Review: Woo Lae Oak (우래옥)

It's summer season again which means naengmyeon season!

Continuing on with the Pyongyang naengmyeon series (see Buwon Myeonoak, Eulmildae, Nampomyeonoak, and Pildongmyeonoak), today's post takes a look at one of Seoul's best known naengmyeon restaurants, if not, perhaps its most famed.

Woo Lae Oak traces its beginnings to 1946 (which actually makes Woo Lae Oak older than even Pyongyang's representative naengmyeon house, Okryugwan!) when it opened under its original name, "Seobuk Gwan". But like all businesses, operations shut down just a few years later with the start of the Korean War. Afterwards it returned under its new name, Woo (again) Lae (return) Oak (house) and referring to it beginning anew.

It has since literally been a favorite of generations of families, politicians, celebrities, business leaders alike who have slurped on their representative chilled noodles and enjoyed their barbecue. If walls could talk, this is one of those restaurants that could probably spin yarns of interesting stories and anecdotes from all manners of Seoul life over the past several decades.

The massive, black exterior of Woo Lae Oak has an aura of grandeur to it that, from first sight, gives it an imposing presence. Like the worn but stout grandfather who you just know has stories to tell about his life, there's an almost Vito Carleone vibe to it.

The same goes for its main waiting area with its wooden interior, grand staircase, vases, and more which makes it feel as though you are inside some elite family's house.

The waiting area is big and almost always full of people, particularly in the summer season. The waiting area is quite interesting to observe the people. You'll see multi-generational families with grandparents, parents, and young children in tow who are out for a family dinner to younger couples who are looking to satisfy their curiosity on the legendary restaurant. 

Even with two stories and private rooms, it's almost always packed and bustling. 

At each every table is a center pit for barbecuing and a tray with all the traditional condiments for naengmyeon.

Menu highlights its pedigree and proud history.

Woo Lae Oak is known mainly for two things: their beef and naengmyeon.

Utilizing top grade hanwoo (Korean beef), they have a range of beef cuts available in marinated and non-marinated forms. In particular, their bulgogi and galbi are especially popular. Real beef lovers will opt for their yukhoe (beef tartar), tongue, or yeomtong gui (beef heart) for true beefiness. 

Their noodle choices come down to four items- Pyongyang naengmyeon, bibim naengmyeon, on myeon (instead of cold broth it's hot), and kimchi mari guksu. All are priced at 12K with extra order of noodles for 6K for a full portion or 4K for a half. 

Utilizing their beef and beef broth they also have soup dishes like gukbap (10K), yukgae tang (11K) and galbi tang (12K). 

Prices overall at Woo Lae Oak are premium and particularly their beef barbecue orders which are cheapest at 31K for items like their bulgogi for a single order (150g). Definitely more of a special occasion kind of meals which explains the many grandparents' birthdays celebrated here.

They also carry an extensive drinks menu from all your traditional Korean liquor to even whisky, sake, wine, etc.

Their chopsticks states that their only other two official branches are found in Daechi (in southern Seoul) and (quite randomly) Washington DC. I remember seeing a Woo Lae Oak in LA and I think NYC before too but apparently those are all fakes :/

Ordering the regular Pyongyang naengmyeon brings out a big ol bowl of their famous noodles along with a simple, light kimchi.

Also, there is a "secret" menu in ordering the naengmyeon here (see below under the tips section).

The kimchi I estimate to be approximately a week in making? Maybe between 3-5 days? So it's still very crisp, very much on the lighter side.

Though it's not on the lighter price, Woo Lae Oak's naengmyeon isn't light on portion either. The large and deep bowl is filled up with buckwheat noodles, broth, and simple julienned pear, radish, and a sprinkling of chopped scallions. 

One common complaint that folks who are Pyongyang naengmyeon-ambivalent say about the dish is that they find the dish bland. If you know anyone who says that, try not to judge them too much, and instead politely smile and bring them to Woo Lae Oak.

The broth here is among the most beefiest on the Pyongyang naengmyeon scale. A hearty, umami that hits the palate immediately without restraint. Unlike most other PY naengmyeon joints, Woo Lae Oak doesn't mix their beef broth with dongchimi and relies on their hanwoo broth. The chilled broth clings to the chewy noodles and makes it clear that it is the alpha flavor here, though the extra chewing of the noodles helps release more of the nutty flavors.

They also cook the noodles to order which means the noodles are very elastic and chewy. Apparently their recipe and ratio for their noodles changes on a seasonal basis to accommodate differences in humidity and temperature.

Because they use such high quality beef and because the turnover rate ensures the beef is fresh, you could almost label Woo Lae Oak as more a restaurant specializing in beef, which in turn produces their famously beefy naengmyeon.

What is worth commending is how well they skim out the fat during the broth making process leaving behind a broth that's rich and deep but doesn't make one feel queasy at the end of the meal (and there is quite a lot of broth). They don't serve their naengmyeon here with a hard boiled egg but one will hardly notice it absent from this protein-rich bowl of noodles.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Pyongyang Naengmyeon lovers will find Woo Lae Oak is too strong a flavor, especially if they subscribe more to the delicate varieties produced by places like Pyongyang Myeonoak for example. 

But matters of debate aside, it's hard to argue that with such a beefy broth you'd be hard pressed  to find any naengmyeon fan in general who finds this dish altogether not to their liking. 

Final Thoughts:
Its pure hanwoo beef broth base makes Woo Lae Oak different from its Pyongyang naengmyeon companions but it also makes it the recommended option for PY naengmyeon newbies as a beginner's step into these cold noodles. The missing element of dongchimi here does take away some of the "crisp" aspects of naengmyeon but with so much lip smacking, beefy umami flavors and noodles that are just the right chew and consistency, it's not hard to see why so many generations have flocked to this institution. 

서울특별시 중구 창경궁로 62-29
62-29, Changgyeonggung-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul, Korea

Come out of exit 4 of Euljiro 4-ga Station and turn right into the Changgyeonggung-ro and walk about 20 meters and you'll see the restaurant on your left.




Korean alcohol, premium alcohol, wine, and even whisky and sake available.

There is a "secret" menu to order your noodles in some different ways:
1. Geonaeng (거냉): To amplify the rich beef broth, they serve the broth at room temperature
2. Eopuhmari (엎어말이): Extra large portion
3. Minjja (민짜): They don't add the extra toppings at the end (pear, radish, etc) and instead provide more noodles
4. Soonmyeon (순면): The noodles will be 100% buckwheat noodles (no starch).

Also note that Woo Lae Oak is closed on Mondays.