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16 Jul 2016

Baekche Kimchi Jjigae – On occasion I will write about restaurants around Seoul where I’ve had really good meals, like my original coverage of Joe’s restaurant in Omokgyo and my write-up a couple of weeks ago of the reincarnation of his chicken by Cheonggyecheon, or my report on Gino’s tasty pizza in Itaewon. But I realized recently that I have been neglecting fine establishments much closer to home. Nakseongdae, where I live, isn’t famed for its food, but there are a number of places that serve good food and drink, and I thought it was about time to shine the spotlight on them.

“If you don’t like Baekche kimchi jjigae, then kimchi jjigae just might not be for you.”

This past Wednesday, Kevin was at SNU teaching a class, and when he finished he dropped by my office. We hung out and chatted until about 18:30, when we took a bus down to the station. Our destination is located close to the #4 exit of Nakseongdae Station (and even closer to where the #2 bus drops you off if you’re coming from campus); just head away from the main street down the alley by the gas station, make a left at the first cross street, and the restaurant is a short way down on the right, on the corner.

The name of the place is Baekche Kimchi Jjigae. “Baekche” (as Kevin has already pointed out in his write-up) comes from the Chinese characters for “white vegetable” and is the origin of the Korean word “baechu,” that is, cabbage, the primary ingredient in the most popular type of kimchi. Here, it serves as both an accurate descriptor and a brand name. “Jjigae” is more or less what we would call a “stew” in English. If there was any doubt about what the restaurant sold, the vertical sign reads “Baekche, Kimchi Jjigae Specialists,” and the fine print under the horizontal signs says, “We make just one thing, kimchi jjigae, with all our heart.”

HJ had arrived a few minutes before us, and she had gotten us a table—the sort of round, oil-drum-with-a-circle-of-stainless-steel-on-top type of table you often see here, with stools for resting the rump. We sat down, and Kevin mugged for a photo, doing his best “no double chin” pose.

Once greetings had been exchanged, we ordered our meal. We ordered the medium-sized pot of jjigae, which is listed on the menu as being for 3-4 people. HJ and I have had the small size, which is advertised as being for 2-3 people, and we had no problem getting through that, so in addition to the stew we ordered an egg mari and extra dubu (or “tofu,” if you must) for the jjigae. “Mari” literally means “roll,” but it’s not a spring roll or anything like that. Oh, and it is also standard to get a large metal bowl with some rice in the bottom, but HJ and I ended up splitting a bowl so we could focus on the jjigae.

As you may be able to see, the mari is very literally just beaten egg that is rolled up in a frying pan. I guess you could say it is an East Asian version of an omelet. This one is doused liberally with ketchup and yellow mustard. Kevin asked if it was to cut the spiciness of the jjigae. To be honest, we had just ordered it to make sure there would be enough to eat, but it did turn out to act as a good counterbalance to the spiciness. That’s probably why it’s on the menu in the first place. As far as egg mari go, it was quite serviceable, although of course it was not the reason we were there.

Before I show you the reason we were there, though, I wanted to show you this banner that hangs toward the back, above the kitchen (eagle-eyed readers familiar with Korean will notice that this same slogan is on a sign outside the restaurant as well). It means, if I may be allowed a somewhat informal translation, “If we skimp on the meat, we’re screwed!” I had told Kevin in advance that they take this slogan very seriously and chuck many large slabs of pork into the pot before bringing it out. When HJ and I first ate here, we marveled at how the meat just kept surfacing from beneath the bright red broth.

This is the stew just as we were ready to dig in. It doesn’t come out like this, though. Instead, you got a pair of tongs and some kitchen shears to cut up the slabs of meat (which are put into the stew raw) into bite-sized pieces. You can see a lot of the meat here on the surface (along with some of the dubu), but rest assured that there is plenty more meat hiding in the depths.

