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4.184 The Eulmildae MNM: Seoul-Searching for Pyongyang-Style Perfection (8)


-Cycle 4, Item 184-
8 (Mon) July 2013

-Korean-
Mul Naeng Myeon

2.5

at Eulmildae

-Yeomli, Seoul-

solo

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 first 6 restaurants covered were the 6 ranked ostensibly as PYS MNM; the other 2, though widely regarded as PYS, were included in a separate list of favorite all-around MNM establishments.

The phrase "Pyeongyang Naeng Myeon" can be seen 7 times on the plethora of signage.

This is the 8th and final restaurant, in no particular order, to be reviewed (see previously 4.179 The Bong Piyang MNM...).  I've been to this restaurant on several occasions dating back to my college years and, more recently, reviewed the MNM twice on the blog.  This time, I sampled the dish de novo with a more critical/clinical mindset.

No frills from top to bottom.

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.

The noodle machines visible though the window screens.

BROTH.  Beefy.  Dry.  Plus alpha.  My description (and opinion) of the broth here keeps deteriorating, from "a certain je ne sais quois" (see 4.071 Mul Naeng Myeon) (positive) to "an aftertaste of some sort, garlicky perhaps" (see 4.077 Mul Naeng Myeon) (neutral) and now "outright funky" (negative)--but again, I'm at a loss for how to explain the flavor more precisely.  Hours later, I could still feel a tingling/lingering sensation on my tongue.  In that first review, I also mentioned how I couldn't stop thinking about the MNM even after I'd gone home.  The restaurant's fanatics often describe withdrawal symptoms.  It's like the broth contains beef/garlic-flavored MSG laced with a narcotic.


NOODLES.  Buckwheat bombshell.  The nut flush.  Gritty.  Gravelly.  Awesome.  (Also enhanced somehow probably.)

Like chewing on raw buckwheat (that's a good thing).

TOPPINGS.  Sliced beef, pickled radish, pear and cucumber, and boiled egg (half).  Unique in all my experiences with MNM, the beef here was brisket, tender and flavorful but also inherently fatty, leaving a film of grease on the surface of the broth (see photo above).  Also one of a kind, the boiled egg was cut horizontally (which is actually easier to do and helps keep the yolk from breaking apart).


CONCLUSION.  Given my ever-vacillating opinions about the MNM here and MNM in general, as this project has shown, I'm hesitant to make any declarative judgments.  Just a couple months ago, I'd rated it 4.0, which I don't do lightly (about 2.5%).  But now, because I can't get the peculiar taste of that broth out of my mouth, I'm leaning towards 2.0, maybe even 1.5.  I'll average it out to 2.5 on the strength of the noodles and the toppings.

yangmani

PRICE.  10,000 won + 4,000 won for a double order (gobbaegi (곱배기)) or extra noodles after the fact (sari (사리)), though an extra large (yangmani (양마니) (as described in the first review above) is free.


sari

HOURS.  11:00 - 22:00 (last order at 21:30); closed on national holidays

CONTACT INFO.  Seoul Mapu-Gu Yeomli-Dong 147-6 (서울시 마포구 염리동 147-6); (02) 717-1922

- - - -

Seoul-Searching for Pyongyang-Style Perfection

WRAP-UP

As promised, here's a chart summarizing the key points.  The comments are paraphrased from the actual posts.  The parenthetical ratings for broth/noodles/toppings indicate how well each component reflected PYS, not necessarily whether it was good per se.  (I went back to Pyongyang Myeonok, Pil-Dong Myeonok, and Pyeonglaeok on various occasions to confirm my initial impressions.)  


The winner was Bong Piyang, where the MNM tasted great and demonstrated high quality in every aspect--a proud champion of PYS (see 4.179 The Bong Piyang MNM...).  Pyongyang Myeonok came in a close second, a classic PYS MNM, but its sheer austerity makes it difficult to embrace (as yet) (see 4.170 The Pyeongyang Myeonok MNM...).  Pil-Dong Myeonok (see 4.148 The Pil-Dong Myeonok MNM...) and Eulmildae (see above) were both okay in some ways and majorly flawed in others.  Woo Lae Oak was good all-around but not really PYS (see 4.173 The Woo Lae Oak MNM...).  Pyeonglaeok was iffy but worth going back for other dishes (see 4.165 The Pyeonglaeok MNM...).  The remaining two aren't even worth mentioning.  Bong Piyang is the only MNM that I'm eager to try again; I've made a reservation there for my father's birthday dinner on July 19.

