naeng-myun, or cold buckwheat noodles.
Seoul's Woo Lae Oak restaurant is renowned for its Pyongyang-style
Seoul's Woo Lae Oak restaurant is renowned for its Pyongyang-style naeng-myun, or cold buckwheat noodles. Anthony Kuhn/NPR
Bulgogi at Woo Lae Oak is cooked on a gas flame-heated metal grill and then can be wrapped in lettuce with bean paste or dunked in dipping sauce and vegetables.
Bulgogi at Woo Lae Oak is cooked on a gas flame-heated metal grill and then can be wrapped in lettuce with bean paste or dunked in dipping sauce and vegetables. Anthony Kuhn/NPR
The Korean War not only split the Korean peninsula into two nations and divided many families, but it also inflicted a sort of culinary schism between northern and southern versions of Korean food. For those in South Korea who hanker for a taste of Pyongyang's most famous dish — naeng-myun, or cold buckwheat noodles — Seoul's Woo Lae Oak restaurant is considered by many to be the best option.
Despite its reputation as a summer food, naeng-myun is eaten year-round in Korea. Several things about Woo Lae Oak's version of the dish stand out. First, the noodles are made to order each time, but are served quickly. They are made of 100 percent buckwheat, which is surprisingly soft, with an earthy yet refined flavor. In North Korea, the dish is sometimes made with pheasant stock, but as some find the flavor a bit gamy, Woo Lae Oak opts for a rich, chilled beef stock.
The noodles are served with sliced beef, cucumbers and pickled cabbage. Mustard and chili paste are offered as condiments. Several forms of kimchi — spicy cabbage and turnips; some fermented, others not — come on the side. Another tasty variation is cold noodles mixed with chili paste instead of soup. The chili paste is relatively mild, despite its flame-red hue.
Besides Pyongyang's style, a different variety of naeng-myun is found in North Korea's Hamgyong province. That type uses as much as 40 percent potato starch in the noodles, giving them a springy, al dente texture, while the soup is tangy and spicy. Woo Lae Oak also serves the potato starch variety in summer.
Another pillar of the menu is bulgogi, a sort of Korean barbecue. Woo Lae Oak's bulgogi uses choice cuts of local beef, marinated in garlic, sesame oil, soy sauce and ground pears, cooked on a grill built into your table, and then dipped in a soy-sauce-based sauce, or wrapped in lettuce leaves and eaten with soy paste.
Other items of note on the menu include North Korean specialties such as a bok jaeng ban — steamed, sliced beef in broth — and Korean favorites such as bibimbap — rice, meat and vegetables and topped with a fried egg, all of which is served in a hot stone crock and then mixed into a savory concoction.
Woo Lae Oak can be roughly translated as "The House of Many Returns." The restaurant's founder, Chang Won-il, brought his family from Pyongyang to Seoul after World War II, and he established the restaurant in 1946. The clientele of the Woo Lae Oak includes many older diners who also migrated from North Korea and have a nostalgic taste for the food they grew up eating. Woo Lae Oak has a storied reputation, and its upscale environment commands an upscale price. An amply sized meal of bulgogi and cold noodles costs about $34.
Woo Lae Oak has a second branch in southern Seoul and several in the United States, all run by members of Chang Won-il's family. They readily admit that the American outlets' food tastes different because the Korean ingredients are not available in the U.S.
Woo Lae Oak — Multiple locations in South Korea and the United States.
Main branch: 118 Jookyo-Dong, Jung-Ku. Seoul, South Korea 100 330. Tel.: 822-2265-0151, 0152. Fax: 822-2272-2767.
South Seoul: 983-13 Daechi-Dong, Kangnam-Ku. Seoul, South Korea 135 281. Tel: 822-561-6121, 6122.
Washington, D.C., area: 1500 S. Joyce St., Arlington, Va., 22202. Tel.: 703-521-3706.
8240 Leesburg Pike, Vienna, Va., 22182. Tel.: 703-827-7300.
Chicago: 3201 Algongquin Rd., Rolling Meadows, Ill. 60008. Tel.: 847-870-9910.