Don’t let the ambience scare you away

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Don’t let the ambience scare you away

With the fresh blue crab season getting into full swing, I was looking for a good place for ganjang gejang, the traditional marinated blue crab dish. A friend insisted that I skip the well-known specialty restaurants in Sinsa-dong south of the river in favor of a place called Saebyeokjip.
Located in Cheongdam-dong near the famous Nyla (pronounced “nilla”) nightclub in the Ellui Hotel, Saebyeokjip ―whose name means “dawn house” ― looked rather humble, if not rundown. With its red, diner-style tables and small, linoleum-covered private rooms, the mood was a far cry from that of the area’s trendy restaurants.
So we gasped when we saw the prices. Simple crab and rice cost a whopping 50,000 won ($50), plus 10 percent tax. A single serving of galbi went for 38,000 won. Those prices weren’t shockingly high in and of themselves ―only in a place this messy and unkempt. (A number of the tables near us stayed dirty, uncleared and abandoned for what seemed like an eternity.)
There were simpler, a la carte dishes like kimchi jjigae (6,000 won) and bibimbap (7,000 won), but judging from what other tables were having, it seemed as though these were considered side dishes. Looking around at the crowded, boisterous place, most diners seemed to be having festive rounds of barbecue followed by a Korean-style rice and stew combination.
So rather than order the crab and rice alone, as had been our plan, we started with bulgogi ―a single, 200-gram (7-ounce) serving of which cost 15,000 won, though at least it was cheaper than the galbi.
One of the friendly, talkative waitresses brought over a portable gas range that was covered with food stains. When I asked whether it could be cleaned, she kindly replied, “It’s constantly in use, so it’s not worth cleaning.”
My tablemates and I were shocked ―I wanted to ask her whether she washed her face every day ―but, since everyone else in the restaurant seemed happy with the rather disorderly ambience, we decided not to argue.
At any rate, the waitress soon reappeared with a clean grill, topped with beef, mushroom and onion slices. Another waitress came by and tossed over several side dishes on plastic plates.
The hot, spicy bean paste stew, which had a few dark brown curds (known as seonji, they’re actually cow’s blood), was surprisingly hearty and tasty, and the side dish of sauteed young cabbage was so good that we finished it within minutes and asked for more. A couple of waitresses said they’d bring us more, but it never arrived.
The bulgogi was very tender and perfectly marinated ― not too sweet, and not too pungent from the garlic and onion. The beef, a matronly waitress told us, is from a farm in one of the Jeolla provinces. (In a corner, two ajummas on their shift were chopping the red meat non-stop).
The juice that oozed down the grill was so meaty and delicious that my friend ordered a bowl of steamed rice just so he could scrape up the juice and mix it all together. Two bottles of nicely chilled Cass beer made our meal even more smooth and lively.
“You guys are ready for the crab,” said the waitress who brought our large (plastic) plate of ganjang gejang ―two medium-sized crabs cut into pieces, and a pile of onion and chili pepper strips. Because there were three at our table, we ordered an extra half portion ―that is, one more crab ―for another 25,000 won.
The cold crabmeat was delicious and very fresh. The highlight of this dish is what’s known as the “mustard,” the creamy, yellowish liquid and orange caviar lining the carapace; you add steaming hot rice, mix it together and eat.
As we did, no one spoke for a moment. Then, suddenly, everyone paused and gave a deep sigh of satisfaction: “This is so good!”
Looking around, we began to notice how diverse the clientele was. There wereKoreans (and some foreigners) of all ages, some in black formal suits and others in hip-hop jogging outfits. There were couples who looked like they might be headed for a dance club or a karaoke bar later. No one seemed to mind the service, or the mess, or that meat restaurant smell.
And toward the end of the meal, we noticed just how big this place was. It had looked small from the main hall where we were sitting, but we soon realized that there were hallways leading to additional seating, and a basement as well. All of the rooms were crowded, and this was a weeknight.
The waitress who had forgotten to refill our sauteed cabbage said there were 80 tables in the restaurant, each of which sat at least four people. “We’re open 24 hours, 365 days!” she said.
Sometimes, it seems, the secret to success is none other than excellent food.


SAEBYEOKJIP
English: Not spoken; none on menu.
Tel: (02) 546-5739.
Location: Behind the Peugeot showroom in Cheongdam-dong.
Hours: 24 hours, seven days a week.
Parking: Valet.
Dress: Come as you are.
Second opinion: “I had shabu shabu, and it was excellent.” ―Kim Jeong-chan, high school teacher.


by Ines Cho
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