It was a typically frozen February day, and I found myself shivering in line for a hot bowl of ramen. Not just any ramen, mind you, but for Hakatabunko’s pork belly ramen. The 30-minute wait pressed on to snag one of the coveted few seats in this tiny Hongdae establishment, but I knew, as did the other cold, brave would-be patrons huddling around me, that it would all be worth it. Yeah, it’s that good.
Hakatabunko specializes in tonkotsu ramen, also known as Kyushu-style ramen, which means that the broth is boiled for hours in pork bone and fat to give it a rich, almost gravy-like flavor.
The humble restaurant is the definition of a hole in the wall; it’s tucked away in a narrow residential alley and only big enough to fit about 15 customers at a time. But its popularity far exceeds its size. Two out of the three times I’ve been to the restaurant, I’ve had to wait in a considerable line outside. But once you secure a seat, you won’t be sorry.
Hakatabunko offers two ramen bowls on the menu — in-ramen and cheong-ramen. Both utilize porkbone stock, but the cheongramen is partially diluted with chicken stock, making its broth lighter and less rich. But the heavier, more sumptuous flavor of in-ramen make it an obvious choice, especially in cooler weather. Both dishes go up for 7,000 won per bowl.
You can peer over the bar and watch the cooks scoop up a generous clump of thin ramen noodles, drown them in the creamy broth and top off the dish with bean sprouts, scallions and a few slices of melt-in-your-mouth pork belly. Condiments, such as sesame seeds, garlic and ginger, are provided at the table to compliment the ramen’s broth.
Many customers say Hakatabunko is as close to Japanese ramen as you can get in Seoul.
Of course, the noodles themselves are delicious, but it’s the broth that’s the main draw. Because it takes so long to achieve a perfectly thick and flavorful broth, it’s quite rare to find authentic tonkotsu-style ramen outside of Japan. In fact, when the restaurant opened in the summer of 2004, it was the first of its kind in Seoul to focus on this kind of ramen, according to Kim Seok-yeon, a staff worker at Hakatabunko. The restaurant’s owner studied cooking in Japan, which is where he learned to make the specialty. This first-hand experience may account for the restaurant’s popularity and could explain why many customers say Hakatabunko is as close to Japanese ramen as you can get in Seoul.
“He basically took everything he liked and brought it back to Korea,” Kim said.
Kyu Hee-yang, a frequent customer, agreed. “It’s really close to the original Japanese food,” she said. Even though she lives in a different part of Seoul, Kyu said she makes the commute to Hakatabunko a few times a year and recommends it to her friends.
Service at Hakatabunko is speedy to say the least, and needless to say it doesn’t take long to down a big bowl of the delicious soup. Don’t plan on lingering to chat here, though—there are probably more than a few people outside waiting to snatch up your seats.
If you want to relax after dinner, opt instead for Hoho Myoll Café about a block away from Hakatabunko. Hoho Myoll’s design is reminiscent of a lot of the small cafés I’ve seen in Korea with its warm, dim lighting and an eclectic mix of random pictures and plastic dolls lining the walls. But what sets this place apart is its centerpiece—the iconic Volkswagon Bus, gutted out to operate as the cashier stand.
The cafe isn’t all about being flashy and retro, however—their beverages and desserts are well worth a visit. Their iced apple tea with chunks of fresh fruit floating in the glass, a pot of Lady Grey tea, a warm apple cinnamon muffin and a slice of rich Oreo cheesecake topped off our gastronomical adventure perfectly.
How to get there:
For Hakatabunko, from Sangsu Station on Line 6, take exit 2. Turn around and walk towards Hongik University. Walk straight for about two blocks until you see a bright yellow mural on a wall on your right. Turn right into the alley. After about a block, you’ll see Hakatabunko on your right. There may be people waiting in a make-shift line outside. Note that the restaurant closes after lunch at 2 p.m. and open again at 5 p.m.
For Hoho Myoll, get out of Sangsu Station, exit 2 and look on your right before you see the yellow mural. It’s next to a large Holly’s Coffee shop.