Seobu-dong 232, Gyeongju City
North Gyeongsang Province, South Korea
The mercury was already climbing into the high thirties C. as we began our driving journey from the Gangnam neighborhood of Seoul to the southeastern province of North Gyeonggsang, specifically with the intent of spending a few days and nights in the coastal city of Gyeongju. Its a part of the country that I had never visited before despite its popularity with tourists interested in exploring the sights of some of the nation’s historic treasures, including many UNESCO World Heritage Sites. For those interested in food, the region also holds delivers on Gyeongju specialties that are known throughout South Korea, some of which I was able to indulge in and will report on in coming posts as I catch up on this summer trip…
Being it was my first trip on the highways heading down to this region, I was immediately struck by how beautiful and geographically interesting South Korea is outside of the major city center of Seoul. Low to mid-range undulating mountains curved their way along side the routes we traveled, all covered in lush green trees and shrubbery. Then we would enter some lower valleys that were home to smaller villages and towns that were supported mainly by agricultural industries, enabling us to see many rice patties, other crop fields and livestock facilities, no doubt the backbone of the many Korean barbecue restaurants you find in this country. If you have the opportunity to travel in the countryside here, I highly recommend it! With proper air conditioning and regular breaks frequenting the amazing rest stops along the way (that have everything from restroom facilities, restaurants, food stalls, convenience stores, etc.) and you are good to go – I really wish we had these kind of places in North America, as it puts the gas stands along the highways here to shame.
Once we arrived in the core of the city, it instantly struck me that it felt very tropic. Much along the lines of the sleepy streets of places like Okinawa, Japan. As a result, I immediately fell in love. With a late-lunch on our minds, we sought out one of the spots that my friend and driver, had done some research on for this trip. Isn’t it great when others do the hard work for you? 😉
Navigating some back alleys to find a parking spot in a tiny pay-for-use public lot, we walked back towards this restaurant that we spotted (with some guidance from the on-board GPS) minutes earlier on the main road. Hyundae Milmyeon was the name, and it was truly a hole-in-the-wall type of establishment. But despite its relatively small dining space that cut across two distinct rooms, it was buzzing pretty good inside and the kitchen staff (that I could see through their pass window and entryway to the galleys) was operating at full capacity, almost factory production line in its smoothness.
As noted on the frosted glass panel that blocks the view into the kitchen, there are just two items on the menu here. Simple is best taken to its ultimate. Both are based on one main ingredient – milmyeon – or in English, cold wheat noodles. And the two choices are to have it in an ice cold broth (mul milmyeon) or “dry” much like bibimbap, where the toppings are mixed with the noodles without any soup (bibim milmyeon). Milmyeon differs from the better known naengmyeon in its flour/starch ratio. If we put it on a scale, milmyeon is chewier in consistency than regular flour-based noodles, but less chewy compared to naengmyeon, which is made of buckwheat.
They key to both however is this enhanced gochujang red chili paste that is dressed on top of the noodles, as well as incorporated into the flavorful broth. For those seeking additional flavor, perhaps more so for the case when ordering the bibim milmyeon, there is a small bowl of it on each table here to adjust to one’s preference. At our table, there was a mix between these two dishes, and given my need to cool down, I had the mul milmyeon.
Perhaps I was on a euphoric high from the pleasantry of our journey to get here, my relief to arrive and have a solid meal from the start of our stay and a chilling one such as this, but this was one of the best and most flavorful cold noodle dishes I’ve had in a while. My friend was a bit worried I might not be able to handle the spicy heat, but engulfed into the smooth watery soup, it helped make it milder so no worries there. The noodles were excellent, cooked just right and wrapped up so as not to get all tangled up and difficult to separate and thus eat. The always refreshing thin sliced pickled veg and chilled beef on top added a nice crunchy element, thus wrapping everything into a nice package of textures and cool flavors. For pretty much the equivalent of C$3.50, what a deal!