[Summer's Choice] A discerning eater’s guide to naengmyeon: A cold noodle dish for those deep into Korean food

Mar 16,2020
A decade ago, it was not uncommon for Koreans to ask people unfamiliar with local food if they had ever tried kimchi, thinking that the pungent flavor could be challenging to those wary of the spicy fermented taste commonly found in Korean cuisine.

These days, with kimchi having become more common throughout the world and people even starting to make their own versions outside of Korea, a new dish has become the barometer for how well someone knows their Korean food - naengmyeon, or cold noodles.

It’s not uncommon to hear Koreans these days asking international travelers and even fellow Koreans whether they like the particular style of noodles especially the version that originates from Pyongyang, North Korea. The dish has been used as an example that not all Korean food is spicy like kimchi or hot like Korean barbecue.

In the middle of Korea’s hot summers, a cold bowl of Pyongyang-style naengmyeon may seem like an obvious way to cool off. The watery version with noodles in broth may seem like the easier choice compared to the noodles mixed with a spicy sauce for a quick cool down. Yet surprisingly, the more challenging version for people to embrace is the non-spicy noodle soup. After taking a sip of the cold meat broth made with a mix of beef and pork, many find the dish flavorless, compared to the broth of the popular Hamheung style naengmyeon (from the Hamheung region of North Korea), which has more acidity and sweetness in its broth, or a dongchimi (lightly fermented white radish kimchi) broth.

It took some time for me to learn to enjoy pyeongyang naengmyeon and really crave it because it wasn’t a dish that I grew up with. Others who also struggle to enjoy the dish in Korea often compare the flavor to the water that comes from a wrung-out washcloth, indicating that the broth doesn’t have much flavor, although it is difficult to understand why such description even exists.

Once you grow to appreciate the taste of naengmyeon, you will begin to understand the nuances of the dish and discover that it is not mild at all. The flavors range from salty to meaty, and differ from one restaurant to another. In general, naengmyeon is known for its strong meat flavor, but it is certainly an acquired taste.

Getting used to the flavor, of course, requires people to go out and try the dish for themselves. Many celebrities, including singer John Park, have appeared on TV programs in the recent years to share detailed information about how one restaurant’s bowl is different from another’s and which is their favorite. Fans have rushed to many of those restaurants to try out their suggestions.

The dish has also inspired its own slang term, “myeonsplain,” a combination of myeon (noodles) and explain, similar to “mansplain,” to describe the type of person who tries to teach others how to properly eat the dish without adding any additional vinegar or cutting the noodles.

Thanks to the growing number of pyeongyang naengmyeon fans, more spots specialized in serving the dish have started to pop up all across the country. The restaurants with decades of history often have lines of people out the door and long-time employees have begun to open restaurants of their own serving the same style of noodles.

It is common for many to discuss which naengmyeon spots serve their favorite noodle soup, and fanatics can remember the smallest differences between each bowl and suggest which places naengmyeon novices should try first.

Fans of naengmyeon swear that the soup is a refreshing hangover cure. Don’t be shocked if you see many others doing the same at tables nearby. Many people joke that drinking soju along with naengmyeon helps them fight off getting drunk because of the salty broth.

For beginners, Woo Lae Ok in central Seoul’s Euljiro is always recommended. Compared to other restaurants, the version of naengmyeon served here has the strongest meat flavor. Many people who enjoy pyeongyang naengmyeon said that their love of the dish started at Woo Lae Ok. But beware that the restaurant is popular among diners of all ages, and there usually is a line during the summer.

Those looking for a different kind of cold noodles can also try out the kimchi guksu there, which is topped with pieces of kimchi in the noodle soup, drizzled with sesame oil, and has rice hidden on the bottom of the bowl. Its branch in Samseong-dong, not too far away from Coex in southern Seoul, offers the same dishes, and is relatively less crowded.

Another place that offers a strong flavored broth is Pildong Myeonok, also in central Seoul’s Chungmuro. It has sprinkles of hot peppers on top of the noodles to make the meaty broth more refreshing. Also served with hot peppers on top but with a milder meat broth is the dish at Eulji Myeonok. Many call either of the three aforementioned bowls of Pyeongyang naengmyeon their favorite, as well as Pyeongyang Myeonok in Jangchung-dong, central Seoul, as these are some of the oldest cold noodle spots in the city.

