Review: Wonjo Gamjatang Ilmijib (원조 감자탕 일미집)

My friends know that I'm not crazy big on gamjatang, a dish that's misleading because the star of the dish is not "gamja" (aka potatoes which is just about my favorite food in the world) as the name would suggest but the pork spine (which is just about my least favorite food in the world).

I've just never been a fan of strong pork scent in general but having to go through the laborious effort of digging through the nooks and crevices of the pork spine for specks of meat has always made me wonder if it's worth the effort. Which is why I'm genuinely surprised at how much I enjoyed today's featured restaurant- Wonjo Gamjatang Ilmijib. As further testimony to my enjoyment of this place, let the record show that this is the first gamjatang restaurant I've ever written about in the entire history of this blog.

Wonjo Gamjatang Ilmijib has been in business now for some 50 years showing its not a restaurant that's all fancy bells and whistles. Located in the up and coming (in popularity and recognition) neighborhood of Huamdong, the restaurant's main clients have, until recently been locals- nearby Sookmyung Womens University students, as well as members of the nearby Yongsan American military base. The growing popularity of the Huamdong neighborhood as well as the restaurant's appearance in a couple of television shows in recent years only helped bump up its popularity and winning over a slew of new fans.

The restaurant is right on a major four way intersection with a big old sign so you can't miss it. The two-story restaurant shows its age but for an older restaurant it's kept very tidy and neat. Each table comes with two small jars, one containing kkakdugi (cubed radish kimchi) and the other containing yeolmu kimchi (young radish leaves kimchi). Both are house made and meant to be scooped into the serving bowls for your meal.

Gamjatang is the only main offering here which comes in small, medium, and large for 15K, 20K, and 25K respectively. These prices are quite cheap compared to the average gamjatang restaurant with the serving sizes for roughly 2, 3, and 4 people respectively. The friendly prices are a nice gesture enough but what's very unique about Wonjo Gamjatang Ilmijib is that they actually offer a gamjatang baekban that's meant for solo diners and at a mere 7K- definitely not easy to find individual gamjatang servings. Add-on's for the gamjatang are available with ramen for 1K, a bowl of rice for 2K, and fried rice (for the end of the meal) also 2K. Soft drinks are 2K a bottle while alcohol selections are chungha, samsanju, soju, makgeolli, and beer which range from 3-5K a bottle.

A house brewed tea is the standard drink offered here and, besides the two varieties of kimchi at every table, the only other dish offered with your meal is a plate of chili peppers and sliced raw garlic. Every table is equipped with a gas burner in the center which is where your pre-cooked gamjatang will come out to cook once more.

The gamjatang comes out like this with the pork bones in the center and accompanied by a few peeled potatoes looking as smooth as a baby's bum.

Give it a few minutes to heat back up at your table and a mellow, underlining scent will start to emanate. But unlike regular gamjatang, the scent is more meaty and without the sharper undertones that gamjatang's usual heavy seasoning releases. Take a peek into the soup between the potatoes and pork bones and you'll see the soup is a mildly red hue and relatively unmuddled.  Unlike the most common version of the dish, the gamjatang here is absence of not only seasonings like wild perilla seeds but also ingredients like perilla leaves and cabbage leaves (also known as "woogeoji").

The ratio of the potatoes and meat to the soup is also much larger proportionally than the standard gamjatang with the soup submerged in the main ingredients and not the other way around. After a few minutes, take a big bone onto your plate and get digging in.

The first thing you'll notice about the pork and bones here is just how fall-apart tender it is. The meat shreds beautifully just by prodding and gently pulling with your chopsticks. One of my pet peeves about gamjatang is how dry the meat tends to be and with a heavy scent. It's a big reason why a separate dipping sauce is usually provided. Here the soft meat is plenty moist and with just enough of its own flavor that it doesn't need any sauce. It almost has a pulled pork-like texture and a natural earthy scent that all ages can enjoy.

The potato, I've heard, is also an atypical variety that's much more dense with a lovely mellow hue in flavor. It's lovely to enjoy after it soaks up a bit of the soup or you can even mash it up into your bowl of soup for a chunkier and creamier variety.

The soup is also flavorful and packs an umami-punch but without the peppery, garlicky, and sharp flavors you'd normally expect. It has just a tinge of spice to it but it remains the mildest (in terms of spiciness) gamjatang I've had but with enough rich meaty flavors to make an excellent base for a variety of soups and stews.

Which is why we had to get the ramen noodles. With that pork bone rich broth, adding ramen noodles combines the elements of a tonkatsu ramen, Korean spicy ramen, and gamjatang to make this easily a dish that would be popular in its own right.

As if that wasn't enough, we decided to get the fried rice which is essentially just rice, sesame oil, and seaweed cooked in the soup. But considering how clean the soup is, this is a pure, lip-smacking, umami-rich fried rice at its most basic. No kimchi, cheese, capsaicin found here but just a simple yet flavorful fried rice at its most basic.

Final Thoughts:
Forget what you thought you knew about gamjatang and come here to try it at its most basic, fundamental level. Stripped of traditional gamjatang ingredients such as red pepper flakes and wild perilla seed-rich, they still manage to make a deep and flavorful gamjatang that is also a master class in how they get the pork bones to be so tender and moist. It breaks the mold of the typical gamjatang dish but with a 50+ year pedigree, it just may be a defining progenitor of this hearty and common dish. 

서울특별시 용산구 후암로 1-1
1-1, Huam-ro, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, Korea

Come out of exit 2 of Sookmyeong Womens' University Station and walk along Duteombawi-ro for about 500 before arriving at the Yongsan High School 4-way intersection. The restaurant should be on your left sitting right on the corner of the intersection. 





Regular Korean alcohol varieties available

At lunch time they have a gamjatang baekban which is a smaller, individual gamjatang and all the fixings meal that they dish out for only 7K