Not by coincidence, I suspect, the initial 6 restaurants that I covered, the 6 that were on the PYS list, are all located in Jung-Gu and include "ok" in the name.  Jung-Gu is a district comprising downtown Seoul--"jung (중) = "central"--where most of the city's business and politics were once conducted back in the day.  And as explained in a prior post, "ok/oak" is an antiquated term for "house" (see generally 2.201 Mandu Guk).  Both the location and appellation likely confer a certain sense of authenticity/authority to these restaurants, regardless of present merit.

Ultimately, I've come to realize that "Pyongyang-style mul naeng myeon," like the proverbial holy grail, represents an unattainable ideal.

First, nobody can agree on what constitutes the standard, as is the case with any regional specialty anywhere--what is true "Texas barbecue?" or "Provençal bouillabaisse?"  The broth, for one thing, has been described in various sources as being originally made with dongchimi (radish kimchi in broth) (which would've been the most common/available back in the day), beef stock (which is what it is today), or even pheasant stock (which is what some MNM enthusiasts like to claim, probably because it sounds like a fun factoid, despite a lack of credible evidence in support thereof), all completely different in character.  Among the 8 broths here, they were so distinct from one another that I could do a blind taste test and attribute every one to the source restaurant, no problem.

Even more tenuously, anyone who may have tasted the real deal in Pyongyang before the Korean War in 1950, at an age old enough to remember, would now be getting too old to remember--like maybe the survey respondents in the aforementioned article; I mean, my impression of the Eulmildae MNM underwent a dramatic reversal in just a few months, and I'm supposed to rely on the memory of a person 80-plus years-old about an experience 60-plus years ago when he was a young man?

Curiously, while such old-timers who frequent these PYS MNM restaurants are often cited/quoted to verify authenticity, recent defectors from North Korea who'd have a more immediate perspective never seem to be asked--where do they go when they want real deal MNM?

In fact, the MNM that I had in Phnom Penh last year at Pyongyang Laeng Myeon Gwan, quite literally an official PYS MNM restaurant run by the actual DPRK out of Pyongyang, bore absolutely no resemblance to any of the MNM described during this project (see supplemental photos at 3.269 Fried Beef with Red Ants).  Resemblance aside, it sucked.

I've come to believe that "Pyongyang-style mul naeng myeon," as it's considered in the south today (whatever it may be), is a product of divergent evolution following half a century of constant cultural/culinary change, distinct from its original form six decades ago (whatever that was), distinct from its contemporary counterpart up north (whatever that is).

Now an MNM existentialist, my personal standards for PYS MNM are as follows.  The broth is beefy, but subtly so.  Dry, neither sweet nor sour.  No overt seasonings, like soy sauce.  If it's fine as is, don't fuck with it.  Adding a drop of mustard, which naturally pairs well with beef, is permissible but unnecessary and generally discouraged.  Vinegar never, unless required to balance out an oversweet broth (in which case it doesn't even count as PYS).   The noodles look dark and speckled.  Easily coming apart with a shake of the chopsticks, never ever ever cut with scissors.  Mouthfeel is firm/dense and slightly grainy/gritty, like whole wheat al dente spaghetti, but not rubbery/chewy or smooth/slippery.  Nutty in taste, a tad bitter from the buckwheat.  The toppings are kept to a minimum: top quality sliced beef or don't even bother, boiled egg (but only because I like boiled egg whites), lightly pickled radish and/or salted cucumber, all providing harmonious yet understated texture/taste counterpoints/accents to the broth and noodles, which remain the main focus.  No bullshit garniture like scallion, sesame seeds, red chili powder.  And no pear--man, do I detest fruit in my food.   That's all I ask.

I could do with a PYS MNM right now (always).  

