Half a wind isn’t spicy enough for real fire-eaters
To put it another way: if you are a fan of curry vindaloo, yukhoejang (spicy beef soup) and other forms of culinary napalm, then no other Chinese grub will do, for this is the Middle Kingdom’s fieriest food. Oddly, the most famous ingredient in Szechuan grub ― the dried, red chili pepper ― is a relatively recent addition from the Americas. Quite how it reached this landlocked Sinic province some 300 years ago is a bit of a mystery. One theory has it that Indian missionaries treading the silk road, who presumably encountered Portugese traders shipping in the riches of the New World, introduced it; another is that enterprising Chinese merchants introduced it via Macau.
What is a matter of record is that Szechuan people historically enjoyed powerful, pungent flavors. Szechuan is also a hot, muggy place. According to Chinese medical theory, hot pepper reduces “internal dampness” and chili clearly has proven well-suited to Szechuanese taste buds. The cuisine, which encompasses 5,000 official recipes, does include many non-spiced dishes, such as tea-smoked duck, but it is Szechuan’s fire and fury that has captured the imagination of spice girls (and boys) across the globe.
Although most Korean “Chinese” restaurants still specialize in dishes from Shandong and the Beijing area ― where Korea’s Chinese population originally hailed from ― Szechuan is gaining ground. Not surprising really. After all, it shares its strong, pungent, spicy and garlicky characteristics with Korean cuisine.
Case in point? Yeouido’s “Pungmiban.” The best translation we could come up with is “Taste of Windy Rice” or possibly “Half the Taste of the Wind,” which doesn’t sound too appetizing, but let’s not judge this book by its cover.
This small eatery, the “little brother” to its bigger predecessor in Apgujeong, sits behind the towering Lotte Castle apartment complex close to Yeouido station. In the first floor dining area are a few tables, as well as bar-style seating near the serving hatch. (I would hazard a guess that this location once hosted an Izakaya, the Japanese-style pub chain). Upstairs is not quite as cramped. There are nine tables, one semi-private alcove, and red lanterns and bamboo to provide the ambience.
Who comes? Well, stars seem to favor the place. Pictures posted up outside feature various “talents” stuffing their faces, and as Seoul’s major TV studios are all within a few minutes’ drive or walk, it could be a hip hangout.
Anyway, back to business. We begin with chunghwa modeum bokkeum (Chinese seafood stir fry; 18,000 won, about $17) and chunghwa tangsu samkyeop (Chinese sweet and sour pork belly; 18,000 won). The first dish is a huge bowl ― more of a basin ― of stir-fried king prawns mixed with egg noodles, Szechuan peppers, zucchini, onion and bok choy. A really good mix of flavors and textures, moderately but not excessively spiced. The second is your basic sweet ‘n sour pork, but the quality of the meat here is far better than average, the batter is crisp, and the sticky, crimson sauce is much more sour than sweet ― a good thing, in my book.
Next up: Mongolian ansim bokkeum (Mongolian stir fried beef fillet: 32,000 won) is a mess of fried noodles set with bok choy, carrots, bamboo shoots and mushrooms, as well as some very decent chunks of beef. While I would say that, given size of serving, this dish does not offer value, in terms of quality of beef (not a strong point of Chinese cuisine, I find) this is not unreasonable. Finally, kyesal bokkeum bap (crab fried rice; 6,000 won) comes served in a bamboo tube. It is lightly fried, and mixed with egg and crab meat. Nicely presented, but nothing special in the mouth.
A beer will set you back 4,000 won and there is the usual (limited) range of local and Chinese spirits for those so inclined. Service was fast and friendly, but we were there on a Sunday, when it was near-deserted, so consider yourself warned: things might be hectic on weekdays.
Verdict: the food is well-presented and offers above-average ingredients and a fair bit of spice, although nothing here really brought tears to my eyes. This is not necessarily a place to travel miles to, but if you are seeking (moderate) Chinese heat on Yeouido, you could do a lot worse.
No English on menu or spoken
Subway: Yeouido, Exit 5
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., all week
Dress: Come as you are
by Andrew Salmon