Review: Younghwaru (영화루)

Believe it or not, there are Koreans who actually don’t like jjajangmyeon. The Chinese cuisine-derived perennial Korean favorite dish of black bean noodles is so ingrained into modern day Korean culture that it’s still the go-to dish for moving days and lazy Sundays to millions of Koreans. But there’s a number of the population who finds the dish too sweet, too salty, too oily, or a combination of all three. Even for myself, I was squarely in the spicy jjambbong camp when I was asked to choose between the two (this question for Koreans is more or less the equivalent of asking an American whether they prefer crunchy or creamy peanut butter). It’s not an entirely unjustified reasoning as the wok frying (often in pork fat) of all the ingredients, including the savory and thick black bean paste, makes it far from being even close to a light meal.

Today’s restaurant, however, may just be the answer to those that don't subscribe to the majority opinion as the copious amount of chopped Cheongyang peppers (Korea’s representative spicy chili peppers) is said to win over even doubters. Which isn’t to say that jjajangmyeon lovers in general doesn't love this fiery variety produced by Younghwaru, a restaurant that’s been in business for close to 50 years now. 

The recent popularity spike of Seochon, just by Gyeongbokgung Palace, has attracted a slew of restaurants and cafes in the past few years. Just like in any hot neighborhood, not all these businesses have thrived, much less survived, but Younghwaru is one of the few spots who have stood here since long before the crowds even began descending on Seochon and its humble exterior and signage makes this clear.

The interior is no different as its tables, wallpaper, various furniture and utensils are all mostly still in use from the 70s when the restaurant first opened. Reflecting a bygone era, its interior carries enough charm to it that it’s often used for filming in movies and television dramas.

On first glance the menu is virtually the same as any Chinese-Korean restaurant with fried rice, noodles, tangsooyook, etc all on the menu. But look around at the people eating their noodles and you’ll find many (more than usual) are wiping beads of sweat off their brows. That’s because the vast majority of diners here aren’t enjoying your run-of-the-mill jajangmyeon and jjambbong here. They’re enjoying Younghwaru’s special gochu jajangmeyon and gochu jjambbong. “Gochu” is just the Korean word for chili peppers and as its name indicates, gochu is a key component of both noodle dishes here.

The general packed seating of the restaurant serves as a sign of their popularity but listen to the constant hissing and sizzling of the many woks in the kitchen as well as the phone that seemingly rings every five to ten minutes (Younghwaru is, after all, a Chinese restaurant in Korea meaning they deliver in the vicinity) and you'll know this isn't one of those shops that have experienced a temporary popularity boom by flux. 

Sides are the standard danmuji and raw onion with chunjang for dipping. As busy as the restaurant was, I was pleasantly surprised at how chill and friendlier-than-expected the owner and staff were. 

In the gochu jjambbong, the peppers are particularly evident as the red soup comes piled high with not only the standard seafood and vegetables but a ton of green cheongyang peppers. Chopped into thumb-sized pieces or so, I tried to see how much was incorporated by taking them out and out came this mountain of green chilis. Considering how many peppers go into it though, the jjambbongs not overtly spicy at all with levels at about the throat-tickling point. If anything, the peppers in the gochu jjambbong adds a pepper/paprika like edge to the dish which pairs quite well with the seafood-rich broth and the smoky aspect from the wok-firing. But even with the generous amount of seafood in the dish and the unusual amount of chili peppers that goes in, I wasn’t absolutely convinced it was worth the 8K price, even if it was only a cheonner or two more than the standard 6-7K a bowl other restaurants charge.

At the same 8K a bowl price, I wasn’t expecting much from the gochu jajangmyeon which looked even more visually the same as its standard black noodle counterparts. Unlike the jjambong, which one could distinguish the peppers from the other ingredients, the signature black sauce of the jajangmyeon made it almost impossible to distinguish its ingredients on first look alone. The sauce comes separately from the noodles itself and it’s when I poured in the sauce that I got my first waft of the peppery contents. 

These days, many restaurants specializing in spicy dishes often makes use of capsaicin sauces that adds a definite fiery but not completely natural, component to the dish. The gochu jajangmyeon here, however, you can easily sniff out that natural chili pepper heat.

The sauce itself is indistinguishable from other black bean noodles in Korea but make no mistake, at that first bite you’ll notice a definite heat. It’s not one of those “BAM!” spiciness that knocks your taste buds from the get-go but it’s a gradual builder. I started the pepper jajangmyeon thinking it wasn’t too bad but by the end of the meal my mouth was on fire and the amount of sweat that was pouring off of me might have given the impression I was sitting in a sauna and not a restaurant.

It’s interesting the jajangmyeon is so spicy because the gochu jjambbong itself holds copious amounts of chili peppers but I think the difference lies in the fact that the chili peppers in the jajangmyeon is diced up rather than roughly chopped for the jjambbong and man does it make a world of a difference. The spicy level gets to the point you can’t really distinguish the other ingredients that makes up the sauce but then again, jajang in itself carries such a heavy flavor to begin with.

Fans of this dish say the spiciness helps combat the general heavy feel and flavors of jajangmyeon while those on the other side say the spice level is a bit much to fully enjoy the meal.

I suppose that’s something only one can determine for themselves after trying it out. But either way, it looks likely Younghwaru will be dishing out its signature pepper dishes for long time fans and curious visitors alike for many more years

Final thoughts: 
The retro atmosphere alone is enough to make for a fun visit to get one’s jajangmyeon/jjambbong fix but the curiosity piquing signature chili pepper versions of the beloved noodles in Korea might either be one of your new favorite versions or, at the very least, give you bragging rights to say you survived. 

서울특별시 종로구 자하문로7길 65
65 Jahamun-ro 7-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul




Soju available

Closed on the first and third Monday of every month.

Break time everyday between 3-5PM.