These are Hannam Dong's Best Dumplings
Every month we pick a neighborhood and talk about one of the best food spots there each Monday. This month, we’re looking at Matjibs in Hannamdong. While it’s best known as the quietly trendy area next to Itaewon, among the cafes and craft beer bars are a few incredible food spots with a ton of integrity.
There are few things as simply and universally enjoyable as a good dumpling. While east Asia holds the monopoly on countries most associated with dumplings, the uniting power of filled wrappers is evidenced by the fact that pretty much every culture has a variant; Italian ravioli, Latin empanadas, Russian manty, Jewish kreplach… basically, if it’s meat cooked in a starch skin, humans are eating it.
Focusing in on Asia, though, dumplings are still hugely unique. Japanese gyoza are really different from Chinese jiaozi, which are different still from Korean mandu [만두]. What makes mandu unique is not just their round, puffy shape – compared to their neighbors, Korean dumplings tend to be lighter in meat flavor, with fillers like tofu or sweet potato noodles [당면] used to add more consistency. And, unlike the infinite variety of Chinese dumplings, Korean mandu generally come in two varieties: meat, and kimchi.
Elephant Dumplings [코끼리 만두] makes a variety that has evident Chinese influence, but is Korean through and through. The shop itself is hardly indistinguishable from an independent kimbap jib [김밥집], and actually, they sell kimbap too. But, like any good Korean mandu shop, the front window is blocked by two giant steamers. If you’re lucky, you can catch ajusshi removing fresh dumplings in billowing clouds of scallion-scented steam.
What makes Elephant Dumplings’ dumplings most evidently unique is their shape; rather than the standard Korean, folded-into-itself round shape, these dumplings have a smaller, sloppier oval shape, more similar to a Chinese jiaozi. When I say sloppy, it’s not to be derogatory – just from looking at these dumplings, you can tell they’re not only handmade, but that the wrapper is fresh and made in house as well. Truly, they’re perfect in their imperfection.
The options are basically standard: meat [고기], kimchi [김치], king [왕], pan fried [군], water [물]. If you’re new to Korean dumplings, and this list seems kind of weird, that’s because it’s a direct translation -- here’s an article to help you decode what’s going on. Anyway, as plain as this list may seem, the dumplings are anything but. The filling has a beautiful ratio of chives to meat, with a conservative sprinkling of chopped glass noodles for a little more bite. The chives are crazy fresh, and cut in long flat slivers, helping to bind the dumplings together and add a bright onion-y hit of flavor. The filling is juicier than Korean dumplings tend to be, and as a result of this the rich flavor of the pork comes through more.
Wherever Elephant Dumplings sources their kimchi from (or makes it), it’s perfect – most likely a mugeunji (extra ripe) [묵은지], it’s sour, garlicky, and spicy enough that it reshapes the flavor of the kimchi dumpling. The pan fried dumplings come out extra crispy, with millions of little bubbles coating the fresh wrapper.
As you could reasonably expect just from the way this place looks, everything else they make is basically solid. Their rabokki [라볶이] is nice, and their kimbap [김밥] is pretty good. Both are great options to found out your meal, but will never overshadow the dumplings.
Elephant Dumplings also tends to be very generous with service [서비스], as in tossing you free shit just because they’re nice. Usually I end up with a free king dumpling on my plate next to the mountain of steamed and fried dumplings, which is a sweet gesture. I have friends who have gotten a free little odeng tang [오뎅탕]. If you didn’t already love this place for the dumplings, you gotta love it for the jung [정].
There’s no amount listed for a serving of dumplings, but generally you get about 12-ish. By this point, based on all the descriptors I’ve given, you’ve probably assumed this is a cheap eats spot, and you’re correct. Steamed dumplings and king dumplings are 3,000 won. Fried and boiled are 5. That means that, if you’re getting steamed dumplings, it’s 4 for 1,000 won. They’re on the smallish side, but I mean, come on. That’s still cheap as shit.
While eating, you can usually catch the guy or guys who work there making the dumplings on a table off to the side. Watch as they roll the dough, and in quick, expert motions fill the skins and fold them.
Elephant Dumplings is off the main stretch of Hannam, away from Itaewon and closer to the Han river. Walking to this area from Hangangjin station, one sees an incredible, seamless transformation. At first, hip cafes, bougie boutiques and edgy bars. Then, nice small stores, quiet coffee shops, a restaurant here and there. By the time you’re at Elephant Dumplings, you become aware that the people who do all the gentrifying haven’t gotten this far yet – you’re still in the untouched part of Hannam. This area has a really nice, really traditional community feel, and Elephant Dumplings is so clearly part of that community. While more than a few celebrities have stopped by to grab dumplings, and many bikers veer off the Han River bike path to refuel, the clientele is mostly locals. People know each other, but you’re not treated any differently as a first timer.
I’m not exactly sure what time they open to the public, but I’ve heard they start making the day’s mandu at 3am. I know for a fact that they close at 11pm. That’s not only a huge window for you to grab mandu at any point in the day, but it’s also 20 hours of mandu making a day… and the effort shows.
If you’ve been to Elephant Dumplings, let us know what you think. For another matjib, check out last week’s piece on this dank gamjatang spot up in Anam.
Photo credits: @justeat_food, @karmands, @ggaebong, @miko_love