The Washington Post’s food critic Tom Sietsema listed a restaurant I took him to as one of his best meals ANYWHERE around the world in 2013.
by Tom Sietsema
Nearing the end of five days of eating in Seoul in November — at street stalls, in the shadow of Buddhist temples and at restaurants so tranquil they felt like museums — I was chagrined to hear a resident tipster tell me that I had been grazing in the wrong places. “The really good cooking is outside the city,” my informant said — just as I signed the check for an unremarkable dinner for four for $600.
Panic set in. There wasn’t time for me to venture outside the capital of South Korea, but I did have another opportunity to eat before heading to the airport. So I dashed off an e-mail to Joe McPherson, founder of the online food journal ZenKimchi: Where should I havelunch the next day, and could he join us? McPherson pitched a few ideas. I stopped him when he mentioned a source for North Korean food, prepared in the cook’s home. And so it was that my guide met us the next day at Yaksu Station, a subway stop, and we ventured into a nearby residential neighborhood in search of lunch.
The gate outside Cheogajip, our destination, was cracked open a few inches, and thank goodness for that, because there’s no way we would have found the place otherwise. Expecting us, the cook beckoned three appetites into a small courtyard, where a yapping dog and a clothesline signaled a private residence. Our hostess motioned to a small room with a sliding door, where we gathered around a low table and glanced at the brief menu posted on the wall.
“There are five choices,” McPherson translated from the Korean script. “Two of them are beer and soju,” Korea’s spirit of choice. The rest of the selections turned out to be among the highlights of my trip. First came floppy, crescent-shaped dumplings, their skins so thin you could see the filling of pork and onions. A big steamed chicken followed. Using chopsticks, we coaxed the ivory meat from the bones, then dipped the morsels in a racy paste of chilies and leeks. Bliss. Helping crowd the table: a big bowl of chilled,
spaghetti-thin buckwheat noodles. Garnished with neat batons of cucumber, the bolt of beige rose from a pond of clear broth with a delicate vinegar sting.
There were smiles all around as we unwound our legs, nodded our thanks to the cook and exited through the courtyard, where woven trays of daikon radishes basked in the early afternoon sun. For less than $10 a head, we got a feast and a story to take home.