‘Well-being’ mugged by back-alley noodles

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‘Well-being’ mugged by back-alley noodles

The few things I had heard about a very old noodle bar tucked inside a back alley in Myeongdong in downtown Seoul were:
1. The bar serves what’s popularly known as “ppalgyetteok,” which loosely translated means “red rice dough.” The dish refers to Korea’s most popular kind of instant noodle, or ramyeon, that is very red and super-spicy;
2. The noodles are cheap, but the dish’s popularity led the original owner to become the head of a huge franchise;
3. The place is really small and hard to find, but everyone knows where it is, and there is always a long line in front;
4. It has a sign that says “Owner is King,” and there is a handsome young man who dresses like a rock musician and serves noodles with attitude; and
5. Over the years, visitors who went to the bar left behind enough personal notes to cover the walls and ceilings.
So it was about time for me to try out Teumsae Ramyeon, as the place is known.
My colleague and I got lost on our way to the bar, but everyone on the block could point us in the right direction.
Around corners that hugged glossy boutiques and new cafes, Teumsae Ramyeon looked like a throwback to the post-Korean War era, in probably one of the most rundown back streets in the country. There wasn’t a long line, but maybe we were early for dinner.
The noodle joint was dim and unkempt, with 14 child-size stools flush against a skinny stainless bar. Hundreds of handwritten notes and pictures, some weather-worn, some fresh, ran across the ceiling and the walls.
We noticed a couple of blackboards that read the price of the ramyeon: 30,000 won ($30). Kkoma-gimbap (mini rice rolls) was 10,000 won, and chanbap (cold steamed rice) 10,000 won. Could the cheapest of Korean contingency food be that expensive? Well, drop one zero.
We asked why the prices were mislabeled. “So we get customers talking” said a young and smiling female staff member. “The ‘Owner is King’ sign has the same purpose.”
It was relieving and disappointing at the same time. We had expected to be thrown out of the joint by a rude rocker before slurping down the super-spicy noodles that are the antithesis of “well-being.”
While waiting for our order of two noodle bowls and rice rolls, we read the scribbles on the wall; notes like “Brutally spicy!” “Argh, things are coming out of my nose!” and “Help! I’m crying!” made us smile and wonder if the ramyeon was really that fierce.
A handful of diners were panting, but they didn’t stop eating. We heard the young couple next to us crying out, “My nose is running like crazy, but it’s so good I can’t stop!”
A slender Korean woman in the kitchen cracked open a couple packages containing instant noodles and used the broth from a large vat. The recipe for the broth was created by the chain’s founder, Kim Bok-hyung. That secret recipe has made Teumsae Ramyeon something of a national phenomenon since it opened in 1981, in the very spot we were sitting. Today, Teumsae Ramyeon boasts 118 franchise restaurants nationwide and plans to expand overseas.
Most Teumsae Ramyeon bars are very small, so as to match its namesake: “Teumsae” means “a small gap” in Korean.
The rocker staff member was nowhere to be found, but the chef turned out to be the older sister of Mr. Kim.
The ramyeon soup in the aluminum pot boiled within minutes ― another important tip for cooking great noodle, ramyeon experts say.
The chef swiftly dumped two heaping spoonfuls of red chili pepper powder and another spoonful of monosodium glutamate, followed by tteok or rice cake, eggs, bean sprouts and chopped green onion. Split seconds before serving, a staff member added roasted seaweed and some powerful shakes of McCormick’s black pepper powder.
The two steaming bowls of ramyeon, dripping with bloody red, greasy broth, and a small basket of rice rolls were hastily but not so delicately presented.
“Water, napkin, pickles ―self-service,” the floor staff told us. Yes, ma’am.
We started wheezing as the black pepper attacked our noses, seemingly at the molecular level. The noodles were cooked just right to get a toothy texture, but the crimson soup didn’t seem to have any effect at first. That changed shortly.
The food is, seriously, not for those with damaged stomach linings, or weaknesses for spice, sodium chloride and/or MSG.
My colleague tearily confessed that her ears were catching fire, and then her stomach, but she loved the egg in the soup. The bland rice rolls did nothing to relieve the ramyeon’s spicy, sweaty adrenaline kick.
Never mind well-being. We had to run out for ice cream.

Teumsae Ramyeon
English: Not on the menu, not spoken.
Tel: 02-756-5477.
Web: www.teumsae.com.
Hours: 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m. from Monday to Saturday; 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m on Sundays.
Location: Behind the U-Too Zone building; Myeongdong Station, line no. 4, exit no. 10.
Parking: Paid parking nearby.
Dress code: Come as you are.

by Ines Cho
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