Review: Seoul's Oldest Restaurant - Imun Seolnongtang (이문 설농탕) *Michelin Bib Gourmand

It's perhaps fitting that the oldest restaurant in Seoul dishes out one of the city's most representative dish. Seollongtang or seolnongtang is considered a classic comfort dish in which ox bones and meat are boiled for hours to create that milky-white, ambrosia of the gods soup. Considering how fiery and bold Korean flavors can be, it's a surprisingly mild and simple dish that's only seasoned with salt and chopped green onions. It's also a dish that is attributed to the Seoul region.

There are actually a range of theories on how the dish's name came to be but a leading one is that it's derived from the all-important agricultural altar of Seonnongdang, just west of Gyeongbokgung Palace. Once a year here the king would pay a visit and participate in a sacrificial ceremony to encourage a successful agricultural crop for the year. The sacrificed oxes would then be boiled in a massive soup to feed the many. From this came the word "seolnongtang" meaning Seonnong soup.

In Imun Seoulnongtang's case, they've been serving their classic-favorite since 1908. 1908! That means people have been eating from this restaurant since before both World Wars and the Korean War!

Originally Imun Seoulnongtang first opened in Insadong where an Imun, or checkpoint used to be, hence its name.

It now resides in its present location though its recipe is said to be the same even after close to 110 years of operation.

Tucked away in an alley, it's not exactly prime real estate for a restaurant but such is the restaurant's pedigree and popularity that even in its location, people come to have a bowl at all hours and times.

The spacious floor has tables all around including private rooms, the latter of which is popular with office workers and gatherings.

A bowl of seolleongtang begins at 9K while you can get the special version (with more meat and variety of meat) for 12K. The doganitang (made with the knee cartilage) is also 12K while its special version is 13K. They also have meoritang (made with the head meat of the cow) for 9K and the special version for 12K.

As I mentioned, the restaurant is popular at all hours including late evenings when business folks gather to have drinks. For which they have an extensive beef anju offering including soo yook, dogani, head meat, and even tongue all for 30K each. Feeling even more adventurous? How about ox spleen? (15K)

Even if you're feeling squeamish about the other parts of cow they're serving, you should know that these ingredients are often the secret behind some of the best seolnongtang restaurants. Ox bones and regular meat alone can give you good broth but adding some of these other flavorful parts and (expertly) cooking it altogether gives it that depth that's nearly impossible to recreate at home. The regular seolnongtang and doganitang doesn't come with these other parts though they do go into the "special" versions.

Any good seolleongtang is nothing without its kkakdugi and kimchi to boot.

Kkakdugi in seolleongtang and other soup places tend to have a sweeter edge which is also the case here but thankfully not the sugar bombs that some of the other chain restaurants are increasingly offering these days. Nice and crunchy and just addictive with the soup.

The kimchi is a bit closer to geotjeoli, as in the fresh and less fermented kind of kimchi, but seasoned heavily to provide a robust counterpart for the milky soup.

Big bowls of kimchi and kkakdugi are placed at every table with a pair of tong and scissor. Simply scoop out portions into the smaller bowls and, of course, please don't waste by scooping out more than what you can eat :)

Shown below is the doganitang (regular) on left and the special seolnongtang on right.

The doganitang comes with a bowl of rice to the side while the seolnongtang dishes come with the rice already in the mixture.  

For the meat, a special jang consisting of soy sauce, vinegar, scallions, and other ingredients are provided. A subtle piquant taste, it goes well with the meat providing a bit of sharp edge to the mellow meat.

The doganitang comes with the nearly translucent dogani (knee cartilage) and noodles within the soup. 

Dogani, is probably not for everyone and those who are particularly averse to chewy textures should probably go with the more flesh meat-based seolnongtang dishes. The consistency of dogani is something between rice cake (like mochi) and jelly. If that's not a problem though, it's delicious dipped with the sauce with a rich, lip-smacking coating you'll find at the end of your meal.

The special seolnongtang comes with a wide variety of cuts including some of the organs like spleen and head meat. If you're not particularly adventurous, stick with the regular kind which will include mostly familiar flank-like meat cuts but if you want diversity in texture and flavor opt for the special.

The premium seolnongtang is also premium in price compared to the average bowl of seolnongtang but this place gives you bang for the buck; look at all that meat!

If you want to enjoy your soup in a truly Korean fashion, stop halfway through your meal, pour some of the soup and soup ingredients into a smaller bowl and ladle some of the kkakdugi juice (with a clean soup or ladle please) into the soup and give it a mixture.

This is the stereotypical ajushi (middle-aged Korean man) way of eating seolleongtang for its bolder and picante kick. It's especially a favorite method of eating seolleongtang after a night of drinking. Interestingly, I once watched a TV program that shared how you can distinguish real seolleongtang and the ones that use cheap, non-dairy creamer to artificially create the milky and creamy taste of seolleongtang by this method of eating seolleongtang- pour some of the kkakdugi juice into the broth and if the red juice spreads out it's good ol'fashioned seolleongtang while if it sort of condenses together without spreading out then there's creamer added to it.

Seolleongtang purists, however, will look down on this way of eating seolleongtang saying the addition of something as bold and sharp in flavor as kkakdugi juice takes away from the flavors of the beef that's been extracted from long hours of boiling meat and bones. I suppose it's a debate that's akin to what you add or don't add to a bowl of pho but if you want to try both, go for it with the method I recommended above :)

Final thoughts:
Most non-Koreans think of Korean cuisine as being fiery, rich, and bold in seasoning and flavor but Imun Seolnongtang is a great reminder that many classic comfort dishes in Korean everyday cuisine are much more simple and homely but still with considerable labor and time required. 

The timeless Imun Seolnongtang doesn't skimp on ingredients or steps nor has it altered much if any of its tried and tested process and recipe. It'a simple bowl of soup but you're essentially having a bowl of history that countless Korean politicians, celebrities, business leaders, and even Olympic athletes have had over the restaurant's 100+ years. No wonder it was recognized in the bib gourmand list of the Michelin Guide's Seoul list last year!

서울특별시 종로구 우정국로 38-13
38-13, Ujeongguk-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Korea

From exit 3-1 of Jonggak Station, walk straight for about 150m and crossing the big four way intersection. You'll see a small alley on your right (Ujeongguk-ro), enter it and at the end of it you'll see the restaurant.




Soju and beer.

The restaurant opens as early as 8AM making it a great spot for breakfast. It closes at 9PM on weekdays and 8PM on weekends and is closed all day on national holidays.