This Place Makes Unbelievable Pork Backbone Stew
Every month we pick a neighborhood and talk about the best food spots there each Monday. This month, we’re looking at Matjibs in Anam-dong, best known as the neighborhood housing Korea University. While it’s not well known for its food, Anam is home to a bunch of low-key spots that hold their own in Seoul’s culinary landscape. Especially for cheap, traditional, no-frills eats, Anam is worth the trek.
Korea is a soup country, to say the least. It seems like nearly half of the cuisine is dominated by the guks [국], tangs [탕], and jjigaes [찌개] that have been integral to Korean culture for centuries. This plays into the structure of a home-cooked meal, which is only considered complete if it consists of rice, banchan [반찬], and soup. Eating out, Korea’s sharing culture becomes naturally conducive to a giant boiling casserole dish of stew in the middle of the table that everyone can dig into. Everyone has their favorites: kimchijjigae [김치찌개], soondaeguk [순대국], gukbap [국밥], haejangguk [해장국], and on and on. One that seems to get mentioned less often than it should is gamjatang [감자탕].
If you’ve never had gamjatang, the name could be deceiving. While it translates to potato stew, potatoes are actually only a minor part of the dish. The main protein in gamjatang is pork, specifically pork neck and backbones. Generally, a bubbling red gamjatang will come with massive hunks of pork back that diners need to remove and dissect on separate plates to get at the tasty, tender meat.
Gamjatang is kind of an ahjussi food, meaning it’s one that older men like to get while they sit around, drink soju and talk shit. Which is to say that it’s a classic. And yet, university students must love it too, because Chungsukgol Bbyuhdagwi [청석골뼈다귀] (honestly, just say the first part) sits directly across from Korea University’s side gate, and it seems to be doing pretty well.
The second story spot features haejangguk, soondaeguk, and naengmyun [냉면] in addition to their gamjatang. I can’t comment on any of them, though I’m sure they’re good, but looking around at other diners’ tables should probably tell you that gamjatang is the thing to get here. The stew comes out with all ingredients raw except for the pork, and artfully arranged the same way each time: pork piled in the middle, flanked by potato slices and enoki mushrooms. On top, somewhere between two and five perilla [깻잎] leaves are stacked delicately, with a single slice of red chili pepper like the cherry on top. The broth, before boiling, is reddish-orange and rich, glistening with flavored oil. Slices of green pepper float on top.
The boiling begins, and your patience is put to the ultimate test. You could start eating the pork at any point, but the potatoes require restraint. As a sign on the wall will inform you (in Korean), if you order gamjatang, any of a selection of starchy things to add on are free and unlimited. They have ramen noodles (in a package), sweet potato noodles [당면], and homemade sujebi [수제비], which are basically flour dumplings. I recommend the sujebi and maybe the sweet potato noodles, but the ramen noodles you can pass on unless you’re really feeling it.
The pork is tender, the meat saturated with the soup’s broth. Chungsukgol serves a sauce to dip it in made with Korean mustard, oil, maybe some sugar. It’s fucking dank, and goes so well with the pork. The soup is spicy, hearty, unbelievably tasty. You can ask for extra broth, banchan, rice, anything. It starts to seem like this place’s number one objective is to facilitate you enjoying their stew, which isn’t difficult even as is.
That attention to getting the most out of their gamjatang ends with bokkeumbap [볶음밥] (fuck yes!!!) which they’ll fry up for you if you ask. Basically, they dump rice mixed with scallions, seaweed, maybe some oil, etc. on the remaining bits of pork, potato, and broth lining the bottom of your casserole dish. It’s the absolute best way to finish off this meal and do the gamjatang justice. As with any bokkeumbap made with the remains of a meal, the key here is more patience – unless you like your rice soupier (we’re not hating) you gotta let a crispy crust form on the bottom before scraping it up.
This is some really good food y’all. It’s great in the winter, it’s great in the summer. It’s delicious when you’re sober, unreal when you’re drunk, much needed when you’re hungover. Basically, the ahjussis never lie. As far as stews go, gamjatang is a must and Chungsukgol is the spot in Anam to get it.
That’s it for this month’s selection of Anam matjibs, though the list doesn’t stop there. Let us know your favorite Anam spots and how we did on curating this list.
If you’ve been to Chungsukgol Bbyuhdagwi, hit us with your thoughts. For another Anam-dong matjib, check out last week’s piece on this aggressively generous donkasu [돈까스] spot.
Photo credits: author, @lovely1004mk, @kiey1714