25 comments:

  1. is this the one MtG frequents and likes a lot? for some reason i thought it would be in a more office-building type area than what is pictured here.

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  2. he works across the street.

    it's in a residential neighborhood in Mapo.

    i suspect that its outsider status, including the out of the way location, is a big factor in why it has such a passionate following among younger would-be foodies. by "younger," i mean people around 40, as opposed to the 60-ish crowd at the old school establishments.

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  3. This series has a fascinating unexpectedly philosophical ending.

    If I had a blog, I would do my own series on New York PYS MNM. So far, for me, Shilla on 32nd street is the best, but I'm still looking. It's getting the point where the waiter at Shilla asked me why I'm eating so much MNM.

    I gotta get off the stuff, but quite frankly I'm surprised it's not more popular stateside. I think it's moment is still to come here, and it's a dish that seems to inspire a refined cultish devotion, something the food-obsessed here will love.

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  4. didn't mean to get philosophical exactly, but i didn't want to end it with just raw data.

    that would be AWESOME if you'd do an NY PYS MNM series (while we're at it, we should see how long we can extend the abbreviation)!

    how about sending me some photos of The Shilla MNM, including closeups of the noodles, etc., along with detailed comments (e.g., like whether the broth is beefy, sweet, etc.), and i could post them here?

    i can't stop thinking about MNM these days. every morning, i try to think of a way to work it into my eating schedule. other than the ones featured on the blog, i've had it for lunch at least an additional 10 times.

    it's not even that popular here.... but cultish devotion absolutely among those that do.

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  5. Since I'm actually going to the very source of the dish (yes, not kidding) before going to South Korea, maybe I should take some pictures, and try (in my limited ability) to remember the taste of the PYS MNM actually served nowadays i Pyongyang? Let's hope it's different from the MNM we both tried at the North Korean restaurant in Cambodia....

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  6. Well, if Gustaf K is in, count me in, too. I will take some notes and photos of NYC (gotta have the "C") PYS MNM and also try to follow your rating system. But you know my feelings on the ice.

    I'm curious about this North Korean place in Cambodia, too. What an interesting story.

    Be careful Gustaf K: as this blog tells us, the PYS MNM you seek may not be the PYS MNM you find. Or deserve.

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  7. WOW!!!! i had lunch with a colleague just yesterday (thursday), eating PYS MNM at Byeokjae Galbi, and he told me that he'd been to Pyongyang on a research trip recently and tasted the MNM there directly. that alone was shocking because, as south koreans rarely get into DPRK, he's now the only person other than my family that I know who's ever set foot there. while was telling him about this PYS MNM project of mine, he was like, "Oh, now that you mention it, I had some MNM in Pyongyang myself." I was like, "WTF?!?!?!?!" and yes, though he couldn't recall specific details, he corroborated that the MNM there was nothing like the MNM here.

    gustaf, seriously, please take photos, detailed photos (to the extent that they allow). and take (mental) notes: was the broth beefy? dry? sweet/sour? ASK ABOUT THE PHEASANT STOCK, if possible!!!! how much buckwheat in the noodles? was the texture grainy/mealy or chewy/rubbery? what were the toppings? (i'm a korean-american dispatching a swedish spy to conduct like culinary espionage on DPRK.)

    when u get to seoul, we gotta go to a PYS MNM restaurant and compare notes.

    this is getting intense.

    i'm going to make it my mission in life to go to Pyongyang and taste the MNM. also NYC. and everywhere in the world.

    along with david, seems that we're developing some kind of global PYS MNM collective. i wonder if anyone else is doing/discussing something along these lines.

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  8. and shouldn't it be NYCS?

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  9. Yeah I was thinking the same thing. The acronym is getting longer and longer by the minute!

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  10. I will take as many pictures as possible, and maybe even write down notes as I'm eating (since I easily forget), but make sure they don't think I'm a journalist/spy.... If possible, I will also try to ask them about the recipe as well!

    [DISCLAIMER: since it's North Korea we're talking about, I will not be free to choose establishments and/or menues at will. But I still guess the Pyongyangers would want to show of their most famous dish?]

