Review: Chungmuro Jjukkumi Bulgogi (충무로 쭈꾸미 불고기)

Most may equate spring seaon with cherry blossoms and other fauna but for Korean food lovers, spring is the season for a lot of food things in their peak including jjukumi. I've seen these guys translated as everything from webfoot octopus to short arm octopus but these little guys are said to increase stamina (though I feel that's said about most everything in season around here) and are at their best around this time.

Though you can find jjukumi restaurants around, Chungmuro Jjukkumi Bulgogi stands out for many reasons not only because of its history and the great lengths gone to prepare the jjukumi here but because when that spicy, homemade sauce and tender jjukumi meets the charcoal flame grill, barbecue magic happens. Count numerous stars, celebrities, life-long diners, and even the Michelin Guide as fans of this spot.

In Chungmuro, just a stop away from Myeongdong, Chungmuro Jjukkumi Bulgogi is found in a side alley off the main road. Having first started operations in 1976, the restaurant now has 43 years under its belt where the same family has been running this spot. Step inside the restaurant and you'll find a boisterous scene not unlike a popular Korean barbecue joint but here you'll find there's no meat that's being grilled at every table but the ruby red colored marinated jjukumi.

Menu options break down to essentially jjukumi at 28K for 2 people, razor clams at 19K, or a mixture of both jjukumi and razor clams at 29K for 2 with all options coming marinated in the restaurant's signature spicy sauce. The only other menu option is a vegetable fried rice that's meant to be cooked in the leftover barbecue and sauce and served as a meal finisher (6K per serving). Essentially coming out to be about 14-15K per serving, this is on par with most samgyeobsal restaurant prices today and all barbecue orders come with lettuce, ssamjang, and sides.

Like a Korean meat barbecue restaurant the process after ordering is largely the same: sides are brought out, a huge metal drum with glowing hot coals is set into the center of the table, grill set up atop and then the plate of goods- in this case the jjukumi- is brought out for self-grilling.

The mixture of the razor clams (shelled) and jjukumi comes on one plate and in the same fiery-red color, distinguishable only by shape. Plump and totally seasoned inside and out with the marinade, these guys are good to go as soon as the grill is hot.

Unlike most meat, these guys don't take long to cook and the sauce seasoning means that they require a lot more tossing and turning on the grill but after a few minutes the guys develop a bit of char while locking in the moisture and then it's good to go.

Despite how red the seasoning is, the spicy level is not extreme and more than any spicy heat, there's an interesting variety of flavors that comes from the house-made gochujang, garlic, and other natural ingredients (I want to say some kind of fruit-based ingredient?). In fact, it's the perfectly developed balance of flavors and scents that comes together, and sealed with a nice smokiness from the grill, that sets this place apart from any other jjukumi restaurant I've been to.

As mentioned, there are numerous jjukumi restaurants around but most are chain restaurants where the jjukumi arrives to the restaurants prepackaged and cased in factory-made seasoning pumped full of additives and chemically enhanced flavorings. Unlike the one-dimensional, chemically spicy flavors of these restaurants, the variety here is far more delicate and complex and something you know comes from years of experience and self-taught secrets- a hint of fruity sweetness, a bit of garlicky spiciness and just overall goodness.

Also needing to be mentioned is the lovely texture of the jjukumi. Just enough chew without being rubber-chewy and yet tender without losing its form, it's another testimony to the trade secrets of this restaurant. I've read that one vital ingredient in the jjukumi's preparation that the owner revealed in the past is makgeolli, or rice wine. He credits makgeolli as not only helping tenderize the jjukumi to give it the texture but also eliminating fishy scents while also giving it a bit of a mildly sweet and fizz to it when combined with the secret marinade. The owner said the use of makgeolli is a family know-how that he learned from his own mother, hailing from Suncheon, who used to dunk skate fish (of the infamous fermented skate fish variety, a staple of the Jeolla Provincial region) in the alcoholic beverage to do the same. Whatever other secret besides makgeolli and the house made gochujang goes into the process and marinade I'm not sure but what comes out is a truly unique take that's lovely made into wraps on the table or just fine on their own. Washed down with a bit of soju, this is a quintessential Seoul experience that's perfect for any pescatarian friends.

I wasn't a fan of everything though as the razor clams, as fine as the marinade is, takes on a tough and chewy texture on the grill. I'm not sure if it's because they need to be cooked even less than the jjukumi but as the combination order comes with both, it's not easy to cook them separately either. I would say skip the clams altogether and just go for the jjukumi.

Many long-time fans of this restaurant will tell you the fried rice is not to be missed. As the dishes are cooked in open grills the rice isn't cooked at the table but place your order on how many servings you'd like and they'll whisk away the leftover plate and cook it up in the kitchen and serve the fried rice steaming hot to you with just a bit of roasted seaweed strips and sesame seeds sprinkled atop. The fried rice doesn't take on that eye-swooning golden crust and fatty goodness soaked-in-every-rice-kernel that comes from a pan fried rice but as it's cooked in that secret sauce and with some crunchy kimchi and vegetables added to the mix, you'll likely find the spoon in your hand reaching for it again and again.

The fried rice also comes with some extra sides and a lovely, earthy dwenjang jjigae which you can tell is not from a mass-produced dwenjang.

Final thoughts: 
There are jjukumi restaurants and then there are one-of-a-kind jjukumi restaurants where they know their stuff. The jjukumi is prepared expertly, the secret seasoning is subtle yet complex, and the humble yet intimate setting makes this a not-so-hidden secret you'll want to revisit. I can't think of another jjukumi restaurant like it both in taste and atmosphere.

서울 중구 퇴계로31길 11
11, Toegye-ro 31-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul

From exit 5 of Chungmuro Station walk about 30m or so until you get to Toegye-ro 31-gil and turn right. Walk up the street about 25m and the restaurant is on your left.

Note that B and C on the above maps are the second and third branches of Johnny Dumpling 

평일 12:00 - 22:00토요일 12:00 - 21:30 일요일 휴무
12PM to 11PM weekdays
12PM to 9:30PM on Saturdays 
Closed on Sundays




Beer, soju available. 

At lunch time you can get the fried rice and dwenjang jjigae (and sides) for a mere 6K. It's popular with the office workers around though.