Review: Chuncheon Makguksu in Euljiro (춘천막국수)

Along with dakgalbi, makguksu is a cold noodle dish that's one of Chuncheon's most famous dishes. In it, buckwheat noodles are topped with thinlly sliced, crunchy vegetables and spicy seasoning with cold broth (usually dongchimi-based) provided on the side for mixing in. Somewhat like a cross between bibim naengmyeon and mul naengmyeon, this dish often has a grounded flavor profile thanks to the high buckwheat content in the noodles and the inclusion of ingredients like nutty, ground sesame seeds. Its complex range of saliva-inducing flavors and refreshing attributes makes it an all-around favorite but it's surprisingly less common to come across regularly in Seoul.

Tucked behind a small alley in Seoul's old Euljiro neighborhood lies today's restaurant which is credited as not only being Seoul's first makguksu restaurant, but with a history that traces all the way back to 1962!

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"Chuncheon Makguksu" is the name of today's featured restaurant near Euljiro 4-ga Station but the restaurant's origins stretches back to Chuncheon when the founding grandmother (the late Mrs. Lim) opened her food stall to feed local workers who worked as construction workers in the many development sites in the area at the time. Back then, makguksu was just a side offering at the food stall to other dishes including dak bulgogi, the precursor to dak galbi, but Mrs. Lim's makguksu started garnering a following. The makguksu itself was born after many experiments Mrs. Lim made to perfect the dish. Originally hailing from Pyongyang in North Korea, she was already well known for her cooking skills but her wish to offer the popular naengmyeon dish of her hometown was difficult to recreate in Chuncheon back then due to the shortage of ingredients. She tried creating the dish with noodles made from millet, corn, even sticky rice but finally found her success after using a combination of buckwheat and wheat to make the noodles.

After learning her techniques, Mrs. Lim's son opened up his own shop in Seoul in 1969 and which is now run by his son and wife.

Everything about the restaurant seems as though it has stood frozen in time to the 70s. The aquamarine sign seems it has been up for decades while nearly human-sized barrels stocked with dongchimi, kimchi, and other preserved ingredients lay about like a countryside restaurant.



The restaurant is usually teeming with people, not unlike a popular restaurant in Gangnam would, except for one major difference- the average age of diners here are people in their 40s, 50s and beyond. Grandfathers enjoying a bowl of noodles and ajoshis clinking soju glasses over plates of food are normal sighting here and it's likely you just may be the youngest person there on your visit.

But a surefire way to tell a restaurant is good is seeing frequent local diners there and as the restaurant workers themselves will tell you, many of the customers here have been frequenting this place for decades. A reason for the long-running popularity is the food itself but another reason lies with the extensive menu's prices. Considering it's Seoul in 2018 now, the prices are quite reasonable, if not comparatively low, compared to average prices nowadays.

A bowl of makguksu runs just 6K (8K if you want the large). Their popular makguksu jaengban (platter of mixed noodles) is also 14K with portions that easily feeds two. The menu also reflects founding grandmother Lim's Pyongyang roots with representative dishes from the area such as handmade dumplings (7K), bindaetteok (6K), chogye guksu (9K) all on the menu.

Just as extensive as the meal portion of the menu is the anju portion with large main dishes such as bossam (25K), jaeyook (15K), chogye muchim (14K), jjimdak (20K), mandu jeongol (15K), and platter of homemade soondae (10K) all on the menu.

But the surprise of the low prices is nothing compared to the shock one receives when you see what else is on the menu: ggweong (pheasant) tang, duck tang, and rabbit tang (tang = stew) are also on the menu for 50K each as well as wild boar barbecue (12K). Let's overlook duck as it has, more or less, entered back into mainstream Korean cuisine. Saying you went out for duck won't elicit as much of a reaction as saying you dined on pheasant, rabbit, or wild boar. Granted, all three of the latter were traditionally consumed by Koreans in the past but these are game that you're likely to only find in the rural countryside of Korea so it's rather surprising to see it on the menu in a restaurant smack in the center of metropolitan Seoul.


I mentioned how there are stacks of nearly human-sized barrels situated right outside the restaurant's entrance which nests a variety of goods. One of which is dongchimi that's provided as a side for diners. This is more of the simpler pickled radish and stock kind but it does a number to get your taste buds kicking.


A much more vibrant side dish is the yeolmu kimchi which packs all the heat and tart of a kimchi that's been around long enough not to mess around and head right for a flavor punch to your mouth.


