What makes a good mom and pop restaurant?

This meal was filled with 정 and deliciousness. 

Recently I was asked this questions, “What makes a good mom & pop restaurant in Korea?” When I first arrived here it was one of the most perplexing things for me and I never thought I would ever be good at it. Everything looked the same and I couldn’t deduce what was good and what was bad. I felt helpless when it came time to pick a place to eat. My solution, just start walking into any place I saw and just eating there.  After years of this I’ve finally developed that sixth sense that tells me a shop is going to be magic. It feels good to have crossed that barrier of entry.

Of course, trying to put this into words is harder than it sounds. Today I’m going to do my best give a few pointers that might help you get more comfortable deciding where to eat.

1.  Are their hand written signs in the window for special dishes? I’ve found that busy windows full of specials are a good sign that the people in the kitchen care about making delicious things and not just a menu list. They are cooking for season and not just what’s pre-decided. These specials are usually fantastic as well.

2. How busy is the restaurant at meal times? The number of cars in the parking lot or the number of people in seats is always a good sign. Especially if those seats are filled with grandmas and grandpas. If the seats are only filled with construction workers than maybe it’s just cheap.

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3. Is the word 고향 (hometown) in the name? Mom & Pop restaurants offering hometown cooking really do have a higher rate of deliciousness and better side dishes. Also, if they specifically mention a region of Korea.

4. It’s not a brand or a chain. Although many brands and chains are individually owned and can have great things, their side dishes are often boring and lack a distinct flavor. To find chains or brands that do have a good mom and pop flavor, refer to rule number one.

5. Lot’s of side dishes in the pictures. Side dishes are my jam. I LOVE a good 백반 (look for this and order this) option. This means that the meal is primarily side dishes.

6. Boxes of fresh veggies piled around. When I see piles of cabbage, radish, and greens stacked outside the shop or just inside the door, I know it’s going to be a good meal.

7.  Warn out but also clean. Great places often look tired, but also really loved. Families often grow up in these restaurants. They are as much homes as they are businesses.

We aren’t done yet though, once you have found what feels like the perfect place – how do you know the food is top notch? Let’s look at that now:

1. Rice. This is a BIG deal.  It also should never be dry or taste stale. The rice that comes to your table should be so delicious you can enjoy it by itself. The best restaurants also don’t serve just white rice. They serve bean rice or a mixed rice because it’s more nutritionally balanced. No self-respecting mom and pop shop servings bad rice. This is often where restaurants near the military bases let you down. They buy the cheap rice and it truly ruins the meal.

2. Lettuce. It shouldn’t be wilted and it should be bitter. If you are in a meat restaurant where the lettuce is sagging, that’s just a no.  It’s a real deal breaker for me.

3. Vegetable quality. The veggies should be fresh and rich in flavor. In the states we are now used to our fruits and veggies being flavorless, but that should happen here. Carrots should be sweet, cucumbers fresh and juicy, tomatoes sweet and tangy, etc. If there are bowls of things everywhere being washed, you’ve nailed it. It’s going to be great.

4. Depth of flavor. The broths shouldn’t be one dimensional. The majority should be dynamic and carry a wide variety for flavors. There are simpler dishes, but you usually add dynamic flavors to them on your own to bring out their full personality. They are like a blank canvas with the base paint added but you get to do the rest.

5. Diversity of side dishes. Pyeongtaek is bad about this, but ideally you want there to be diversity in your side dishes. A balance of nutrition and taste. If there are three dishes it’s ideal if they aren’t all similar. Sometimes I let this pass when the main dish is extraordinary but I’m always a little bitter about it.

6. You eat it and even though you don’t understand it you still think, “OMG! Where have you been all my life?” 

7. Finally, beyond the food you want to feel 정 (Jeong). Which sounds super crazy, but after you are here for a bit you start to know what it means and how important it is. It’s a particular feeling. A sense of warmth, a kindness extended across the divide. It might be a soda given as service. A special side dish brought out after they see you eat all the others. It’s usually reserved,but emotionally palatable. It’s also a part of the Korean experience and once you start to see it or recognize it you know you are on the road to understand not just the food but also the hearts of Korea.

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