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  11. @david: i know that i'm about to push this too far, but if you're sticking to places in manhattan, it could be NYNYS PYS MNM.

    @gustaf: yes, i'm told that visitors aren't given much choice of where/what to eat. but yes, i'm told that MNM is often available. but remember, the key detail that i want to know is if the broth is beefy/dry or sweet/tangy.

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  12. I didn't catch the flecks the first time around but now I see them!
    You guys are getting crazy with the acronyms.

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  13. I set out to begin this today, but when rereading your tasting notes I started to wonder if there is any PYS MNM (strictly speaking) in Manhattan at all. So I went out to 32nd street and asked for it specifically. Every maitre d I asked first looked confused, then asked around, and then told me they didn't have it. They told me they served "mulnaengmyeon," but not PYS. One told me that no one in NYC sold it, it was for "old people."

    Now I'm wondering if I've ever eaten it at all. It might require deeper probing into Flushing.

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  14. @david: when you mentioned once way back when that trying PYS for the first time could be "jarring," i assumed that you've actually tried it. that was when u were in korea maybe?

    as i noted in my very first post on MNM (see link at top of this post), MNM these days, especially overseas, is Hamheung-style (with potato starch noodles and tangy broth) by default.

    and as i've been noting in many of these posts, the clientele at PYS joints tend to be "old people"--my so-called Ajoessi Bellwether Standard.

    my wife spent 20 minutes sifting through the internet for PYS MNM in new york, but found zilch. in this day and age, when koreans blog about everything, especially food, especially korean food overseas, the lack of mention may mean that it's simply not available there, unless there's some underground PYS joint in flushing, like u speculated. the closest she could find was the Woo Lae Oak in washington DC.

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  15. Well, the MNM at Shilla on 32nd street has a very understated dongchimi/beef broth and somewhat thicker buckwheat noodles that taste & felt homemade to me. It was a big difference from what I would usually get elsewhere.

    I just assumed it was PYS MNM, although when I stopped by yesterday the waitress told me it was just MNM. But she really didn't look too sure, she had to ask someone. And then when I asked if they made the noodles in house, she said no, and then her coworker said yes.

    Is it possible that it's so out of favor that even the staff don't know it by that name, and just call it "MNM"?

    This blog claims Kang Suh serves PYS MNM: http://isanghee.com/392 but when I went in there and asked them, they said no, they served MNM.

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  16. dude, nice catch on that blog. i don't know if u can read korean, but looking at other posts on that site, the writer seems to know his stuff about PYS MNM, drawing similar conclusions to my own regarding certain places in seoul. he seems to suggest that Kang Suh is the closest thing to PYS in NY--he seems to be located in NY, or thereabouts--but it's not that great. i left him a question, so hopefully we'll get some more info. in the photo, the thickness of the noodles seems PYS, but they look kinda whitish.

    i wouldn't be surprised if the staff at Kang Suh, or any of the places in NY, have never heard of PYS MNM:

    (1) even in korea, PYS is relatively obscure; of the 1000s of specialty MNM joints, and BBQ joints serving MNM, only a handful do it PYS. when i was at pyeongyang myeonok the other day, i overheard this one guy explaining PYS to his dining companions, who all seemed at least 50 years old, and of course they all expressed surprise when they tasted it.

    (2) when i was living in the states--NY, DC, SF, LA--i can't ever recall seeing PYS. granted i wasn't really into it back then. but as i've been saying all along, "MNM" = hamheung-style by default.

    (3) from my more recent experiences in CA, a lot of the staff at restaurants seemed to be 2nd or 1.5 generation korean-americans who probably never saw/heard/tasted PYS back in korea.

    so, even if a place have PYS-ish MNM, they might not realize it.

    you know, with all this talk about globalizing korean food, it would be interesting to explore how the food already out there has diverged from the original, like how kimchi in the states is much whiter than in korea, MNM, etc...

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  17. I can read enough Korean to get the gist of what he's saying, and see his other posts on PYS MNM. Sounds like a kindred spirit.

    I might go and try the Kang Suh anyway, just to check it out. Most of the places on 32nd street are not very good, and more like "better than nothing." I'm just bummed to learn that what I was getting was not what i thought it was.