These days, it is becoming more and more difficult to categorize which restaurant serves which style as newly opened places create their own styles, but largely, people say that Eulji Myeonok style originated in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi, home to Uijeongbu Myeonok. Others, like Pyeongyang Myeonok, follow the style developed in the Jangchung-dong area.

Eulji Myeonok, steps away from Woo Lae Ok, has been hot these days for their retro look. Its interesting entrance, which takes diners down a small tunnel to get to the building that stands behind another building, offering a great spot for a photo, was a reason why many chose to eat there over the years. But as Euljiro undergoes redevelopment, the iconic location will soon be available only in photos and videos, as they plan on moving to a nearby location.

The new rising stars in the naengmyeon world over the past couple of years have started to pop up away from central Seoul. Some are located in southern Seoul while others are opening up in northwestern Seoul, making it easier for diners to find a delicious bowl outside of the center of the city.

Gangnam District has seen the most well-known naengmyeon places open up recently. Jinmi Pyeongyang Naengmyeon in southern Seoul’s Nonhyeon-dong became one of the hottest spots not only for its tasty noodles but also its steamed mandu (dumplings). It has recently opened a branch in Seocho District to make it easier for residents there to get a bowl of cold noodles. Neungrado in Yeoksam-dong attracts many people as it is relatively spacious and has branches elsewhere in Mapo District in northwestern Seoul and Bundang, Seongnam, in Gyeonggi. For those who want to stay close to the luxury shopping mecca of Apgujeong, check out newcomer Apgujeong Myeonok, which has quickly made fans in the area. Another classic style can be found at Bongpiyang, which has many branches across Seoul including one close to Gangnam station. Piyangok in Cheongdam-dong is another hot spot, especially for wine drinkers, as the corkage fee is free there. Usually people start with milder flavored dishes like warm boiled beef with vegetables alongside jeon (Korean pancakes) to pair with wine and then finish the meal with a bowl of soup.

Another rising star is Sugwan Myeonok, steps away from Seoul National University of Education Station on line No. 2, often referred to as Gyodae Station. This place has created some variations with noodles dishes to make them stand out from the traditional options. Besides the classic dishes with minimal garnishes on top of the noodle soup, this restaurant serves a dish called goldong naengmyeon that comes with a variety of seasoned vegetables, perilla seeds and perilla seed oil. You can add broth little by little as you mix everything together.

Mapo District is another hot spot for a variety of naengmyeon. Ryeonnam Myeonok, located in Yeonnam-dong, has become popular for its small yet trendy ambience, which stands in contrast to the older looks that many cold noodle spots have. It is also known for warm buckwheat noodle soup topped with a variety of vegetables. Some even substitute noodles with rice to share the dish with others. Musam Myeonok is popular for its relatively mild flavors, and Eulmildae, which has a longer history than most other cold noodle restaurants in the same district, serves an icy broth. The ice flakes surround the noodles, but you can also ask for a bowl without ice.

Commuters to Yeouido don’t need to worry about finding a good bowl of cold noodles as the area is known for being home to Jeongin Myeonok. In the eastern part of Seoul, Seobuk Myeonok has been a spot that attracts a line out the door during its busy hours. Seobuk Myeonok probably has the mildest broth out of all the options, as their naengmyeon has a more radish flavor than a meaty one.

Those who love Korean food for its spicy flavors can always go for the cold noodles with red sauce made of peppers. Although both Hamheung- and Pyongyang-style naengmyeon can be enjoyed in two ways, with broth or with spicy sauce, more often the watery version is sought after when it comes with Pyongyang style, and the spicy ones for Hamheung.

Ojang-dong, in central Seoul’s Jung District, is home to many Hamheung-style naengmyeon places with decades of history. Ojangdong Hamheung Naengmyeon and Ojangdong Heungnamjib are two places people often go for the thinner buckwheat noodles covered in red sauce. Near Seoul City Hall, Gangseo Myeonok is known for its spicy naengmyeon. Cheongsong in Mapo District offers more noodles if you request it when you order, and Banryongsan in Gangnam District is close to Coex, making it easily accessible to the many hotels in the area.

Are you curious why so many restaurants have “myeonok” in their names? The word literally means noodle house in Korean.

BY LEE SUN-MIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]

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