Chungdam is a district in the affluent Gangnam, just south of the Han River in Seoul. It's home to CUBE Entertainment and other neighboring Kpop companies including JYP and SM Entertainment.
In San Jose Koreatown, Chungdam is a restaurant adjacent to Motel 6. Its shell was once home to a Carrows, the American breakfast chain. Don't judge a book by its cover. The exterior of Chungdam is not an accurate depiction of its inside. The drab storefront is easy to drive by and overlook, however once you've dined at Chungdam, you'll acknowledge its presence every time thereafter.
We were one of those typical passersby. Only when my mother's alumni recommended Chungdam did we decide to spotlight it on Kingdom Koreatown.
The minute you step into Chungdam, you discover the dull storefront hasn't been upgraded due to a cunningly calculated strategy to keep the restaurant from getting too popular. Of course, I'm kidding about this being an intentional scheme. Though if they do improve the exterior, Chungdam is sure to draw in longer wait times.
PS: The interior is modern and clean-cut. Far from its dusty 90's exterior.
One would expect a Monday noon to be filled with workers flocking in during their lunch break. But no. Middle-aged Korean housewives dominate the restaurant. They were not eating diet-conscious dishes. They were getting down with the grilled meats, baby! I'm talking about thick slabs of protein. These serious slices look close to an inch tall from the table I sit at.
I order from the Daily Lunch Special menu: Dol Pan Bibimbap with Grilled Eel (장어 돌판 비빔밥). It is served from Monday through Friday. Mommy Oh opts for the boldly orange-red Yukgaejang (육개장), a spicy Korean beef stew.
A mini parade of banchan (side dishes) is served. Ready or not, we introduce to you:
Mommy Oh and I agree that the shiregi side dish is our top favorite. It is reminiscent of tea leaves with a hint of dwenjang.
My second favorite side is the mushroom dish. Little seasoning, allowing the natural mushroom flavor to shine loud and bright as it hits your taste buds.
The lotus root dish is more enjoyable for its softened crunch than the sweet sauce it is soaked in.
Upon placing our order, I glance through the accompanying smaller menus. What?! They also sell Shiregi Haejanggook (시래기 해장국)? The last time I encountered and enjoyed this Dried Radish Greens Stew was in a back alley of Insadong at Osegyehyang. This soul-enriching meal tastes like dwenjang jjigae (soybean paste stew) and can be prepared vegan without sacrificing the delicious factor.
Chungdam serves up to 30 bowls of Dried Radish Greens Stew daily. Note to self: I will order this on my next visit and be sure to arrive early well before supply runs out!
The boiling bowl of Yukgaejang arrives. The Dol Pan Bibimbap with Grilled Eel then makes a grand entrance with its song of proud sizzle. Pushing my hunger aside, I take a moment to honor the sounds. I breathe in the steam before ravaging.
The grilled eel glistens under the brightly lit table. First bite. Triple S: soft, slippery and sweet.
For flavor I prefer the Yukgaejang. The sauce smothered on the Grilled Eel is slightly sweet. In terms of texture, the Bibimbap Grilled Eel offers contrast. The crispy bed of rice toasted at the bottom of the bowl paired with the soft-in-a-slippery-way eel is a Delight with a capital D.
At the end of a proper Korean meal comes the Shikhye, a traditional sweet Korean rice beverage. It is typically milky and contains bloated pieces of white rice.
The shikhye served at Chungdam, at least during our visit, has a unique spin: the addition of pumpkin. Pulp of this squash plant replaces the usual white rice. Close your eyes and have a sip. It tastes like your average shikhye.
Compared to hole-in-the-wall Korean restaurants, Chungdam is pricy. However this joint has a modern interior and clean food. The price is fair and I'm returning!