4.206 OKRKL/5 Jeonju Jungang Hoegwan: Jeonju Gobdol Bibim Bap

-Cycle 4, Item 206-
30 (Tue) July 2013

OKRKL/5 Jeonju Jungang Hoegwan: Jeonju Gobdol Bibim Bap


at Jeonju Jungang Hoegwan

-Chungmu, Seoul-

with Dominic

Given 100 landmark restaurants listed in the book Old Korean Restaurants that Koreans Love (OKRKL) (한국인이 사랑하는 오래된 한식당) (see generally 4.173 OKRKL/1 Woo Lae Oak...), 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.

This is the 5th restaurant, in no particular order, to be reviewed (see previously 4.204 OKRKL/4 Hwanghae Sikdang...).  

Down a narrow alley, on one of the busiest side streets, in one of the busiests neighborhoods in the city.

Plastic food models, yum.

That dude in the hanbok, see photo at bottom.

Other than us, the only Korean people in the joint were working there.

According to OKRKL, Jeonju Jungang Hoegwan (전주 중앙회관) was established in 1959, the 24th oldest restaurant listed in Seoul.  Launched in the city of Jeonju under a different name, moved to the neighborhood of Jungang-Dong in 1969 and adopted its current name--"hoegwan = meeting hall."  The business expanded to Seoul in 1974 and settled into the present location in 1982.  The book doesn't say what happened to the restaurant back in Jeonju.  

As noted below, Korean would seem to be the least important language on these wall menus.

All the international favorites, including dolsot bibim bap, samgye tang, bulgogi.

Ready for this?  The book claims that the restaurant invented bibim bap (BBB).  Supposedly, the original owner took what was a simple dish, ubiquitous in Jeonju, consisting of rice mixed with bean sprouts and, hoping to make it more tasty and healthful, added a wider variety of ingredients to the mix.  But that's as far as the explanation goes, one sentence dropped in an otherwise mundane paragraph about the restaurant's relocation history.  Considering that BBB is one of Korea's most iconic foods, easily within the top five, an origin story would seem to merit a few more words.  Anyway, I ain't buyin' it.  

Clockwise from bottom: kimchi, eggplant, radish, dried laver.

kongnamul guk (bean sprout soup)

In fact, other much more reliable sources date the first printed reference to or description of BBB or something like it as far back as 1849 (see for example Naver on bibim bap), though popular belief would have the dish itself going back much farther without any specific geographical origin.  Not a single source mentions Jeonju Jungang Hoegwan, by the way.

Generally, Jeonju is renowned for dolsot bibim bap (D-BBB).

The nokdu jeon was okay, decent crust but a tad mushy in the middle (2.0); pricy at 15,000 won.

At Jeonju Jungang Hoegwan, the D-BBB included two twists.  First, instead of the typical gochujang (chile paste) as a condiment, either dolloped on top or provided separately (e.g., in a squeeze bottle), the rice came already mixed in a secret proprietary sauce, which I'd wager is essentially gochujang with some sugar, sesame oil, etc.  Extra sauce wasn't offered on the side.  I didn't think to ask if I could get more upon request.  Indeed, the dish seemed sufficiently seasoned as is.  Not any particular flavor, just a bit spicy, mild enough for the kid to handle.  Next, instead of the typical earthenware bowl ("dolsot"), the food came in a hand-carved stone bowl ("gopdol").  In two on-line dictionaries, the Korean term for "gobdol (곱돌)" is translated as "agalmatolite" in English, a soft carving stone.  In any case, the stone is excellent for absorbing and retaining heat to keep the food hot to the last bite, which it really does.  In fact, unaware of the stone thing at the time of the meal, I was wondering how the bowl could remain so hot for so long.  

Toppings included beef, laver, radish, lettuce, cabbage, spinach, carrot, bean sprout, squash, egg, ginko nut, chestnut.

The rice at the bottom of the bowl, crispy after a few seconds on the piping hot stone.

Fully mixed.

Natural nonstick.

Overall, the D-BBB here was a respectable representation of the dish.  Twists aside, the toppings were well-balanced, well-made, and varied if a bit gimmicky.  D-BBB isn't really my thing, however, as I prefer my BBB cool, like a salad.  Decent array of sides, including a small bowl of soup.  A bit steep at 10,000 won, but not too bad considering the whole package.  

Apparently, the food must not have been too bad.

From our very first glimpse of the place, the rear entrance, the lack of Korean writing on any of the signage strongly suggested that this would be more of a tourist trap than a restaurant with local patronage.  Inside, the placed was half-full, all with customers who looked to be Chinese or Japanese.  On the walls and on the menus, the descriptions of the food were mostly in Chinese and Japanese, Korean in smaller letters underneath.  When I asked the server whether Koreans were even allowed on the premises, she kinda hemmed/hawed at first but then explained that tourists tend to come in large groups during the off hours--we did get there a bit early, around 5PM--whereas the locals come later in the evening after work--nice try, but I didn't buy it.

Nary a lick of Korean on the signage at the rear entrance (on the main thoroughfare Twegye-Ro, a block west of Myeong-Dong Station Exit 5).

Address: Seoul Jung-Gu Chungmu-Ro 1-Ga 24-11 (서울시 중구 충무로1가 24-11)
Website: (English)
Phone: (02) 776-3532
Hours: open 08:30 - 23:30; open every day
Parking: none
Menu: Korean, Japanese, Chinese, English
Wingspoon Rating (as of this writing): 6.02/10 (15 ratings) 

More evidence that locals never eat here and aren't the target customer base: this dude dressed in traditional Korean peasant garb stands outside the front entrance in the evening and holds a placard of menu items written in Chinese and Japanese (the photo was taken on a different day around 8PM; he wasn't there during our visit, which had ended around 5PM).


  1. Was just about to post a comment on the new mnm

  2. oops, no, i was making some edits, but it's back up...