As simple as soup of the dayIn the middle of downtown Seoul stands a dilapidated two-story building with a sign that reads, “Somunnan Chueotang,” or “Famous Loach Soup.” Inside the small restaurant, customers with friends or family or alone eat their meal, which consists of three dishes -- a bowl of soup, rice and kkakdugi, a type of kimchi. Every seat is taken.
At the door, the restaurant’s owner, Kwon Young-hee, 58, pours soup into bowls she grabs from a nearby stack. She wears mittens with the fingertips naked, protecting her hands from the winter cold without limiting her dexterity. A cloud of steam rises from the bowl of murky liquid as the aroma of sweet miso warms the entrance.
“I really have nothing much to say,” Ms. Kwon says. “I'm not a person, who likes to promote my store or gain popularity; I just like it the way it is, simple.”
Ms. Kwon has run this loach soup restaurant for 32 years; it was handed down to her by her mother-in-law. The restaurant has been in business since the end of the Korean War, serving its customers for 50 years.
Interestingly, however, although the sign reads, “Loach soup,” the menu is absent this fish porridge. Ms. Kwon is serving, ugeojitong, a soup made from the outer leaves of the cabbage. A meal here costs 1,500 won ($1), a rare bargain.
Ms. Kwon is unpretentious. Her restaurant is cheap and she makes sure her customers know this, but they keep coming back.
“I had a good warm meal, but here’s a little extra for you,” says a middle-aged man, handing two cookies to Ms. Kwon, who quickly takes them and utters “thank you.”
Ms. Kwon rarely smiles, remaining stoical as she greets customers. But somehow they trade a mutual understanding.
Most of the restaurant customers are regulars, many are old enough to need a walking cane; a smile reveals a gold tooth. They are not fancy dressers with a nice jacket and fashionable haircut. Some have a dirty face, their clothes tattered and filthy. But this does not stop Ms. Kwon from serving them what might be their only hot meal of the day. Their appearance is not important.
“I'm not doing this for the money, and I'm not doing any charity work,” Ms. Kwon says. She says the restaurant barely got by even 30 years ago and that it has never been profitable.
“Even when we started, we were selling the soup at the price of 400, 500 and 1,000 won a bowl,” Ms. Kwon says. “The 1,500 price tag has never changed over the last 10 years.”
Her lowly job leads to questions about her choices in life. But Ms. Kwon is adamant on her personal satisfaction.
“Not once have I ever regretted my life,” she says.
“I'm running this business because I like my customers and this is my duty.”
Ms. Kwon says she likes the people who eat at her establishment. She says many of her customers are like family members and that is why she keeps on doing what she's doing even though her own family opposes to her work.
“Of course my children do not like what I do and I can quit anytime I want. If I feel like it I could even shut down the restaurant tomorrow.”
Yet, she continues to run this place, even under the apparent sacrifice of her personal pleasure. “I haven't been on a trip, foreign or domestic,” Ms. Kwon says. “I just can't find the time.”
Passers-by glance at Ms. Kwon, who is putting a pile of radishes into a machine that cuts the vegetables into cubes for kkakdugi.
“That machine looks interesting,” says one man who stops for a closer look. “You know other restaurants serve bigger pieces of kkakdugi.”
Without looking up, Ms. Kwon replies, “Ours is smaller because we're cheap.”
“She's a really nice person with a warm heart,” says Koh Gyeong-gwon, who is busy placing all the sliced radishes in a huge barrel.
“She may not openly admit it but she's doing charity work. Where else could you find a restaurant that gives out meals almost free?”
Mr. Koh says his employer treats her staff with a warm heart and in his two years with the restaurant he has never seen Ms. Kwon show off, not even once.
Mr. Koh says his employer works hard every day, never seeming to stop and because of her energy the staff is dedicated to the job.
“I'll work at this place until it either shuts down or she gets rid of me,” Mr. Koh says.
“I've been coming to this restaurant for years and you will never find a place like this anywhere else,” says Park Chang-soo, 67. “It may not be a fancy meal but it's just good enough to stuff my belly.”
The restaurant operates from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Ms. Kwon says that during business hours she sees different kinds of people. However, the worst kind are those who get drunk and make a scene.
“Those are the worst ones and they are hopeless,” Ms. Kwon says, shaking her head.
She has a bit of advice for the younger generation: “Do your best at whatever you do. If you work hard, you'll be paid off handsomely later in life.”
Ms. Kwon says young people nowadays go though life knowing nothing. “They are just clueless and think everything is simple, “A person needs to look far down the road,” she says.
How much longer will the “Loach Restaurant” be around? Ms. Kwon says she will never hand it down to her children. “It will end in my line,” she says.
So those who want a good meal for a giveaway price can continue to enjoy Ms. Kwon’s brand of sustenance and kindness.
But for most customers who are quietly eating here on this cold day, planning the future is just a matter of finding a way back to the hot soup that eases their most immediate concerns.
by Lee Ho-jeong