Review: Hyehwa Kalguksu (혜화 칼국수)

Tucked just a few minutes away from the buzzing main Daehakno district, the initially unassuming Hyehwa Kalguksu seems like a restaurant you'd just as easily pass over if you didn't know. Big mistake.

An institution in itself, Hyehwa Kalguksu has been in business now since 1979 which its original exterior and retro interior fully reflects.

Though its name says "kalguksu" they actually serve the Andong version of kalguksu called "guksi" which is how it's listed on their menu as well. I've previously written about Jeongdong Guksi as well as Bonghwa Mookjib, both which specializes in this noodle dish that the upper class and elite used to enjoy in the Andong region. But Hyehwa Kalguksu also offer a range of other tasty treats and dishes that draws an eclectic range of demographics- from couples on dates to grandfathers reminiscing the past over drinks- on a daily basis.

Now having served generations with their tasty dishes, the restaurant's popularity has only increased, particularly with the younger and foreign visitor groups, with its appearance in a number of television programs including the hit television drama "Reply 1988" (응답하라 1988).

While the noodles are a top draw, they've managed to specialize in other dishes too. One dish which, I am convinced, is the best of its kind in the city (follow below to find out what it is).

The guksi is 9K and they also have mung bean pancake (12K) but also on their menu are sooyook, steamed octopus, battered and fried fish, and crisp bulgogi. All of the latter are priced at 30K for a large serving and 16K for a small serving and meant to be shared.

Soju and makgeoll are 3K, beer is 4K, and other alcohol varieties like bekseju, bokbunja and maeshilju available as well.

The crowd here tends to be families or, in evenings, older adults enjoying drinks and food together. The restaurant is located within an old house and seating is all traditional Korean style floor-only. Normally I don't mind but many of the tables in these halls are crammed together so on top of a lot of seated position shifting you're likely to be seated quite close with others. They do have a small annex building which is also floor seating only though perhaps a little less crowded than the main building.

Sides are simple at only kimchi and a chives and radish kimchi but with a nice balance of seasoning to complement the milder main dishes.

The nokdoo bindaetteok (mung bean pancake) comes fresh from frying. It's a bit thinner than the famed bindaetteoks of Jongno though no less creamy and delicious. I wish they included some more fillings in it though.

The basak bulgogi (crisp bulgogi) will be a hit with kids with its sweeter flavors. Thankfully it's not overly sweet and the meat seems to be pan cooked rather than over an open flame so it's still crisp on the outside but moist inside. I personally prefer a bit more "crispness" to it but it's a fine enough dish anyway.

Mixed with rice and eaten with the kimchi sides, it's hard to find fault with it.

But what is surprisingly the best main dish at Hyehwa Kalgusku is their battered fried fish. So expertly crisp and airy is the batter and so wonderfully moist and flavorful the fish inside that I wouldn't hesitate to even say Hyehwa Kalguksu has inadvertently created the best chips-less fish and chips in Seoul!

The frying is masterful on all accounts. The fish are battered and fried to order and comes piping hot. As soon as you bite into it (careful, it's hot!), you'll hear the crunch which deserves a standing ovation  on its own for how they've managed to pull that off. Is it ice cold water in the batter? Beer? I don't know but so excellent is this dish that I've heard some people come here purely for this dish alone.

And just look at how moist that fish meat is inside. How they manage to get that batter to fully encase the cod's flavors and juices is a mystery I'll never know and have yet to come close to replicating at home.

The guksi is also wonderfully done. Andong Guksi is different from traditional kalguksu because 1. The milky white broth comes from expertly simmering ox bones for hours (instead of seafood that traditional kalguksu's soup is based off of) and 2. The noodles are a combination of wheat flour and bean powder to give it that thin and soft consistency.

The 9K a bowl price tag for the guksi here may seem a bit high initially but when it's served you'll see its a hefty serving.

To the soup and noodles, the only topping are just a scattering of chopped zucchini and scallions and finished off with a spoonful of seasoning sauce and a dash of black pepper.

If this was to be served without the noodles, this would be like a nice big bowl of seolleongtang. It seems like a rather simple dish but it requires patience and expertise on the chef's end as first the broth needs to be cooked for long hours in a manner that draws out the full flavors of the meat and bones but doesn't leave a lingering smell and the thin noodles then must be cooked in the broth in just the right amount of time so it doesn't turn mushy.

Silky smooth and just enough of a beefy flavor, this is a dish that's enjoyable for all ages. In between, grab a bite of the kimchi with just the right level of fermentation for the noodles or the garlicky chives and radish kimchi mixture for a burst of sharper flavors. Repeat and you'll definitely find a clean bowl in front of you at the end.

Final Thoughts:
Solid food all around and the (surprisingly) best battered and fried fish in Seoul I've yet to come across is definitely an opinion that's shared with the hundreds I imagine the restaurant serves on a daily basis. The close-knit floor seating is a bit uncomfortable, service can be gruff at peak times, and the environment almost ranges on borderline (controlled?) chaos but if those aren't major factors for you it's a great option for those to come and sample some good ol' Korean fare with a Gyeongsang-do flair.

서울 종로구 창경궁로35길 13
13, Changgyeonggung-ro 35-gil, Seoul, Republic of Korea

Walk straight north from exit four of Hyehwa Station for about 150 meters until you get to the large rotary. In a counter clockwise direction, cross over to the other side, keep following the rotary direction in a counter clockwise direction for some 50 meters, and cross the major street again until you get to the Hyehwa police station. Right behind the police station is Changgyeonggung-ro 35-gil. Follow up this street for about 70 meters and you'll see Hyehwa Kalguksu on your left.



Valet parking available

Beer, soju, makgeolli and other Korean alcohol available.

Don't be surprised if there are lines at peak lunch and dinner hours, especially on weekends.

If you order a couple of the large main dishes and then want to just sample some of the noodles at the end of the meal, you can order a bowl of noodles to share (about 1 bowl for every two people) and ask them to split into two portions beforehand.