4.173 The Woo Lae Oak MNM: Seoul-Searching for Pyongyang-Style Perfection (6) // OKRKL (1) Woo Lae Oak: Jeontong Pyongyang Naeng Myeon

-Cycle 4, Item 173-
27 (Thu) June 2013

The Woo Lae Oak MNM: Seoul-Searching for Pyongyang-Style Perfection (6)
OKRKL/1 Woo Lae Oak:  Jeontong Pyongyang Naeng Myeon


at Woo Lae Oak

-Jugyo, Seoul-


I'm on a mission to determine Seoul's best representative of Pyongyang-style (PYS) mul naeng myeon (MNM).  The idea was inspired by a 2011 newspaper article that I recently saw (see 4.141 Mul Naeng Myeon) featuring customer surveys on the most popular MNM joints in the city, including 8 that reportedly do the dish à la Pyongyang; I'll start with those.  The 6 restaurants covered to date were the 6 ranked ostensibly as PYS MNM; the other 2, though both renowned for PYS MNM, were included in a separate list of favorite all-around MNM establishments.

This is the 6th restaurant, in no particular order, to be reviewed (see previously 4.170 The Pyongyang Myeonok MNM...).  As discussed previously, I've been to the secondary branch, where I was less than impressed with the MNM (see 3.048 Mul Naeng Myeon), though I really wasn't paying attention at the time.  At the main location this time, I sampled the dish de novo with a more critical/clinical mindset.

The condiments, not necessarily for MNM, include vinegar, soy sauce, salt, mustard, and chili paste.

This complimentary side dish of geotjeoli (겉절이) (literally, "surface pickle"), a kind of flash-fermented kimchi, here with a liberal dash of sesame oil, was okay per se, but I found the sesame oil to be a bit too strong in contrast to the MNM.

The tasting process: (i) two sips of broth; (ii) two bites of noodles; (iii) two bites of noodles with various toppings; (iv) another sip of broth; (v) another bite of noodles; and, if necessary, (vi) another sip of broth following additions of vinegar and/or mustard, although the necessity of any such adjustment probably means that the game is already lost.

BROTH.  Ridiculously beefy, enhanced further by strong scent of soy sauce, which also made it slightly sweet.  Even the color was brown.  As I mentioned in regard to Pil-Dong Myeonok (4.148 The Pil-Dong Myeonok MNM...), beef flavor should be more subtle in PYS MNM broth.  That said, it was well-balanced and tasty per se.

NOODLES.  Decent buckwheat flavor.  Firm but not as grainy as they should be.

Darkish, not much speckle.

TOPPINGS.  Sliced beef, pickled radish, pear, rinsed mugeunji (묵은지) (long-fermented kimchi) (see generally 3.014 Grilled Freshwater Eel...), sprinkle of sliced daepa (large scallion)--no egg!  Although meat in MNM is usually dry and bland, the beef here was surprisingly tender and flavorful.  The mugeunji was out of place here, way too sour.

CONCLUSION.  A good MNM generally but not a very authentic example of PYS, which may be why it's such a perennial favorite among the masses.  In the aforementioned newspaper surveys, it ranked #1 overall and #4 for PYS.  I'm wondering though--chicken vs. egg--whether the restaurant's cachet or the food's quality is what the customers are really coming for. 

PRICE.  11,000 won + 6,000/4,000 won for a double/1.5 order (gobbaegi (곱배기)) or extra noodles after the fact (sari (사리)); the main photo shows 1.5.

HOURS.  11:30 - 20:00; closed every Monday

CONTACT INFO.  Seoul Jung-Gu Jugyo-Dong 118-1 (서울시 중구 주교동 118-1); (02) 2265-0151

These points will be summarized, maybe in a chart of some sort, once I'm done reviewing all the restaurants.

The fact that the restaurant has its own parking lot, in the heart of downtown no less, as well as valet service, not to mention a waiting lounge, shows that they mean business. 

For this meal, I went solo at 3:30 PM on a Thursday to beat the crowds, but it was still 2/3 full; I'd gone with the family at 5:00 PM a few Sundays ago, only to find throngs of people ahead of us--the receptionist said that the wait would be at least 1 hour but couldn't guarantee anything--so we got back in the car and went to Nampo Myeonok instead.

The bulgogi, at 19,334 won per 100 grams, is the most expensive among the restaurants in the MNM series thus far; the grilled ribeye ("so geum gui") is 32,000 won per 100 grams (that's about $120 per pound!!) (the average ribeye steak at a top-end steakhouse in America is about $30 at most for an 8-oz (half-pound) cut).

Ironically, this is the only restaurant thus far to make explicit mention of "Pyongyang" on the menu; even more ironic, "jeontong (전통)" = "authentic."

