In a conversation I recently had with a fellow food enthusiast, I walked away with an interesting point of view. What this person had told me was that while popular Korean dishes like 삼겹살 (samgyupsal; grilled pork belly) and 비빔밥 (bibimpbap; mixed rice) are fine and dandy, one of the best features of Korean cuisine is its soups and stews. It did leave me thinking quite a bit, as I haven’t enjoyed too many other cuisines that place as much focus and care on so many different types of both. I am a little biased, as I grew up being comforted by the warmth from piping hot bowls of brothy goodness, but it has left me wondering why there doesn’t seem to be as much focus on advertising such dishes as there is on meat and rice. Maybe soups and stews don’t photograph well? Either way, the restaurant featured in today’s review definitely offers an experience I think more people should partake in.
A friend of mine invited me to 명화식육식당 (Myeonghwa Shikyook Shikdang) out of the blue while ranting and raving about just how good it was. When asked what made this spot so special, he told me that this was one of those places that served only one dish after having perfected it. He also informed me that this restaurant was out of the way and would require me to wake up early to make sure we could get a table, but he also assured me that it was worth it. Though those last two bits of intel almost turned me off to the idea, my curiosity forced me to say yes, even if this invitation came a few hours before we were scheduled to meet.
I’ve never been a fan of waking up in the morning on Saturdays, and this was no exception. As the restaurant opened at 11AM, I was told that I would have to be there before then if we wanted to avoid waiting outside. After looking up the address online, I realized that I’d be going out past the end of the subway line into unknown territories. As I drove through Pyeong-dong, it was hard to believe that I was still in Gwangju as the city grew quieter and less populated. It was probably ideal that I have a car, as I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to go by bus.
Due to sleeping in a bit, I didn’t arrive until right at 11AM. As promised, the restaurant was already bustling with hungry customers. Lucky for us, there were still a couple of tables available when I walked in at 11:05. Our waiter didn’t even bother asking us what we wanted, leading me to assume that there weren’t any other options other than the main dish when it came to the menu. Instead, he just counted the number of people at my table and started bringing out tasty side dishes. Speaking of which, our sides were simple, classic, and delicious. We got both cabbage and radish kimchi, soy braised soybeans, soybean sprouts, and pickled garlic.
Though it took some waiting, mostly due to the sheer number of people who had arrived before we did, our food finally arrived. Before I go on, I feel like I should write a bit about the main dish before actually saying anything about the quality of it. This restaurant is famous for 애호박찌개 (aehobak chigae), which can best be described as Zucchini Stew (though some may understandably mistake it as pumpkin). Now, as someone who’s never been crazy about zucchini, I generally looked past this dish at most restaurants. In events where I got try it, I liked it okay. Still, when comparing it to other beloved stews like 김치찌개 (kimchi chigae; kimchi stew), this one was a little too mild and underwhelming. It wasn’t until I came to this restaurant that I realized my opinions had unfortunately come from me going to the wrong places.
What we got was a piping hot bowl of zucchini, onions, hefty cuts of pork, and a long, beautiful mushroom slice that had all been swimming and soaking in a very red broth. I was surprised to not receive a bowl of rice on the side, only to be informed that it was hiding at the bottom of the bowl, absorbing that broth while helping thicken up the stew. With my first sip, my mind was blown. Despite how red the broth was, the amount of heat was surprisingly mild. Though it had taken on a lot of meaty characteristics from the tender pork, the zucchini added a surprisingly refreshing twist, making a properly balanced broth that offered a bright richness. The only thing stopping me from inhaling every drop of the soup upon tasting it was the pork, which this stew had an impressive amount of. They certainly didn’t cheap out on meat or vegetables, making this lunch a filling one. I also liked how well the zucchini handled the broth, getting cooked enough to soften, but not enough to get mushy. I have spent a lot time not being a fan of zucchini, but this wonderful stew has left me reconsidering some of my life choices.
If there was anything negative that was to be said about 명화식육식당, it’s mostly that it was quite far. Considering how this spot has been around since the 1970’s, the restroom was also a bit of a nightmare. All that being said, I walked away impressed and thankful that I didn’t show up wearing white (so many little red stains..). Was it worth waking up early on a Saturday? Was it worth driving across the city into parts unknown? Is this a journey I would be willing to take again? Too all that, I say yes. For anyone choosing to make the trip to try this place, I highly recommend keeping the numbers down and leaving a fair amount of time to wait. As the restaurant is both small and busy, I imagine larger parties would have difficulty getting seated together, especially since this place isn’t shy about putting strangers right next to each other. Really though, this restaurant is worth it.
Address: 광주 광산구 명화동 225-4 (within the Pyeong-dong Industrial Complex)
Hours: 11:00AM to 9:30PM (closed on Sundays)
Average Price Range: 8,000 per bowl