Review: Mandu, Sooyook From Kkangtong Mandu in Samcheongdong (삼청동 깡통만두)

One of my all time favorite Korean food is mandu. Steamed, fried, boiled in soups, I love mandu of all kinds and my freezer is almost never without a frozen batch of them.

It's not at all an easy dish to make as it involves a lot of preparation even before you get cooking which is why so many folks today are inclined to purchase pre-made ones or get their mandu fix at stores and shops. But for all the pre-made mandus and mandu restaurants out there, you'd be surprised at how many of them make some crummy mandu. I'm talking stuffed with mostly fillers such as ground, leftover soybeans or just chock full of MSG and other additives. But a few joints around the older parts of Seoul are known for churning out legit mandu as they have been for decades including today's spot.

Kkangtong Mandu is found in Anguk-dong to the north, though originally it was located in Hannam-dong (just by Itaewon) until 2013 or so before unfortunately getting kicked out by the landowners. Despite that little break in between, it's been in operation since 1988 by Park Hee Ja whose maternal grandparents came from the North. Having grown up with the memory and experience of making mandu with her family, she eventually set up Kkangtong Mandu where she's been making the same food she ate and learned from her own mother and grandmother.

The menu offerings here consists of what I like to call comfort "soul" Korean food including kalguksu (7,000), bibimguksu (8,000), kongguksu (9,000), manduguk (8,000), onban (9,000), kalguksu with mandu (8,000), steamed mandu (7,000), bossam (30,000 for medium and 35,000 for large), sooyook and jeon (30,000), mandu stew (25,000 for medium and 35,000 for large), mung bean pancake (10,000), beef jeon (20,000), pajeon (20,000), fish jeon (15,000), and jeon assortment (20,000).

They are best known for their mandu which are all made in-house as are the noodles, soup stock, and just about everything else.

As I said above, the location of Kkangtong Mandu moved from Hannamdong to Anguk-dong recently and is now housed in a renovated hanok so it has a lot of wood in its layout while the tables are floor seating only.

Serving dishes are all ceramic to add to the homely feel while the spoons and chopsticks come wrapped to ease sanitation concerns.

I visited here actually for a friend's birthday so we had quite a feast. In addition to the sooyook + jeon combo, we also got an assortment of kalguksu, steamed dumplings, manduguk, bibimguksu, and onban.

For the sooyook and jeon, which came out first, an assortment consisting of kimchi, green onion kimchi, pickled onions, and a spicy and non spicy dipping sauce came to the table.

The kimchi varieties are excellent, fresh, and made in-house. Not too fermented but not completely unripe either. Nice crunch and just enough kick to impart some synergy with the main dishes.

The sooyook and jeon combo is an intriguing one in which the tender boiled beef slices are accompanied by some fish jeon and a thinly sliced cucumber and green onion mixture. It's definitely not a combination I've come across before and I was rather intrigued.

The way of eating is simple, take a bit of the onion, green onion mixture, a piece of beef, and spoon a bit of dipping sauce on top- spicy peppers and kimchi topping a side option for those who want a bit of heat. Not knowing what to expect, I placed the entire combination in my mouth and was instantly a fan. The thin slices of beef are expertly cooked to a perfect tender point and its beefy flavors aren't overwhelmed by the savory dipping sauce. But the beef and dipping sauce alone would have been a rather dull affair but it's the green onion and cucumber mixture that really brings it to the top. Given a tangy and slightly sweet dressing before mixed, the fragrances of the green onion and cucumber comes together with the beef in an unexpected way that still allows the beef to play the central role. Adding the occasional green onion kimchi brought about another fun dimension to the combination while taking bites of the flaky fish jeon in between provided a combination of the flavors of the land and sea. This sort of light-yet-let-the-ingredients-shine-individually kind of North Korean style dish is my preferred style which is why this sooyook jeon combination was a real winner for me.

Onban is a unique North Korean dish that's famed in the Pyongyang region. Usually chicken and other ingredients such as mushrooms are simmered with other vegetables to create a deep broth with additions later such as pieces of nokdoo jeon (mung bean pancakes), mandu, and/or rice and noodles added. It's essentially a Pyongyang version of gukbap and the onban at Kkangtong Mandu doesn't disappoint. It's not as spicy as it looks and instead the deep flavors of the broth are what's left to standout. I only tried a few sips of a friend's but I'm quite keen to get this as my main dish the next time I come back.

The bibimguksu at Kkangtong Mandu is among the most aesthetically pleasing I've ever seen. To be honest, I'm not a big fan of bibimguksu or bibimbap as I feel it's essentially a blob of red pepper paste and ingredients with the gochujang seasoning tending to drown out the flavors of everything. Here though the seasoning is light while the toppings of radish, shredded chicken meat, toasted sesame strips, etc are given their respect. What you get is an interesting mix of flavors and textures that isn't overwhelmed by the seasoning. The ample bits of freshly ground toasted sesame seed gives the dish an extra nutty depth that showcases the North's ability to let its ingredients shine yet come together.

The kalmandu is kalguksu (knife cut noodles) and mandu in one. The broth is light and delicious and noodles have just the elasticity to make you chew and slurp. The soup is somewhat lighter in flavor than what many may be used to. But for that same price, I would most definitely go with the...

...manduguk. Isn't she a beautiful sight? Five mandus sit bobbing in the soup, their translucent skin giving just a peek of their packed stuffing. As each dumpling is modestly different in size and shape, you can tell they've been lovingly made by hand.

The mandus come in three flavors, one is the gogi mandu (or meat mandu) packed with minced pork, chives, garlic, ginger, and vegetables. The fragrant chives, ginger, etc, giving a gentle enveloping of the minced pork.

The kimchi mandu is surprisingly mild though it retains a bit of the chili fragrances.

The last one, shrimp, came with a whole shrimp stuffed inside and was my favorite.

Of course, if you're not too crazy about the soup, you can just order the dumplings on their own which still comes in the three different flavors (2 of each). With just a bit of seasoning sauce on top, they do make for a delight.

As I've shared before, I have a bit of Northern blood in me (through my mum's side) so this kind of lighter, emphasis on the ingredients and less on the seasoning is just the kind of thing for me but for those who are more used to the saltier and stronger flavors of the south, some of the dishes at Kkangtong Mandu may come off as lacking in seasoning in comparison. So use the seasoning sauces or eat with some of the delicious kimchi provided if you wish. But if you can, I say resist from going overboard on the seasoning as the dishes here are meant to highlight the textures and flavors of the ingredients. Try chewing through the mandu and identifying the different tastes. Without any MSG or overpowering flavors, it's a lesson on the basics of fresh ingredients which is something that's much needed in the ramen and everything spicy obsessed Korean palette.

3 out of 4 Stars
Those accustomed to the South's stronger flavors may find the food on the blander side but there's no denying there's a lot of attention and care that goes into the dishes at Kkangtong Mandu. The mandus stuffed with fresh ingredients are the stars while dishes such as the sooyook jeon surprises in pleasant ways. The renovated hanok the restaurant is in is very clean and spacious with private rooms and servers are attentive. Prices are also very reasonable, especially considering how time consuming many of the dishes are, making it a great spot for both lunch or dinner.

서울특별시 종로구 재동 84-22
84-22, Jae-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Korea

Come out exit 2 of Anguk Station and walk straight for about 100 meters until you see a narrow alley on your right (the alley entrance should be right before a pedestrian crosswalk on your left). Go into the alley and walk 30 meters until you get to a three way intersection and Kkangtong Mandu should be right in front of you.




Draft Korean beer and bottled soju available

Kkangtong Mandu is closed on Sundays.