Two restaurants prove not all ramen is alike

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Two restaurants prove not all ramen is alike

With authentic Japanese ramen having been essentially extinct in Seoul for some time, it was cause for rejoicing when Hakata Bunko opened this fall in the Hongik University area.
Making Hakata-style or tonkotsu ramen, which originated on the island of Kyushu off Japan’s southern coast, involves boiling tonkotsu (pig bone) for hours with garlic, onion and other vegetables, giving the broth a deep, hearty flavor.
A small, distinctively Japanese eatery with wooden bars and tables, Hakata Bunko is owned by a salaryman-turned-restaurateur from Tokyo, who asked to simply be called “oyaji” (or “ajeossi,” if you prefer Korean). Step into the shop and four young Japanese men will shout “Iratshaimase!” in unison. Once inside, you feel as though you were in Japan.
The menu has only four dishes: Tonkotsu Ramen, Chung Ramen (with a soy sauce-based broth), In Ramen (a heavier broth) and Chasu (grilled pork) Rice. Everything costs 5,000 won ($4). No alcohol, sorry ― just water.
We ordered Tonkotsu Ramen and Chasu Rice. Tonkotsu Ramen is topped with slices of grilled pork, fresh bean sprouts and chopped green onion. On the table are a bottle of sesame seeds, a garlic press, and three earthenware jars containing fresh garlic, bright red benihoga (pickled ginger) and kimchi.
“This is the way to eat Hakata-style ramen,” declared one of my tablemates, a Japanese epicure, who quickly began adding garlic, ginger slices and a lot of sesame seeds to the hot soup. It instantly improved the taste of the thick, oily broth, which might otherwise have been a bit too greasy and heavy.
The ginger, however, seemed to make it sweet, a quality not found in real Hakata ramen in Japan. Both of my Japanese guests said they could find much better Hakata ramen in Tokyo. “But this is Korea,” one said, “so it’s good enough to have something so Japanese here.”
Everyone at the table loved the Chasu Rice; the pork was marinated and wonderfully tender, and the steamed rice soaked up the delicious juice nicely. We left hoping that “oyaji” will stay in business for years, offering an alternative to the kind of ramen that’s all too common here.
Korea seems addicted to the much cheaper instant ramen (ramyeon in Korean), which has been a staple since it was brought over from Japan in the 1960s. In the past few years, several franchise restaurants have sprung up in Seoul specializing in the super-spicy, MSG-laden noodle soup that Koreans eat around the clock. We recently visited one of these chains, Hwangtogun Todammyeon Odari; it provides a revealing contrast to Hakata Bunko.
Some colleagues and I visited the chain’s Myeongdong location, whose humble interior (wooden tables, earthen walls) evokes the poverty of Korea’s past. The menu is not for the health-conscious, or for anyone seeking good food, good value or a good experience.
Naembi Ramyeon (3,000 won), served in an old-style tin pot, was nothing but a pack of cheap instant noodles, the kind sold in supermarkets. My tablemate said the restaurant didn’t offer enough toppings to make it taste “real.”
I had Ulgeonmyeon (3,500 won), thick noodles in a bright red pepper soup, which was served in a large measuring cup. I added eggs, rice cakes and tofu (an additional 300 won each) in a desperate attempt to make it more wholesome, but this was by far the most tasteless food I’d had in years. I felt the need to apologize to my colleagues.
I looked around to see if any other guests were enjoying the food. A couple of local teenagers behind our table seemed to be enjoying their noodles and gimbap (2,000 won). Leaving the restaurant, frankly, I wished that the owner would close the restaurant as soon as possible, and that real food would be served in its place.

English: Not spoken; menu is in Japanese and Korean only.
Tel.: (02) 338-5536.
Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight Sunday to Thursday; 11 a.m.-4 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Location: Near Geukdong Broadcasting Station in the Hongik University area. Subway: Sangsu station, line No. 6, exit 2
Parking: Paid parking nearby.
Dress: Casual.

by Ines Cho
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