It’s a Cold, Cold Naengmyeon World that We’re Living In
As Korean food fully enters into the American (and international consciousness), does naengmyeon get its due worldwide? Probably not. People seem to want to focus on the meaty and the funky. But, if according to superstar Korean-American chef, David Chang, the future of noodles is light, light, light, then South Korea’s favorite import from the North should be primed for massive amounts of Instagram foodie fetishizing. Naengmyeon is the stuff of passion, after all. Bowls of these icy cold noodles have been known to cause hot-blooded, relationship-shattering spats. You want bibim too? I want bibim! But I want mul too! Get mul so we can share!
Meet the two jilted lovers of the Korean cold noodle world: mul naengmyeon (buckwheat noodles in a light beef broth, originating from Pyongyang) and bibim naengmyeon (springier buckwheat noodles in a sweet and spicy red pepper sauce, originating from Hamheung). If you’re not in the know after reading this, you never will be. No matter how you cut it (once, twice, not at all), these venerated naengmyeon spots are a must visit this summer.
Woo Lae Oak – Woo Lae Oak debunked any preconceived notions of what naengmyeon broth should taste like for a writer who was formerly so strongly team #Hamheung regarding the great naengmyeon divide. Subtle flavors in their Pyeongyang-style? Yes, yet with so many clean, fresh notes and surprises that no bite was dull. Not only that, but as a usual mul fan, the bibim wowed as the star of the day boasting a rich, tangy sauce. (Note to naengmyeon eaters: in the sauce department, a scarlet hue will nearly always beat a red-orange color in a bowl of bibim.) Woo Lae Ok also offers cold kimchi noodles in addition to the classic bibim and mul naengmyeon options. In addition, Woo Lae Oak doubles as famous as a higher-end meat restaurant, so the two levels can fill up at normal dining hours. Reservations are recommended.
Heung Nam Jib – This place is ancient by Korean restaurant standards, slinging bowls of frosty noodles since the early 1950s. The stooped and slurping crowd too reflects Heung Nam Jib’s age. Sit near the dumbwaiter to watch silver bowls of Hamheung-style naengmyeon lower from the upstairs kitchen in fleets. Heung Nam Jib, which works in the Hamheung arena of naengmyeon, is most notable for its lovely noodles, an uncanny marine-gray color with an elastic, bouncy texture. Their hoe naengmyeon is a crowd favorite: sweet, fishy and just a tad spicy. The mul naengmyeon lives up to the Hamheung style ideal with a bold, meaty broth. Those struggling to discern Pyongyang from Hamhung will taste a clear difference in the broth at a dedicated noodle house like this one. A bowl of hoe naengmyeon runs KRW 8,000.
Pyongyang Myeongok – Like reductiveness and subtlety? This is your place. The mul naengmyeon here is so understated and debatably pretentious, it is basically the black turtleneck of cold noodles. As the name on the sign indicates, the noodles here are dedicated purely to the Pyongyang ideal. Slightly chewy buckwheat noodles sit in an uber-delicate beef-bone broth, so delicate in fact that you wonder if you are missing something. Aside from the noodles and broth, the only accoutrements are a couple slices of beef brisket, a hard-boiled egg, vinegared radish, and a smattering of green onion. A few tables over, a man was shamelessly squirting ample amounts of spicy mustard and vinegar into his bowl looking for something that would excite his tongue. Regardless, trying these noodles is informative. How light can you go? Perhaps, like the best soba shops, well-cultured tastebuds are required here.