Concurrently, I'm launching a new mission.  Given 100 landmark restaurants listed in the book Old Korean Restaurants that Koreans Love (OKRKL) (한국인이 사랑하는 오래된 한식당) (no official translation as yet exists) (incidentally, this may be the first Korean-language book that I've ever decided to read of my own volition), I'm taking it upon myself to visit and review as many as I can.  For obvious reasons, I'll start with the 28 restaurants in Seoul, which I hope to complete within this cycle.

The book was published in 2011 by the Korean Food Foundation (KFF) (see KFF's website), a quasi-governmental agency established under the Ministry of Food & Agriculture to promote hansik (Korean food).  As per the book's introduction, every restaurant in OKRKL is at least 50 years old or has been owned by at least 3 generations; otherwise, no inclusion/exclusion criteria are explained (to think of a recent example, Pyeonglaeok was established in 1950 and is, judging by the lines, very much loved (see generally 4.165 The Pyeonglaeok MNM...), but it's not in the book).  The oldest restaurant dates back to 1904, the youngest 1967.  100 restaurants total.  Though I'll be making a concerted effort towards the ones in Seoul, I'll take any chance to try any of the others, if ever I happen to be in the neighborhood.  With the 28, even if I could hit one a week, I still wouldn't finish by the end of this cycle, but I'll do my best.

Surprisingly, I've only been to 4 of these 28, including Woo Lae Oak; if I can find the time, I might write out this list in English.

This is the 1st restaurant, by virtue of it serving PYS MNM, to be reviewed.  I realize that this post is rather bloated and clumsy as a result of these two concurrent themes--sorry about the ridiculously long-ass title--but I didn't feel like going back to Woo Lae Oak to do a subsequent, separate assessment.

According to OKRKL, Woo Lae Oak was founded in 1946,  the 11th oldest of the restaurants in Seoul.  The original owner was a northerner who had run a restaurant in the north and come south to expand his fortunes following the end of WWII.  The initial name of the establishment had been something else, but then the owner had to shut the business down and flee Seoul in 1950 during the Korean War, returning afterwards to reopen the place and rename it "Woo (우)(again) Lae (래)(come) Oak (옥)(home);" nowadays, supposedly, the name is interpreted to mean that customers keep going back (because it's so good, presumably).

Woo Lae Oak is famous for northern-style cuisine.  The book focuses on the MNM, the broth explained as having such a strong beef flavor because it's made exclusively from beef stock, no dongchimi (white radish kimchi in broth).  However, given that PYS broth was originally made from dongchimi, probably, at least in part, the MNM here cannot by definition be regarded as the real deal, despite the book's self-contradictory claims that the restaurant is definitively authentic.  The only other dish mentioned, and even then as an accompaniment to MNM, is bulgogi, which isn't strictly northern in origin.  As the menu above would indicate, however, the present-day Woo Lae Oak is more of a meat restaurant than a noodle joint, though certainly the MNM is their signature dish.

Accordingly, for the purpose of this project, the MNM review will have to suffice.  Then again, I did mention being disappointed in my prior post on the secondary branch, where we had bulgogi among other items, the food failing to live up to the restaurant's venerated reputation.

 Each restaurant has a 2-page spread that provides historical background, including the year of inception, descriptions and prices of signature items, contact information, etc.

About branches, only 4 locations are mentioned on the restaurant's business card, as well as OKRKL: 2 in Korea, 1 in Chicago, and 1 in Washington DC.  However, I've been to restaurants bearing the name "Woo Lae Oak" in both New York and Beverly Hills (the one in Beverly Hills, oddly enough, was staffed entirely by gorgeous Caucasian blonds/blondes, who spoke in English except for the food terminology; we were wondering, "Should we ask them for more 'kongnamul' or 'bean sprouts'?").  I'm left to assume that those places are knockoffs.

Address: Seoul Jung-Gu Jugyo-Dong 118-1 (서울시 중구 주교동 118-1)
Phone: (02) 2265-0151
Hours: open 11:30 - 20:00; closed Mondays
Parking: valet
Menu: Korean, Japanese, English
Wingspoon Rating (as of this writing): 8.64 (234 reviews)

Additional Locations: Daechi, Chicago, Washington DC


  1. Indeed the Korean beef price is super high. But your quote for ribeye at a high end steakhouse is very low. I'd say more like $45, no sides

  2. it's been years since i've had a steak in the states, so i did some internet searching to see prices. i looked up arnie morton's, ruth's chris, etc., although i couldn't specifically find price per pound info. i did say that the $30 is for an 8-oz cut, which is the smallest size. a typical 12-oz steak would be like $45. right? but i'm not really arguing, since you'd know better.