On the lamb
Forget the jjajangmyeon. Oh Myeong-hak serves real Chinese food — melt-in-your-mouth pork belly in thick gravy, stir-fried eggplant, bok choy and mushrooms. And of course there’s his restaurant’s specialty: lamb. Big chunks of it, diced and skewered, ready to be roasted over open coals.
His restaurant, Seong Min Lamb, is named after his nephew. They serve a range of Chinese dishes and a few Korean ones. The hallmark of the dishes is complex, tasty sauces. This is a restaurant where you can walk in, point at any item on the menu, and be impressed.
There are other lamb restaurants in Seoul, but Oh knows how the real stuff should taste. He’s from Harbin in China’s far north. While growing up there, he spoke a little Korean, and his parents eventually immigrated to Seoul. His first language is Mandarin. He discovered his love of cooking in Japan and supported his studies in management by working part-time at a small Japanese restaurant. When he finally joined his parents in Seoul five years ago, he was fluent in Japanese, but had to start from scratch in Korean. Talk to him today though, and he is fluent in Korean as well.
“It took a lot of adjustment to get used to the language, and to settle down here,” he said.
Everything on the menu was created by Oh and his mother. They are most famous for their lamb, which is grilled at your table on skewers and eaten after being covered in a mix of red pepper and cumin seeds. The seasoning is a secret family recipe.
“We looked for what was missing in the neighborhood, then we looked for the best ingredients that we could find,” he said. “We made the recipes from there.”
Seong Min Lamb is located in a nondescript building near Seoul National University Station. It’s easy to miss, but Korean foodies have been packing the place since it opened three and a half years ago. Go there any night between 6 and 8 p.m. and you will find a line out the door.
In a city full of restaurants where people hate waiting for food, this is the truest testament to their success. They expanded to a larger, second-floor dining room last year. Their new space has a small waiting area inside. Before that, it wasn’t uncommon to see lines of people waiting outside in any weather.
Oh’s success as a restaurateur was anything but assured. He opened Seong Min Lamb when he was 28. Youth may bring innovation, but Oh said that it also brought many challenges. Those paled in comparison to his most difficult challenge — learning Korean.
Since the restaurant opened, Oh has recruited a chef from Shenyang, China, to run the kitchen. Oh can still be found every day prepping food before service, and overseeing operations in the evenings. If you want to catch him in action though, you’d better hurry. A new branch of the restaurant is planned to open in May in the heart of Sillim’s entertainment district. He is also collaborating with his chef to open a third restaurant with a menu that reflects some of his favorite Chinese, Japanese and Korean cooking traditions.
Directions: To get to Seong Min Lamb, go out Exit 2 of Seoul National University Station. Take a left just past the KFC. Walk straight for about five minutes until you see a vertical red sign on the left side of the street with Chinese characters and “yang-go-chi” written on it in Korean. The front of the restaurant has a scene of sheep grazing in a green field.
Groove Korea website