Review: Gyerim (계림)

A number of "food alleys" are found in and near Jongno District but over in Jongno 3-ga, just by Jongmyo Shrine, there also used to be a dakbokkeumtang alley. This alley is no more, unfortunately, but one restaurant has remained in business to this day with a 50+ year history to it.

Gyerim dishes out the fan-favorite dakbokkeumtang dish except their take on the dish is quite a different take than the common fare. Here the dish is more savory than sweet, more soup than a braised dish, and it comes with a mountain of fresh minced garlic that goes atop before the whole dish is cooked on your table. This is dakbokkeumtang like you've never had before.

As well-known as Gyerim is, it's almost like a mythical place with its hidden location deep within a side street just off the bustling main Jongno road. The narrow alley is surrounded on all sides by towering rows of older buildings which makes it a dark street, even in day time. But once in the alley Gyerim is relatively easy to find not only because of its shiny sign but because of the almost inevitable line of people that will be waiting outside.

From the outside, the restaurant doesn't look very big but once inside you'll see it stretches quite wide (I think either to or almost to the main Jongno road) which, when considering the lines outside, shows just how incredibly popular Gyerim is. But then again, Gyerim regularly makes the various "top dakbokkeumtang" lists for Seoul.

The only thing on the menu here is dakbokkeumtang which is available in small, medium, and large size for 22K, 33K, and 44K. Only extra add-on available is rice cakes which is 2K per order. You can order kalguksu or fried rice for after your meal (2K each) but unlike other restaurants, Gyerim has a rule that you can only order one or the other. I initially was thinking that it was an odd rule but considering how packed and busy it is, you can understand the restaurant wants to get people in and out as quickly as possible for both the restaurant and diners' sakes.

Unseasoned, blanched soybean sprouts, kkakdugi, and individual portions of a special house sauce are the only offerings here besides the dakbokkeumtang.

A few minutes later, in a big, beat up, tin pot will come the dakbokkeumtang which you can see, even before tasting, is quite unusual compared to the standard way the dish is served. First you'll notice there's an enormous, adult fist-sized mount of freshly minced garlic. While minced garlic is a standard ingredient in dakbokkeumtang the extremely generous amount here is sure to widen the eyes of any first time visitor.

You'll also notice that the dakbokkeumtang here is quite soupy. Typically, dakbokkeumtang has less broth but here almost all the ingredients are submerged by the red soup. In my research about this restaurant, I learned that this alley was once home to a dakbokkeumtang alley that was thriving even up to the 80s thanks to the filling portions yet cheap prices but started to lose their popularity. In 1992, the current owner took over the restaurant which continued to struggle. The dakbokkeumtang here, even before the change in ownership, was known for the generous portion of minced garlic but the owner decided to up the amount event further which has since become the restaurant's trademark.

Thankfully the copious mountain of garlic is not meant to be eaten raw  but the dakbokkeumtang, which is already pre-cooked, is cooked a second time at your table.

While cooking, the flour-based rice cakes inside can be eaten almost immediately while the potatoes and chicken requires a few more minutes.

Green onion, potatoes, chicken... these are all the standard throw-ins of a dakbokkeumtang but you can see the broth is quite thin. The broth, despite how red it looks, isn't so spicy or sweet and has a sort of dakgomtang-kind of element to it. As it continues to cook at our table, the broth and ingredients soaks up the garlicky flavors while the sharper notes are neutralized by the cooking as the soup slightly thickens. I myself was initially worried that it would be garlic overkill but instead the flavors are deep and full. The minced garlic is never pre-ground (minced garlic slightly ferments as time passes giving it a sharper flavor) and is freshly ground for every order. Apparently they go through over 10kg of garlic on a daily basis.

The chicken itself is very tender and moist, easily shredding with your chopsticks. You can enjoy the chicken on its own but here they also offer a unique, house-made dipping sauce. It's clearly soy sauce-based but there are some other ingredients in there as well that gives it a hint of other sweet and tart flavors. This offering of sauce, as small and simple as it is, will come in handy when you have a group with folks whose personal preferences ranges from liking underseasoned dishes to heavily seasoned. 

The abundance of the garlic in the chicken soup is also what makes the add-on offering of kalguksu (noodles) rather unique for dakbokkeumtang here. Usually there isn’t enough liquid to cook any noodles at the end which is why most restaurants offer the choice of bokkeumbap (fried rice). Here, you can also have fried rice but you can alternatively choose the noodles instead which then becomes a hearty way to close off the meal. As the noodles cook up it further thickens the soup while the flavors of the soup clings to the noodles. And with the base being chicken soup with the benefit of garlic, think of this like a Korean take on the classic chicken noodle soup :)

Final Thoughts:
Those familiar and expecting the sweet, spicy, “braised”-like flavors and consistency of today’s dakbokkeumtang will find Gyerim’s take a complete curveball. Though a little difficult to describe, it’s somewhere between a regular dakbokkeumtang and the soup dish of dakgomtang. Nevertheless its makeup, including the signature mound of minced garlic, makes it a decidedly Korean dish making it both a familiar and unfamiliar meal for even the most versed in Korean cuisine. 

서울 종로구 돈화문로4길 39
39, Donhwamun-ro 4-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Korea

Head out Jongno 3-ga Station's exit 12 and walk straight for 180 meters until you get to Jongno 26-gil (you should be between Jongmyo Shrine on your left, across the street, and Sewoon Plaza on your right). Walk along Jongno 26-gil for about 12meters and you should see a small alley on your right which is Donhwamun-ro 4-gil but may not have signs on it. Walk about 20 meters and you'll see Gyerim on your right.


11:30AM-10PM Tues - Sun (closed on Mondays)



Regular Korean alcohol varieties available