Christine Cho, a Korean-American expat in Seoul, has been eating and cooking her way around the world the last 16 years as a private chef. — Ed.
Winter is upon us, and what better way to begin The Palate, a new column that celebrates food culture here in Seoul and beyond, than with a warming visit to the 76-year-old gomtang restaurant Hadongkwan.
One of the most iconic eateries in the capital, Hadongkwan made its name with a long-history of making one single dish: gomtang, a thinly sliced beef soup with rice in a crystal clear broth that traces its roots to the royal court of the Joseon era.
Rich in calcium and protein, gomtang has long been known to give one vigor and energy. Hadongkwan in Myeong-dong boasts a decor found in countless other Korean eateries — utilitarian lighting and a few salvaged tables from the original location in Suha-dong.
Paired with the usual hasty and efficient service typical of old-school Korean restaurants, one feels as welcome as could be, but there is a unique warmth emanating from the place that you can feel as you start to look around.
Accolades adorn the walls and an air of confidence emanates from the kitchen as you notice tables of satisfied customers with steaming brass bowls in front of them. Those in the know have come to eat one thing, and that is their beef soup in all of its simplicity and glory.
The menu on the wall lists no more than six items — the classic gomtang with slices of brisket, rice and broth start at 12,000 won ($10) with the prices going up gradually with the addition of premium cuts of meat. A modest-looking platter of suyuk, or boiled brisket, and beef intestines will cost you 50,000 won.
|Hot beef broth is ladled into a brass bowl. (Lee Kyeng-sub)|
The pricing is understandable. Top-grade hanwoo (Korean beef) and bones are carefully chosen from the restaurant’s supplier of more than 60 years, then prepared in Hadongkwan’s traditional style, churning out only one cauldron a day. That single pot of soup provides the restaurant’s daily servings until it runs out, usually at around 4 p.m.
Each day varies according to the resources used and the mood of Kim Hee-yeong, who has single-handedly manned the soup for over 40 years, and what you are paying for is quality and artistry executed through a discipline only the most discerning palate would understand.
The soup is clean and clear with no hint of oiliness or gamey scent, contrary to what one would expect from broth made of bones and offal. It is the star of the show with all the other garnishes of brisket and rice mere supporting characters adding texture and weight.
One can enjoy the soup with the addition of an egg or kkakttuki juice, but the most preferred way is with the classic sliced scallion, salt and pepper. The addition of kkakttuki juice brightens and enriches the taste. Surprisingly, it does not taste spicy, but accents the beefy flavor of the broth.
Much has been noted about the family who runs Hadongkwan’s two locations. However, the backbone of the restaurant is Kim and her loyalty and devotion to her craft. She has put her passion for her work above everything else and, as stubborn and steely as it may sound, such dedication has led to the restaurant’s decades of success.