    I think it would be totally interesting to see how Korean food around the world has diverged from the original. There is a Korean-Uzbek place in Brooklyn that is really great: it's Korean food with a Russian influence, formed over the last 100 years or so of commingling.

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  18. 꼼꼼한 분석 잘 봤습니다. 8군데 다 보는데 시간 좀 걸렸네요.

    정통 평양식 물냉면이냐? 라고 물으시면 강서회관은 비추입니다.
    풀무원 평양물냉면이 가격대비 더 낫겠죠.

    면발의 재료, 두께, 끊김 정도 &
    국물의 농도, 신맛과의 배합정도 & 고명의 종류와 질 등, 모두 정통이라고 하기엔 많이 부족합니다.

    저의 취향은 평양면옥=필동면옥=을지면옥>우래옥=평래옥>봉피양=을밀대>남포면옥 쯤 되겠네요.

    도움이 되셨길... 감사합니다.

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  19. @david: is this the uzbek place: http://oneforkonespoon.wordpress.com/2010/08/04/korean-uzbek-food-at-cafe-at-your-mother-in-law

    the food looks a lot like the stuff at the uzbek places here (see http://project365ki.blogspot.kr/search/label/Uzbek).

    @isanghee: thanks for your response!

    sad that PYS MNM isn't very well represented in NY, if at all, since u seem to suggest that even Kang Suh isn't at all authentic.

    funny, i also tried the Pulmuone MNM during that PYS MNM quest.

    according to your rankings, it looks like you prefer the drier, minimal styles, rather than the richer, heavy buckwheat styles.

    anyway, it's all good!!!

    please keep in touch....

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  20. now i'm wondering about the PYS situation in LA. i should put lisa or DC on this (you know, in my capacity as a global power blogger)(after all, i have a swedish spy penetrating Pyongyang itself)....

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  21. K-H: That is the place - the pickled fish and the guksu are the best, and the most Korean-like. I'm not so crazy about the straight-up Uzbek food.

    I'm actually going to be in LA soon - I tried to suss out the MNM situation there but couldn't find anything promising online.

    isanghee: thanks for stopping in. I'm going to go to Kang Suh today to check it out, regardless.

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  22. i had dinner at PYS MNM restaurant last night, a new place called Neungla (능라), which was pretty good.

    to my companions, fellow professors from school, i mentioned the trouble u were having with the PYS in NY, and they felt almost certain that PYS wouldn't be found anywhere outside of, ironically, South Korea.

    i think i've been underestimating the general unawareness of PYS in korea. over drinks later at a pub, just out of curiosity, i asked the 3 servers, all young guys in their 20s, what they knew about PYS. 2 of them had never even heard of it. 1 said that the only thing he knew was that it sucked, though he'd never seen it personally.

    about LA, yes, i'll do some looking around too. that'd be great if u could try it there, if available.

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  23. Kang Suh is definitely not PYS MNM, it was just mediocre MNM: fruity and overpriced ($16).

    Over the last few weeks I've subjected myself to too much mediocre MNM on 32nd Street. The waitstaff of most of these places now recognize me on sight, and quite frankly they are getting tired of answering my strange questions. Maybe they think I'm a North Korean spy.

    The best by far is the place I started with, Shilla, which is as close to PYS MNM as I can find here. The only reason I ever went in was because I just happened to see a big banner they had out front that said "Naengmyeon" in Korean.

    I'm not even sure it's worth a report on your website? But if you're interested I'll go to Shilla and take some photos, etc.

    isanghee, if you're still reading this, go check it out!

    I can't find anything online about LA, but once I get on the ground I'll ask around.

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  24. that is truly truly sad that u were unable to find NYNYS PYS MNM.

    i would still appreciate photos of The Shilla MNM, just so we know how close is "as close to," at least in appearance.

    in a sense, you are a spy, my spy. i got assets everywhere.

    i'll do some poking around on LA too. i have a lot of korean american friends in LA, so i'll ask them too.

    don't give up hope....

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  25. All right, I will take some photos and send them along. And I will also keep my eye open in Flushing next time I go.

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