure. The trend in Korea these days with jjambbong tends to be over-the-top amounts of ingredients but as the OG Taehwawon shows, more is not always better with just the right ratio balance of noodles to the extra ingredients in the broth/soup.
The taste of the broth is always important and Taehwawon's jjambong didn't fail me. The seafood-based broth had that hint of "charry" flavor and scent that can only come from the initial wok stir-frying of the ingredient and with just the right amount of spicy kick. The jjambbong here definitely uses a generous amount of crushed ginger in its makeup which can be a tad overpowering taste-wise but nothing off-putting.
It's high-quality jjambbong but would I have the option between it and the jajangmyung here, I would opt for the jajangmyun here, hands down.
The fried dumplings came in a beautiful golden brown color and dotted with tiny bubble marks from their high temperature oil bath. They were hot, hot, hot upon arrival signifying they had just come out of their frying just minutes before.
Beautiful color on the fried dumplings
The insides were a nice mixture of veggies, pork and fragrant leeks. The leeks definitely give the dumplings a nice oomph. Still, my friend and I agreed that as tasty as the dumplings were, they didn't taste any better than dumplings at other places and we probably would skip them next time.
Inside the fried dumplings
While I would have loved to get in an order of tang soo yook (or sweet and sour crispy pork) or kkan poong gi (a spicy fried garlicky chicken dish), with us just being a party of two, we opted out, but from what I heard from others who are frequent patrons here, they are quite excellent as well.
Being a restaurant that's been in the same family with the same recipe for three generations, Taehwawon is as original and authentic as you can get when it comes to the Korean-Chinese cuisine. On top of that the food is great, both in terms of quality and taste. But it's really the jajangmyun that's the star here and it's the jajangmyun you should, without fail, order if you're here (and this is coming from someone who has always been more of a jjambong guy).
I can't say I'd say you need to go out of your way to come here for as Taehwawon is not only on the far end of western Incheon but it is just jajangmyun after all.
But if you're in the area or maybe would like to take a trip to Incheon's Chinatown, I'd definitely recommend it. For families, couples or friends, the surrounding Chinatown area is also fun to explore with shops, parks and eateries so why not take advantage of that and make a perfectly solid reason to grab yourself the best jajangmyun around?
Ratings: 3 out of 4 stars
인천광역시 중구 선린동 22
22, Seollin-dong, Jung-gu, Incheon 400-210
Parking: Valet parking available in the lot right across (Free!)
Alcohol: In addition to an assortment of Chinese liquor, Koreans love to celebrate occasions or treat important guests to goryangju (고량주) or kaoliang as it is usually known in its motherland. This is some hardcore stuff though with the proof going as much as 63 percent in some cases. I call it liquid fire, which you will understand why when you take a shot. :P If you feel adventurous or celebratory, get you and your party some with your jajangmyun and other dishes here!
Tip: If you have a group, opting for their various course meals might save you a few won while letting you sample more of the restauran'ts fare. This is a popular option at Taehwawon.
Also, this is kind of sly but for those who bring a car... since your parking is parked for free anyways...after your meal you can sort of slip away to explore the Chinatown area without having to worry about parking. Granted, if the restaurant is looking really full and short on parking or if you're planning on taking hours to look around I wouldn't recommend this...