‘Fighting!’ to eat at this restaurant
|The no-frills exterior of Sigol Yachae Doenjang matches its interior.|
Easily intimidated expats should psych themselves up before they take a trip to Sigol Yachae Doenjang.
This is not the typical dining experience, where a hostess greets you with a smile and a bow at the door and your waitress is at your every beck and call.
Here, consider yourself lucky if the staff doesn’t swear at you.
And make sure you don’t need to use the restroom in the middle of your meal here. Not only is the toilet seat like ice, but there’s also a total lack of toilet paper, soap or paper towels.
But all that being said, this rough-around-the-edges eatery is worth all these negative factors. What matters most ― that is, what ends up on your table ― is even better than the homemade stuff.
Even in the middle of the week, the afternoon rush here can be suffocating. I suggest taking a friend fluent in Korean if you want to keep apace with your lunchtime diners.
Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am is what Bak Geung-si, the owner of this restaurant, prefers. This probably does not bode well for those who want to slowly sound out the Hangul on the menu and fumble through their meal on a quest for discovering Korean culture.
But honestly, Bak doesn’t care to take customers by the hand. The sense that I got was that you were going to take your meal, eat it fast, and like it ― or else.
|The delicious fixings for the perfect bowl of doenjang jjigae, or soybean paste soup. By Ahn Yoon-soo|
You see, Bak is one of Korea’s yokjaengi halmeoni, which translates to “a grandma who will swear at you.” But seriously, all it takes to enjoy a meal here is a sense of humor, not a chip on your shoulder.
When I got to the table, I was reluctant to sit down when I saw the piles of dirty bowls that hadn’t been bussed yet. But as the waitress shuffled by, she ordered me to sit, and sit I did.
Soon, a hodge-podge of banchan, or side dishes, was plunked atop my table. There was the gaeranjjim, the requisite steamed, fluffy Korean take on an egg souffle, along with a wealth of vegetables. Quite appropriate, as translated into English, this restaurant’s name means “countryside vegetables and soybean paste.”
This is precisely why we ordered doenjang jjigae, or soybean paste soup. This comes sizzling hot in a black earthenware bowl. But instead of spooning the soup straight into your mouth, the best way to go about consuming this smorgasbord is to put a little muscle into it.
This means taking one of the extra (clean) bowls at your table, dumping in the contents of your stainless steel rice bowl, then mixing in helpings of the banchan, spoonfuls of doenjang jjigae, a big squirt of sesame oil and a couple heaping scoops of gochujang, or chili pepper paste.
The result is a remix of bibimbap (literally, mixed rice) so spicy that it’ll make your nose run, featuring a dose of vegetables that would make your mother smile.
Believe it or not, the stink eye that your waitress gives you may actually enhance your meal; in this case, the faster you eat it, the better, as this dish loses a considerable amount of its delectability once it’s cold.
If the searing mix of rice and doenjang jjigae starts burning your tongue a little too much, the mild gaeranjjim comes as a worthy adversary for neutralizing your fire breath.
All in all, for a meal that included more food than I could eat, the price of 10,000 won ($10.67) was right. Add in a little bit of hilarious local Korean flavor, and you’ve got me sold.
I had no idea of this when I stepped through its doors, but it comes as no surprise to me that Sigol Yachae Doenjang is actually considered quite a legendary restaurant among Korean nationals. Although its Gangnam neighborhood is rapidly changing with its vibrant nightlife and rapid influx of money, this place’s hot, familiar bowls of soup don’t appear to be going anywhere.
And if the staff ends up hurting your feelings, at least you can go home crying to your real grandmother. I hope she’s more comforting.Sigol Yachae Doenjang
Telephone: (02) 3482-7626
Subway: Gangnam Station, line No. 2, exit 6
Parking: Difficult to find, some on street
Hours: 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week
Dress: Come as you are
By Hannah Bae Contributing Writer [firstname.lastname@example.org]