The regular makguksu comes with a mound of their house made buckwheat noodles, a few dongchimi radish matchsticks, some chicken pieces, and a generous heaping of the spicy sweet sauce atop. If you're thinking that it all seems a bit naked and exposed that's because you're right; also provided is a big old kettle of their naeng yooksoo or chilled broth. I'd like to take a second to also point out how bad-ass, old school that yooksoo kettle is.





Pour in the yooksoo and make a little moat for your bowl of noodles before mixing it all up. 


The chilled broth is made from hours of boiling chicken stock which is skimmed and combined with a secret list of ingredients. It's a bit more complex than regular chicken stock but not to the point it muddles the flavors. Those who are makguksu experienced won't find this version winning any beauty contests as the absence of ingredients like roasted laver (seaweed), ground sesame seeds, julienned cucumber slices, etc leaves this a square buckwheat+ chicken + stock + sauce deal. But a part of me believes this is more or less similar to the makguksu being dished out by Mrs. Lim in the 60's and what Chuncheon Makguksu is doing is putting simply good noodles, stock, and sauce on a (bowl) pedestal before you. Why else would they put in the effort to adjust the buckwheat content in the noodle makeup depending on the season, humidity levels, etc? I liked it so much, I went ahead and asked for an additional order of noodles to mix in and enjoy again.


If you're squarely in the camp that variety is a must for a stellar dish, opt for the jaengban makguksu. The picture below is only of a portion I scooped for myself (must have been too busy eating to take a picture of the enormous dish itself). There's no broth that goes in here but instead buckwheat noodles are joined by greens and other crunchy vegetables and big pieces of dark meat chicken that are brought together by a spicy sweet sauce. This restaurant is actually perhaps most famous for a dish called dak muchim. I previously wrote about a Seoul restaurant that was particularly well known for their dak muchim, called Pyeongraeok. In dak muchim (which literally means "tossed chicken"), cooked chicken pieces are mixed with vegetables and a sweet, tart, spicy sauce for a cold dish that's especially popular in summer. At Chuncheon Makguksu, the dish is joined with their homemade buckwheat noodles for a nuttier element and the sauce has all the right balance of flavors to bring the ingredients together. And kudos to them for doing their chicken right to a tender consistency and still retaining flavor. 


Other fare sampled included the bindaetteok and mandu. The bindaetteok (two of'em a bit larger than your fist) comes hot from the pan and served with a simple dipping sauce. I liked the crusty edge but they were a bit flatter than I liked and it would have been nice to have a few more ingredients in for some added texture and flavor.


One look at the mandu (dumplings) and you know they're handmade. Slightly thicker skin that still tightly sticks to its filling to ever-so-slightly show the green hues of the chopped chives. This is the kind of mandu your Korean momma or grandma would make at home and just little bite-sized joys. Chives, ground pork, ground tofu, and other seasonings makeup the mandu filling which is aromatic, light, and just try and stick to only one of'em.




Final Thoughts:
If restaurants that are pushing the boundaries of Korean cuisine are getting all the notice these days, I think the restaurants that have stuck to tried and true recipes that work should get their due notice as well. Everything about Chuncheon Makguksu- from its humble setting to rustic taste and fair prices- seems as though the restaurant has just surfed over the waves of time to continue on its journey. 

While doing my research on this restaurant, I came across an interview with the owner who mentioned that part of the reason the restaurant hasn't changed much is that the restaurant falls into a redevelopment zone thus they don't have the legal permit to make changes to the layout and design of the floor plan like they would. The redevelopment zone is also a potential threat to the restaurant's survival in the future which is a pity as a hidden gem of a restaurant like this one should try and be preserved for their decades of know-how they've built up. 

You won't walk away blown by any of the dishes here perhaps but with its solid food that has been tasted tested and given the seal of approval by generations, a visit to Seoul's oldest makguksu restaurant is really a culinary trip to the past to simpler times and tastes. 

Address: 
서울 중구 을지로 175-5
175-5, Eulji-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul, Korea


Very easy to find. From Euljiro 4-ga Station's exit 1, immediately turn right down the side alley. In about 15 meters you'll see the restaurant on your left. 

Telephone: 
02-2266-5409

Hours:
11:30AM - 10PM Weekdays
11:30AM - 9PM Saturdays
11:30AM- 8PM Sundays

Website:
N/A

Parking: 
N/A

Alcohol: 
Regular Korean alcohol varieties available

Tip: 
I'm sure there may be other restaurants (perhaps in some of Seoul's mountainsides) that serve them but this is the only restaurant within Seoul that serves dishes using game like pheasant, boar, and rabbit. @_@