Review: Kokkiri Bunshik (코끼리 분식)

There's a sense of childhood nostalgia attached to tteokbokki for Koreans that has propelled this humble dish over the last half century to unofficially become the nation's #1 snack food, much in the same way a PB & J sandwich might do the same for Americans. Perhaps because I didn't grow up here I don't share nearly the same level of endearment to tteokbokki as the locals do but occasionally I come across a tteokbokki place that is noteworthy and actually draws me back.

Today's featured tteokbokki restaurant is one of those handfuls I would recommend which is rather odd as it's not at all innovative nor healthy in any way. In fact it's incredibly simple and generous with the MSG but boy does it hit the spot when you're craving that old school bunshik-style tteokbokki. With that irresistible balance of sweet, salty, and spiciness this is, to me, the most representative form of tteokbokki in that after school form from long ago. Did I mention the prices are also primary school level as well?

The Mapo-Gongdeok area is perhaps best known for its numerous barbecue restaurants that have long been around but there's a smattering of tteokbokki restaurants, all within the same vicinity, that have also not only been around but draw mentions from tteokbokki enthusiasts. Kokkiri Bunshik (KB) is one of them and interestingly sits directly next to another famous tteokbokki restaurant called "Mapo Wonjo Tteokbokki" (MWT). With a name that literally means "the first Mapo tteokbokki", its easy to assume the latter is the prima donna of the Mapo region tteokbokki spots but as any longtime resident of the neighborhood will tell you, the original was Kokkiri Bunshik. In fact, KB was the spot that used to draw lines until MWT was featured in the famous chef Baek Jong Won's TV show which, of course, drew the crowds to it for a while.

There's actually a number of Korean blogs that have done a comparison of the two, the conclusion mostly being that A. The two restaurant's tteokbokki style is different and B. If they had to choose, however, Kokkiri Bunshik is better. If you're truly curious, I'm sure you can do your own comparison but the first point is correct in that MWT is a sweeter, spicier tteokbokki where the food is served without cooking at your table while KB is a less sweet tteokbokki that cooks at your table side (this style of cooking at your table is called "즉석" or "jeukseok").

The restaurant is very humble with the dining area able to accommodate maybe 15 or so at most and the smaller, open kitchen directly adjacent to it. The restaurant's sign outside is perhaps the only "newer" aspect of the restaurant which is unabashedly modest in every way. Outfitted at every table is a gas burner and the stoic ajummas will ask what you want even before you're seated.

Tteokbokki is the only thing on the menu and then options to add to it which includes ramen noodles, jjolmyeon noodles, odeng (fish cakes), fried mandu (3 of them but the cheap bunshik kind where its filled with only glass noodles), hard boiled egg (2 of them), and then the option to fry rice at the end. Pretty typical of any bunshik joint but take a look at the jaw-dropping prices: tteokbokki serving for 2 is 2K, the various noodles and fish cakes are 1.5K each, the fried mandu and hard boiled eggs 1K each and fried rice 1.3K, 2.3K, or 3.3K depending on if you want 1, 2, or 3 bowls. To put how unbelievably cheap this is, whether you go alone or with a friend, you could easily enjoy a meal for two at around 6-8K. There's no alcohol served here (it is a bunshik place after all) and I'm not sure if they sell any other soft drink besides the Coolpis which I've seen.

They're very strict on the fact that one must order all their add-ons (except the fried rice at the end) at once in the beginning. So if you decide mid-meal that you want to add some fried mandu to your dish, too bad. There's also a number of other warnings and rules plasted in handwritten signs all over the restaurant telling you that water is self-serve, aprons must be put back after you finish eating, and that (interestingly) if you order hard boiled eggs, you should be careful not to overcook the tteokbokki at your table as the eggs might explode!

I mentioned they take your order basically before you're seated and as soon as you do so, the ajummas in the kitchen get to work adding whatever toppings you ordered into your tteokbokki in a near assembly line fashion and then bringing the whole pan to your table along with a small side of the neon yellow danmuji (pickled radish).

The tteokbokki itself is already pre-cooked but the additional cooking time at your table is meant to bring it together with your various add-ons and it takes only about 5 minutes for everything to be boiling. It's a simple, no-frills tteokbokki with only a sprinkling of red chili flakes at the end. It's also a soupier tteokbokki unlike the thicker sauces that are more commonly found today. The soup is also absent of the cloyingly sweet flavor you'll find in most tteokbokki dishes today. Instead, the initial hint of spiciness hits you followed by a savory and umami-rich taste that reminds one more of a Korean spicy ramen. You'll notice that the soup has bits of cabbage in it which, aside from the chili flakes, are probably the only ingredients even remotely close to a vegetable in the dish. Make no mistake though, this is tteokbokki that's blatantly propped by MSG and which is what makes all the other add-ons such a deliciously addictive treat.

The rice cakes are flour-based which makes it sop up the addictive sauce much better than rice-based rice cakes. I would advise getting the ramen noodles over the jjolmyeon noodles as the soup also tends to cling better to the former. In fact, with the ramen noodles, the overall dish- both in flavor and aesthetics- takes on a more ramen-tteokbokki hybrid which is perhaps what makes the tteokbokki here so beloved. After all, there may be some who don't like tteokbokki but the day I come across anyone who says they don't like the lip-smacking umami flavors of instant ramen will be a momentous day indeed!

KB also knows the flavors and characteristics of their sauce well enough to limit the add-ons to a few they know does pair well together. You won't find things like cheese or perilla leaves which would pair better with the spicy/sweet tteokbokki variety. But ingredients like the crispy friend mandu (which amazingly keeps most of its texture through the cooking) or the egg (try breaking and mixing in some of the hard boiled egg yolk into your plate of soup) come together as though they were meant to be.

Once you're finished with the dish and left with the tteokbokki "soup" in the pan, let the ajummas know how many bowls of rice you want for the fried rice. They'll temporarily take away your pan to the back to mix in the rice which is at its most basic with rice, sesame oil, and crushed and roasted seaweed leaves. Let it cook again at your table burner for a few minutes and you are good to go. You can never go wrong with flavored carbs.

And as you leave, satiated in scratching your tteokbokki itch, marvel at the bill which I'm sure you can do greater damage at even a neighborhood kimbap store and join the chorus of believers in Kokkiri Bunshik.

Final Thoughts:
There's nothing healthy or innovative about Kokkiri Bunshik but much in the same way one can strongly crave a proper slice of pizza, or a moist brownie, or a bowl of spicy instant hot ramen, the tteokbokki at Kokkiri Bunshik is what will fix all your tteokbokki cravings. The only problem is is that by dining here, they get you addicted at the same time.

29 Myeongdong 10-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul
서울 마포구 도화2길 3

From exit 3 of Gongdeok Station, turn around and you'll immediately see the Dohwa-gil road splitting off from the main Mapodae-ro. Follow along the Dohwa-gil for about 200m until you get to Dohwa 2-gil and turn right. You'll see Kokkiri Bunshik on your left almost immediately.


9:30 AM - 9:30 PM everyday
Closed on the first and third Mondays of the month




It's also popular to order the tteokbokki for takeout.
I think I recall they take cash only?

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