Now is probably a good time to talk about the eponymous ingredient, kimchi. HJ first discvered this place not by sight, but by smell—she was walking by and she caught a whiff of the kimchi, and from that day on she constantly bugged me to give it a try. When I did, I did not regret it. There are many different kinds of kimchi, some distinguished by the main ingredient, but even kimchi made with cabbage comes in many different varieties. The variety featured in Baekche’s jjigae is called mugeunji, which can be translated as “aged” or “ripened” kimchi (the operative verb, “mukda,” literally means “old”). If your standard kimchi is a typical mild cheese, then mugeunji is a fine sharp cheddar. If you like sharp cheese like I do, your mouth probably just started to water. Well, that’s what mugeunji is for kimchi lovers. And it is the best accompaniment to pork in the world as far as I’m concerned. The Bible says that on the seventh day God rested, but I’m pretty sure he was also chowing down on succulent bites of pork wrapped in mugeunji. (Don’t ask me how He had the time to ripen the kimchi when He had only created cabbage four days earlier—this is God we’re talking about.)

Anyway, I suppose that’s enough waxing lyrical about mugeunji. I think it is enough to say that Baekche take their kimchi jjigae very seriously, using really good mugeunji and tossing enough meat into their stews to put any Korean mother-in-law to shame. I might even venture to say that if you don’t like Baekche kimchi jjigae, then kimchi jjigae just might not be for you.

This is what our pot looked like when we were finished. You can see that there is some kimchi left, and I must admit that we did leave this behind. We did manage to finish off all the pork, though (with the exception of the very fatty rind pieces, which, though generally very popular with Koreans, did not appeal to the Korean, half-Korean, and non-Korean at our table). I think there might have been one piece of the egg mari left as well. At least there was when I last remember looking at it, but it’s possible it was snatched up before the end. I know I didn’t eat it, because I wanted to save room for dessert. Unlike HJ, I do not have a separate stomach reserved specifically for dessert.

Dessert was another recent discovery for us. After spending nearly three years in this neighborhood lamenting the lack of a good ice cream place, after our first visit to Baekche I noticed a truck parked across the street advertising “Real Natural Italian Gelato.” I wondered aloud if the truck had anything to do with the shop it was parked in front of, Felicita, a shop that until then we had assumed was just another coffee shop. We walked over to check it out and—lo and behold—not only was there an ice cream shop in Nakseongdae, there was a gelato place!

We repeated the journey with Kevin, trundling across the street to Felicita (located right next to the gas station) and ordering our dessert. Above you can see my selection, the delectable dark chocolate. To the right is HJ’s perfect pistachio, which is fantastic and would have been my choice had she not chosen it (why duplicate when you can steal?). You can see a little bit of Kevin’s larger cup to the left. While HJ and I both got 100 gram cups of a single flavor, Kevin got a 300 gram cup with three different flavors—if I remember correctly, these were strawberry, dark chocolate, and “cookie.” You should definitely go check out Kevin’s photo of this same scene; not only do you get a better view of Kevin’s gelato, but I love how it towers over mine and HJ’s, as if it were about to step on them and squash them into oblivion.

We enjoyed our gelato out on the nice terrace attached to the shop. The one disadvantage to this is that the gelato melted a little more quickly than it might have inside, but trying to keep up with the melting wasn’t too much of a chore. Still, I was the last to cross the finish line. HJ demolished her pistachio in no time, no doubt taking advantage of that extra stomach, and Kevin managed to polish off his 300 grams while I still had a small, rapidly diminishing ball of dark chocolate in my cup.

It was dark by the time we finished eating, and Kevin noticed that the terrace was a good vantage point from which to photograph Baekche Kimchi Jjigae across the street. I followed suit to snap this shot above. It’s nine o’clock at this point, but you can see that there are still people heading in for the kimchi goodness.

This is the sign for the gelato shop. Although, as Kevin pointed out, there is a sign for shaved ice by the door, it’s a temporary sign and probably not going to catch your eye unless you’re looking for it—especially if you’ve walked past this place countless times before. Just going by the sign above the shop, though, I would—and did—have no idea what this place sold (“Dwarves?” Kevin ventured). Apparently it’s a chain, though, so there’s not much they can do about the branding. I did suggest that they keep the truck outside if possible, as that was what had caught my eye.

And that was the end of our evening. Kevin went out to the main street to catch a taxi, and HJ and I caught the #2 bus back up toward campus. Normally we would have just walked back to the apartment, but I was so full that I didn’t think I could make it. If you happen to be in Nakseongdae with a hankering for some good kimchi jjigae (and have a friend along, as the smallest size is too large for one person), give Baekche a shot, and then hop across the street to cool off your palate with Felicita’s gelato.

Stayed tuned for next week’s adventures, when Kevin returns and we go burger hunting!

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