The Fire Burns Fierce at Gwangju Sikdang
Some foods should come with warnings. Thankfully at Gwangju Sikdang, the stir‐fried octopus, locally known as nakji bokkeum, comes with flashing red lights. The moment you order this dish, the well‐meaning imo (or Korean aunt) warns you that it’s spicy in a vain attempt to get you to buy something, anything else. Despite the pleas to change course, you should order it anyway. There are stories of folks being carried out of the restaurant due to the sheer pain of the meal’s afterburn. You may have to argue with the server to order, but the imo will ultimately relent and sell you Gwangju Sikdang’s nakji bokkum.
People from other tables may stare. The spices are initially dry—a myriad of red octopus parts waiting to fry your insides. As you eat, the fire builds and builds. It’s not a heat that hits at first bite. That’d be an easy out. No, this is the kind of burning sensation that continues to stack on top of itself like a game of Jenga until it becomes nearly unbearable and all comes crashing down. You may even need to make a mad dash to a corner store for some soothing yogurt, and the imo will feel validated by her cautious reproaches, thinking, “Another one bites the dust.”
Luckily, the nakji bokkeum comes with a bowl of rice and a fleet of side dishes ranging from mukeunchi kimchi (the really old, smelly and sour kimchi) to fish cakes and bean sprouts which help fight the burn. There are a plethora of other side dishes accompanying those three standards: pajeon (Korean pancake), anchovies, vinegared seaweed, salad, pickled cucumbers and more. This is one of the best dives to stumble into after a night of work if you’re on the prowl for side dishes: Gwangju Sikdang gives you every banchan plus the kitchen sink.
Caveats. This food is spicy. This place is popular. The tables fill up fast. It looks dingy on the outside. It looks dingier on the inside. It’s run by older people who may seem brusque to some.
On the other hand, it’s clean and cozy. The food is fresh. The constant flow of regulars keep the octopus supply in high demand, which means you’re not eating old frozen stuff. This is a restaurant. However, this isn’t a place full of children. Children don’t eat at Gwangju Sikdang. Office workers come here to drink and forget. This is a place to stop by for after dinner beer, soju, and super spicy food to burn away the stress from overly busy days.
If you’re in the market for delicious agony, there are few places offering better than Gwangju Sikdang’s nakji bokkeum at 11,000 won per person. It’s a better option than heading all the way down to Gwangju and wagering if your stomach is fortified enough to avoid a nervy bus ride back to Seoul.
Address: Gwangju Sikdang, 909‐1 Daechi 4‐Dong, 420 Yeoksam‐ro, Gangnam‐gu, Seoul