If someone were to blindfold you and then drop you off at the intersection above Gongdeok Station, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Gangnam and not Mapo-gu. The neighborhood is starkly different from the much more modest nearby areas of Aeogae and Daeheung – massively more developed, a forest of brand new steel and glass towers with streams of heavy traffic moving along the wide avenues below them. It’s clear that Gongdeok has seen a lot of change, and seen it fast, and having recently been linked to the AREX line that runs from Seoul Station to Incheon Airport, it’s likely to see more.
The AREX expansion is still new enough that the entrances accessing it and the surrounding plaza haven’t yet been completed, as I saw after stepping out of Exit 8, where white metal fencing and piles of dirt show signs of a work still in progress. Just past those, however, things are spic and span, Mapo-ro (마포로) lined with sparkling new buildings housing banks, restaurants, and cafes on their first floors. It’s more of the same along Baekbeom-ro (백범로) from Exit 7: tall modern structures, in front of several of which are the sorts of sculptures commissioned by corporate groups. There’s a big blue man like glued together lollipops holding a glowing white orb, and metal stick figures running up a silver arc towards vertical.
In the area framed by these two avenues the neighborhood lets its hair down a bit, and a number of restaurants, bars, and small shops sit invitingly on some small streets paved with stone.
Kiddy-corner from that, I found things to be exceptionally residential. Just outside of Exit 2 is the tower of the Lotte City Hotel, sequined eggs out front, and behind it, via Exit 2 or 3, the neighborhood is 100% apartment towers and their trappings: convenience stores, bakeries, real estate offices, and a few hagwons.
But if there’s one thing that residents of Seoul have come to know it’s that not even the most modern and sterile neighborhoods are without their traces of grime or stubborn remainders from a rougher and not all that remote past.
Take a bus (or a walk) along Sogang-ro (서강로) west of the station on any given night, and you’ll see a sidewalk flooded in a pulp magazine shade of pink where a strip of hostess bars line up, especially on the south side of the avenue, nearest Exit 1. I’d seen these several times before, but always from late night bus windows; this was the first time I’d walked past them. Up close, they seemed curiously shrunken, as if employees and clients alike were two-thirds size. The front of each establishment was only about three meters wide, and the doors were exactly my height or an inch or two shorter. Most of them had peepholes. Facades were usually painted in one solid color, doors in another, and almost all of the establishments used an old-fashioned font resembling hand-drawn brushstrokes on their signs. It almost goes without saying that none of the bars had windows.
The hostess bars front a thin strip, a half block wide, of old, slightly beat-up, tile-roofed buildings that reminded me of similar scenes I’ve come across in the more industrial parts of Yeongdeungpo and elsewhere. Where was the money that was so proudly on display elsewhere around Gongdeok?
Compounding the incongruity was the fact that just behind this humble row a new park was going in. It was just a thin strip of concrete walking path between saplings, but I’d seen something similar near Daeheung Station, and my guess was that the two, and possibly more, would connect in a ribbon of park running above the extension of the Jungang Line, going in underground. Much development is left, however – dump trucks sat around idly and the exercise equipment placed at a bulge in the walking path was still wrapped in protective blue plastic.
For a bigger look at what Gongdeok was probably like a few years ago, pop out Exit 5 and head to Gongdeok Market (공덕시장) by heading straight on Mallijae-gil (만리재길) and veering to the left onto Mallijaeyet-gil (만리재옛길). A block up on the left is the market, as old school as you like. Its main alley runs parallel to the street, squeezed between two old three-story brick buildings that have tufts of grass and weeds growing out of cracks in their sides and roofs.
Along the outside alley were vegetable sellers and piles of shoes and butchers whose cuts of meat were illuminated with the same pink lights as the hostess bars a couple blocks away. The market continued in dimly lit stalls occupying the first floor of the building between the alley and Mallijaeyet-gil, a low-roofed, cramped place that brought to mind Guro Market (구로시장) near Namguro Station. Many of the stalls were closed on a Sunday, but some potent-smelling lunch booths were open and manned by wizened ajummas, though at least one of them had snuck away to a noraebang, judging by the wail pouring from a second-story window.
I’d heard of the Gongdeok neighborhood being well-known for a couple of foods, so one of my main goals on this visit was to try them out. Fortunately for the serial-eater, the places for both of these are right next to each other, occupying the outer edge of the market and are the first and second things you see on your way there from the station.
As soon as you arrive at the market you’ll notice several signs advertising places for jokbal (족발), or pork trotters. The most prominent of these, and the one my companion and I ate at, is Gungjung Jokbal (궁중족발), which doesn’t appear all that big from the street, but once you step inside the market alley reveals itself to be spread over about a half-dozen rooms, as if it’s metastasized. Every single one of these was boisterous and packed when I visited, as any good jokbal place should be. Jokbal is maybe one of the world’s least pretentious eating experiences, and every time I have it I feel as if I really should have just finished working at the docks and should now be telling loud off-color jokes. My longshoreman fantasy was graciously aided by the fact that a minute after we were seated two guys pulled up chairs at the table next to us, one of whom had the most beautiful Korean mullet I’d ever seen. Less than ten minutes later they were already on their second bottle of soju. Keep up the good work, men.
Gungjung Jokbal’s popularity probably owed quite a bit to its generosity. Along with a liberal portion of jokbal, the joint provides both a plate of sundae (순대) (blood sausage) and sundae-guk (순대국) (sundae soup) free of charge. This sounds wonderful in the abstract, but in practice, splitting all that nasty bit pork between two people can feel like you’re eating your way towards your own death. My advice? Don’t go with less than four people. Which is not to say that it wasn’t all delicious. It was. I was just ready to sign myself into the nearest cardiac hospital by the time I was done.
Slightly less heart attack-inducing is what’s referred to as Twikim Alley, just next to the jokbal places. First of all, this is a total misnomer. This isn’t a row of restaurants specializing in one food, like Tteokbokki Town in Sindang or the bindaetteok stalls in Gwangjang Market in Jongno-5-ga. It’s two big twikim restaurants next to each other, though prices here are a bit cheaper than in other parts of town.
The two restaurants, Cheonghakdong (청학동) and Mapo Grandma Bindaetteok (마포할머니빈대떡) sit on either side of a market alley and are each fronted by a long table piled with dozens of varieties of twikim, battered and fried snacks similar to tempura. There are the standard varieties you see at any old tent restaurant – vegetable, potato, squid – but also more exotic fare like hot peppers, sesame leaves, and octopus rings…just about anything you could batter and deep fry. The selection did not, however, extend to deep-fried Oreos or butter. America – still undisputed deep-frying champion. U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!
Like Gungjung, Grandma’s spreads out through a warren of first floor rooms, but Cheonghakdong, where we ate, mostly takes up a large second floor dining room. After loading up a tray Dunkin’ Donuts-style we handed it over to the woman working there and went upstairs to sit down while our twikim was fried up.
When our food came, along with a grease-splattered receipt, it was served with dongchimi (동치미), a light, slightly sour soup; two kinds of kimchi for cutting through the grease; and soy sauce with slices of onions for dipping the twikim in. Comforting, filling, and warm. Order up a bottle of makkeolli and you’ve got all you need to get yourself through the winter.
Gongdeok Market (공덕시장)
Straight on Mallijae-gil (만리재길) to Mallijaeyet-gil (만리재옛길)
Gungjung Jokbal (궁중족발)
In Gongdeok Market
In Gongdeok Market
Mapo Grandma Bindaetteok (마포할머니빈대떡)
In Gongdeok Market