From exit 12 of Jongro 3-ga Station you walk down the block a few dozen steps and then duck into that narrow, unmarked alley. Pass the old-school hofs, then take a left down an even narrower alley that leads to the intoxicating fragrance of stewed chicken, chilis, and garlic. But mostly garlic. This is Gyerim (계림), and this must be what heaven smells like. (And if this is indeed heaven’s scent then maybe I should start making an effort to end up there.)
But heaven can wait because in the meantime there’s Gyerim’s delicious version of dakbokkumtang (닭볶음탕), or spicy chicken stew, the ultimate comfort food, a fiery concoction of chicken, potatoes, onions, rice cakes, and garlic. It comes out in a dented old metal cauldron, set atop a ring of fire, and crowned with a wonderfully enormous mound of minced garlic. As it bubbles and steams, the garlic melts into the sauce (a sign on the wall warns that “You can’t order more garlic”) and exudes that heavenly fragrance. As you dig in, you begin to feel warmed to the bone. Nourished. Satisfied. Happy. Soju can act as a catalyst here.
After you’ve devoured your fill it’s time for the second course: knife-cut noodles (칼국수). Order a plate and simmer them in what remains of the broth. Heaven.
Gyerim has been around for over 50 years and might be Seoul’s most famous spicy chicken stew spot, but their version is especially garlicky and soupy and isn’t necessarily everyone’s favorite. That’s because spicy chicken stew is a grandmotherly kind of dish and so there are as many different styles as there are grandmothers. Allegiances to particular styles run deep. So let’s decide for ourselves and form our own allegiances by going on a tour of some more of Seoul’s best spicy chicken stews.
39 Donhwamun-ro 4-gil, Jongno 3(sam)-ga, Jongno-gu, Seoul
서울특별시 종로구 종로3가 돈화문로4길 39
Yurim’s version is hearty, thick, and hellishly spicy. It grows spicier with every bite. (And if this is what hell serves for dinner then maybe hell ain’t so bad and maybe this is where I should be trying to end up instead.) Everything about it is big: big pieces of chicken, big chunks of potato, big hunks of onion. And not just big pieces of chicken but big pieces from big chickens — they use a special kind of native chicken, tojongdak (토종닭), whose meat is ample and burly, with a firm texture that in Korean is called peokpeoksal (퍽퍽살). Any less burly and the meat would probably just liquefy into the delicious boiling hellstew.
The timid or frightened can order the less spicy version, but whatever you do be sure to finish with fried rice. Like everything at Yurim, the fried rice is the kind of no-frills, rich, country cooking that’s hard to find in Seoul.
5-17 Yeomchang-dong, Gangseo-gu, Seoul
서울특별시 강서구 염창동 5-17
First of all, there will be a wait. Second of all, there will be a wait. So put your name on the sheet and wait. You won’t regret it. And while you’re waiting you’ll no doubt notice that they have a gentleman sitting out on the sidewalk hunched over an open flame grilling batch after batch of chicken skewers. You’ll notice there’s something special about them and you might even ask him if he’ll sell you one to snack on while you wait. He will not. You have to wait.
And when you do finally sit down you’ll forget that the wait ever happened because bubbling before you is yet another style of stew: it’s all about red pepper paste, sesame leaves, and ground black pepper. This stew bites you back.
The sauce starts out soupy and you’re supposed to blast it with high heat and let it reduce as you eat. The flavor and viscosity concentrates into something akin to spicy velvet.
And then, finally, come the chicken skewers (닭꼬치). Glistening, slightly charred, perfectly seasoned. A mix of thigh meat and entire wings. Under no circumstances eat them without a beer in your other hand. If you’re smart you ordered one or two more than you thought you’d want to eat.
443 Cheongpa-ro, Jungnim-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul
서울특별시 중구 중림동 청파로 443
Second Floor (이층집 닭도리탕)
Second Floor is an indoor pocha (실내포차), so their version is less of a meal than an elaborate yummy drinking snack (안주). It’s soupy, comes in regular or spicy, packed with chicken, and is topped with a generous pile of leeks and sesame leaves. Let it slowly simmer as you sip your soju. Order the excellent rolled omelette (계란말이) as a side dish.
Don’t skip the fried rice. It’s DIY, but if you’ve made fried rice at the table before you know it’s easy. If it’s your first time, then just fake it till you make it. Or look really lost and confused and maybe someone will lean over and help you out.
Gangnam-gu Nonhyun-dong 163, 2nd Floor
서울특별시 강남구 논현동 163번지 2층
Mokpojip is straight-up classic spicy chicken stew. Plus carrots. Not too soupy, not too thick. And not too spicy either, because the slightly sweet seasoning compliments the sweetness of the carrots. If you’re truly spicy-phobic this is where you should go.
And as usual, don’t forget the fried rice. It has a ton of roasted seaweed flakes to balance out the sweetness of the sauce. They’ll take the pan away, make the rice, and bring it back. Eat it right away if you like a risotto consistency, or leave it on the flame awhile if you prefer a crispy crust.
24 Gangnam-daero 152-gil, Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
서울특별시 강남구 신사동 강남대로152길 24
Pledge your allegiance
One dish, five great restaurants, five different styles. And there are others worthy of a visit too. Like Doridorihajji (도리도리하찌) on Shyarosugil; Maemilhyang (메밀향그집) in Daehangno; and the venerable Sonamujip (소나무집) in Seocho-gu. With so many delicious variations on a theme, the fun part is going out, sampling, and discovering which one is your favorite.