Matjib (맛집) is a relatively recent Korean food phenomenon. The literal meaning is clear (맛/mat = taste, 집/jib = place) but I looked up the term on Naver Dictionary to see if there were any nuances in the term that I was missing. This is what it told me:
Definitions are so much more fun in Engrish! And you know what, they’re actually pretty accurate.
The term matjib can be used pretty loosely to describe any half-decent restaurant, but from what I gather, to be a true, legitimate matjib, the restaurant needs to have:
a) great tasting food that has earned it a good reputation among local diners; AND
b) a pretty high level of fame obtained through online blogs, or by appearing on one of Korea’s MANY food-centric television programs.
Also, this may just be me imposing my own beliefs on this concept, but I think a matjib has to unique. For example, even though there are lot of really good chain restaurants in Korea, I don’t think a restaurant that has an outlet in almost every suburb deserves to be called a matjib. I mean, a spin-off restaurant or two is okay, but what seems to happen here is that once a restaurant gets really popular, it just spreads across the city like a virus. I get it, the restaurant biz is tough and you gotta capitalize on your success. But to me, the best kind of matjib is a small family-run restaurant in a random suburb that specializes in one dish and has gained its reputation on the basis of the quality of its food alone. This is probably just me being a food snob.
On one hand, matjibs are incredibly easy to find because every neighborhood in Seoul has at least ONE, and trendy areas like Gangnam, Itaewon, and Sinsa have DOZENS of matjibs each. But their ubiquity actually makes genuinely outstanding restaurants hard to find and a lot of restaurants will just create their own reputation by paing “power bloggers” to write about them and TV programs to feature them. So, for example, if you look up “Gangnam matjib” on Naver and one restaurant shows up 7 times in the first 20 results, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s actually good. It could have just thrown a lot of cash to a lot of bloggers. One trick, I am told, is to include the world “oppa” (오빠) in your search terms so you pick up genuine bloggers who write things like, “me and my oppa went on a date to this amazing matjib!”
There is no chef’s hat system here, no good food guide, no Michelin stars, no Urbanspoon/Yelp equivalent. There are a couple of semi-decent matjib apps, but they don’t attract enough user reviews to really be helpful. Basically, it’s chaos and there’s no available map to navigate this dense and ever-changing jungle. This has led to what I call matjib anxiety – the stress that results from the tension between your greedy desire to eat at ALL the best restaurants and the knowledge that, with only one body and one lifetime, this is actually physically impossible.
Because everyone knows me as “the one who’s obsessed with food,” I’m always the one choosing the restaurant, so matjib anxiety is like an everyday thing for me. That’s why I LOVE when someone else does the research and recommends a great place for dinner. It’s even better when they manage to find an absolute GEM that meets all my snobby matjib criteria. I had that rare experience lately when a friend shouldered all of the matjib anxiety (and probably some added “Dinner date with a food snob and I’m choosing the restaurant” anxiety) and took me a to a great restaurant in an area I’ve never been to or heard of.
We took the train to the eastern edge of Seoul and arrived at Cheonho station, a place where the most famous attraction is a grassy mound of land. We were headed to a place called “등갈비달인” or “Master of Pork Ribs.” The original restaurant did so well that it has two spin-offs, but they’re all within 100 meters of each other! I love that. This means that they cater to demand by saving people the annoyance of standing in a line and and at the same time stay loyal to their neighborhood.
It is a typical “college student” eatery – cement floors, plastic stools, and round steel tables. Pretty soon after we ordered, they brought out the complimentary side dishes, including FRIED EGG AND CHEESY CORN ON A HOT PLATE.
This takes banchan to a whole new level. And you know what’s even better than free fried egg and cheesy corn on a hotplate? Free fried egg and cheesy corn on a hotplate WITH UNLIMITED REFILLS. At this point, I was already like, “I’ve found my new favourite restaurant.” You can also choose the option of a full plate of corn or two eggs, but the combo is hard to beat. We went through three of these that night. “Only three?” I hear you ask? Look, I gotta leave room for the food I’m actually paying for.
Because there is no such thing as too much egg, we also ordered a steamed egg stew (gyeran-jjim) as a side. As we were waiting, the server comes up to us with a can of upside-down spoons. Each had an item from the sides menu written on it, and he said whichever one we picked would be on the house. MORE FREE STUFF? My goodness, this was a restaurant after my own heart. I wasn’t really interested in any of the sides apart from the egg stew… so I was praying that I would pick that one so we could just eat it for free. And in a rare stroke of luck, I picked it. Free egg stew woop woop!
It’s not just any egg stew, by the way, it’s CHEESE egg stew (3,000 won). I’d never seen this before, but why not? It makes so much sense. And it’s freaking delicious.
I was already 100% satisfied with my experience before the ribs even came out. There is a cheese option for the ribs too, but for the sake of our arteries we ordered the original version (11,000 won per person) that comes with a mountain of soybean sprouts (kind of healthy, right?) There are degrees of spiciness you can choose from, but from my experience, I’ve found that at places like this, “mild” actually means “really spicy” and “really spicy” means “burn a hole through your stomach.” So we chose mild and it still had plenty of kick. The pork ribs are stewed with a special spicy marinade and kimchi, and the crunchy sprouts balance out the heaviness of it all. In the background you can see the “Coolpis” drink (unfortunate name) that is commonly served here wherever ultra-spicy food is the specialty. It’s a milky peach juice which sounds disgusting, but is actually quite good and does a great job at cooling down the fire.
The ribs were yummy, but they weren’t so spectacular that I would rave about this place based on the main dish alone. It was the combination of endless fried egg and corn, free cheese egg stew, and really good service that made this place so enjoyable. On the topic of good service, it is REALLY rare to get good service at normal Korean restaurants, because they’re usually staffed by cranky stressed-out ahjummas or underpaid “care factor less than zero” arabite kids. But the service here was super friendly, attentive, and fast. There was one waiter in particular who was suspiciously nice… so nice that I started to think he may have taken a liking to my friend who happens to be a smoking hot mother of four. I teased her about it, half joking, but my suspicions were confirmed when I looked through the night’s photos the next morning and noticed this:
FRIED RICE LOVE CONFESSION! Too shy to ask for her number, the waiter put his heart on a plate …. literally. Too bad we didn’t even notice and ploughed straight into the bokkumbap (3,000 won). Which was amazing by the way… complete with cheese (couldn’t resist) and flying fish roe. This roe with rice thing is new to me, but I love it now! The salty smokiness and crunchy texture of the roe adds another dimension to the humble bokkumbap, and is totally worth the 500 or 1,000 won extra.
One of the most fun, satisfying matjib experiences I’ve had in Korea – mainly because I got so many free egg-related goodies! But all the food was really good, quite unique, and the service was exceptional, though that may have had more to do with the fact that the waiter was in love with someone at my table… so don’t be disappointed if you don’t get the same level of attention :)
등갈비달인 (Deung Galbi Darin)
서울 강동구 성내동 12-37번지
12-37 Beon-ji Sung-neh-dong Gang-dong-gu, Seoul
(Short walk from Cheonho Sation, Exit 6)