Review: Soondae Bokkeum Town in Sillimdong (신림동 순대 타운)

The culinary aspects of both American and Korean university culture shares a few commonalities in the form of instant ramens and microwaveable dishes. But when it comes to eating out, things differ a bit. In Korea, there are no happy hours and there are very few daily restaurant specials cash-strapped students can take advantage of. Luckily for Koreans though, there are entire restaurants, including chains, that largely caters to the student crowd such as the various kimbap and bunshik restaurants found in many neighborhoods.

Such is also the case with the soondae bokkeum restaurants that have become Sillimdong's representative dish and from where many students of past recall fond memories of. The Sillim neighborhood itself has cleaned up considerably but time has largely stood still for the soondae bokkeum restaurants where the sizzling smell of pan fried soondae and vegetables and the clinking of soju glasses have echoed for decades.

Despite many of the soondae bokkeum restaurants in Sillidong carrying the word "wonjo" or "original" in their name no one knows for sure which restaurant or even who first started dishing out the cheap and crowd-pleasing dish. Food experts pinpoint it to the mid 70s however, and whoever did serve it first knew what he or she was doing as restaurants serving the dish popped up all over within the original Sillim Market. By the 80s, a cluster of 20+ soondae bokkeum restaurants were found in the market with the street becoming known as the "soondae" alley of Sillimdong.

Soondae, for those who are familiar with the dish, is blood sausages which has been a major dish for many cultures around the world. Proper Korean soondae is an arduous process to make with chopped vegetables, meat, and blood having to be properly seasoned and cooked to give the right consistency and taste without the gamey smell. In Sillimdong's case, what was used is the cheaper, glass noodle-filled variety which imitates the consistency of real soondae but without the pricier filling and tedious prep work.

Back then, there was only the option of opting for the "baek soondae" or "white soondae". In this dish, the soondae slices was cooked with vegetables but left unseasoned hence the "white" in its name. Then came the "yangnyeom soondae" or "seasoned soondae" which was largely the same as the white except mixed with gochujang before cooking. Then, as the Sillimdong area largely redeveloped in the 90s, the restaurants were all relocated to its current building, called "Soondae Town" transforming from a soondae alley to a cluster.

What initially drove, and continues to largely drive, the soondae alley's boom was the many, many students in the area. The prestigious Seoul National University (SNU) is not too far off and Sillimdong has, for decades, attracted thousands of SNU-aspiring students. Soondae bokkeum had everything university students could ask for: cheap prices, large portions, flavorful, and versatile to function as both a meal or a side dish with drinks. This remains the case to this day which is why a large portion of the clientele here are youngsters in their early 20s. Student couples on dates, school groups looking for a cheap gathering option, and students looking to satiate their hunger are all common clientele.

The multi-storied soondae town building itself is worn and aged. Certainly not the fanciest of places and some of the stalls can be quite aggressive in attempting you to get you to dine at their restaurant. Just like any food alleys (or "town" in this case), if you know of any frequent diners here, he or she will recommend you their favorite store. In my case, our friend took us to her favorite spot, the aptly named "이모네"/"Emo neh" or Auntie's place which was located on the building's third floor.

The menu is the same for every store with either an order of the baek soondae or the seasoned soondae costing 15K. This may seem a bit high for what I described as a cheap meal for students but this 15K price tag is for a two-person serving. Bowl of rice is 1K a bowl while fried rice (for the end of the meal) is 2K.

I mentioned the soondae bokkeum town is a big draw for the students as a drinking spot and the menu reflects that in the sheer number of options for your drinks. Soju, beer, makgeolli, maehwasoo, bokbunja... etc, you name the standard Korean alcohol and they'll likely have it. Makgeolli goes for 3K, soju and beer 4K, all the way up to bokbunja which is 12K a bottle.

The popular thing to do, if you're in a group with more than 4, is to get an order of each. You can also get the spicy stir fried entrails (gobchang bokkeum) for 18K which is also meant for two people but at this specific restaurant, as the ajoshi of this establishment proudly explained, they give a bit of the gobchang bokkeum as "service" (freebie). He claimed this was unique to their stall but not sure if that was a stretch or not. Regardless of which stall you go to, however, the set-up is the same: at every table is a portable gas burner with a metal pan on which your bokkeum will go atop.

What differentiates each stall though is each place's house-made "sauce". Consisting of a base of gochujang, the sauce is joined by other seasonings and ingredients like ground wild perilla seeds, minced garlic, sesame oil, etc which is meant to be eaten with the white soondae (as ketchup is meant to be dipped in fries). To be fair, the white soondae bokkeum on its own is largely flavorless, mostly spiced by the heaps of ground wild perilla seeds it's cooked in, but it's the sauce that really brings the people back. Each house has their own recipe and the owner lady of the stall I ate at had a lot of pride in her sauce to which she boasted quite a number of times that hers was simply the best. The only other side offering are perilla leaves which are the popular wrap of choice for soondae bokkeum here.

Once the burner gets going, the server will unceremoniously scoop out your soondae bokkeum onto the hot pan to cook. The white soondae is, as described, largely white in color not only due to the absence of any sauce but because it's comprised of ingredients like cabbage, slice rice cakes, jjolmyeon, etc. The red, in the center, is the gobchang bokkeum offered as service here. On a separate pan, the spicy soondae bokkeum is cooked which is the same makeup as the white soondae bokkeum, but seasoned with the sweet, spicy glaze.

The seasoned soondae bokkeum is fine. Not unlike many soondae bokkeum restaurants and bars that offers this popular dish. It's however the white soondae that is unique. The heat from the pan helps intensify many of the dishes ingredients such as the peppery perilla leaves and the nutty wild sesame seeds. With these flavorings "activated" in a sense, it helps create a unique smoky edge once the soondae and ingredients are dipped into the sauce. I'm particularly a big fan of the strands of chewy jjolmyeon noodles which the flavorings and sauce cling quite well to and are released further with chewing.

You can eat the ingredients separately but you can't leave ssam (or wraps) out of a popular shared dish like this and at the soondae bokkeum restaurants here, perilla leaves are offered in stacks for making bite-sized wraps.

That isn't to say this dish isn't one to knock your socks off. The ingredients are simple with chopped vegetables, cheap jjolmyeon, and glass noodle-stuffed soondae (the cheaper kind) combined with basic Korean seasonings. But at its most basic, this is Korean-style classic comfort dish designed to fill up the stomach and tantalize the taste buds and shared in a communal way to encourage the kinship between individuals. In fact, the main decisive ingredient I'd say that keeps folks coming back for years is the memories- both fond and not so much- that leaves an impression. It's a taste that comes to be closely connected with friends and events and why the drinks easily flows in this place.

Final Thoughts:
From a variety of angles (taste, setting, or quality) there's absolutely nothing fancy or dressed up about the famed Soondae Bokkeum Town. But the atmosphere is rich with history and conversations that largely makes up the drawing factor of the humble dish served here and which makes the taste linger on one's mind.

서울특별시 관악구 신림로59길 14
14, Sillim-ro 59-gil, Gwanak-gu, Seoul, Korea

From exit 4 of Sillim Station, walk 50 meters before turning right on Sillim-ro 59-gil. Walk another 50 meters and you should see the Soondae Town building on your right. Emo neh, the restaurant featured in this post, is on the third floor

02-888-1125 (For Emo neh)

12PM - 1AM everyday



Regular Korean alcohol varieties available