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Korean comfort food that's nothing like kimchee

Eating on the Edge: Lynnwood's Tsing Tao serves black noodles, a dish so popular in Korea that it's featured in cartoons, movies, and a Korean version of Valentine's Day.
Tsing Tao, in a Lynnwood strip mall

Tsing Tao, in a Lynnwood strip mall Hugo Kugiya

Tangsuyuk (sweet and sour pork) and the traditional jajangmyun (black noodles)

Tangsuyuk (sweet and sour pork) and the traditional jajangmyun (black noodles) Hugo Kugiya

In Korea, few dishes are loved as much as the black noodles, or jjajangmyun.

The South Korean government chose it as one of the country’s top 100 “Korean Cultural Symbols.” The cost of jjajangmyun (pronounced ja-jee-young-mee-un) is considered a significant economic indicator in South Korea, like the price of a gallon of milk in the U.S.

The noodles have been the subject of Korean pop music, appeared in the plots of cartoons, television shows and movies, and have been the object of personal obsession. A Korean man is famous for having eaten nothing but jjajangmyun for five years. Korea’s version of Valentine’s Day also sets aside a separate holiday for singles, called Black Day, when those without sweethearts traditionally console themselves by eating a bowl of jjajangmyun.

Kimchee might be the food most widely associated with Korea, but jjajangmyun is the country’s true comfort food. A meal in itself, it needs no accompaniment. Made with wheat noodles, covered in a sauce of pork, vegetables and the black bean paste that gives it its color, jjajangmyun is one of the first foods a Korean child learns to love.

It is by far the most popular meal to have delivered to your home, often by a worker on a bicycle with a metal compartment secured to the back. In this respect, it is to Korea what pizza is to America.

And like pizza, burritos, spaghetti, chili, and many other dishes we have come to think of as American food, jjajangmyun is borrowed. Strictly speaking, it is not Korean food, but Chinese in origin, introduced to Korea by Chinese immigrants in the port city of Incheon, a few hundred miles across the Yellow Sea from the Chinese province of Shandong, where most of the Chinese immigrants in Korea came from.

That is the homeland of Mei Chi Wang's parents, and the inspiration for the name of the restaurant she and her husband, Hua Ting Wang, run in Lynnwood. Mei Chi's parents are from the seaport city of Yantai, which borders the larger city of Qingdao. The Wangs' restaurant, Tsing Tao, uses the more familiar spelling (Qingdao is where the famous beer is brewed).

Mei Chi’s parents emigrated to Incheon after World War II, and then moved to Pusan, where both Mei Chi and Hua Ting grew up (his parents also immigrated from Shandong province). Mei Chi attended school in both Korean and Mandarin and is fluent in both. About 20 years ago, the couple moved to Seattle ago, where their two teenage sons were born.

Their restaurant, Tsing Tao, is located on Highway 99 in the back end of a strip mall obscured by a Grease Monkey auto shop. Hua Ting does all the cooking. Mei Chi waits table and runs the cash register. From its exterior, Tsing Tao would seem to be just another Chinese restaurant in a city of many, except for the Korean, Hangul writing on the storefront. It is surrounded by Korean-owned businesses including a very popular Korean barbecue restaurant called Ka Won. Korean-American enterprises prevail in this stretch of Highway 99. That is precisely why the Wangs relocated their restaurant here four years ago after operating a similar business farther south near Edmonds Community College.

“This is closer to my house, the rent is cheaper, and there are lots of Korean people,” Mei Chi Wang said.

Her customers are almost exclusively Korean-American, like Adam and Kimberly Kim of Bellingham, who, after visiting a friend, stopped in for a meal of jjajangmyun, sweet and sour pork, and Mongolian beef. Adam grew up in the Seattle area and, as a child, ate jjajangmyun every weekend with his family at a restaurant that no longer exists.

“To be honest, I didn’t know it wasn’t a Korean dish,” Adam said, reflecting the presumptions of most, who are often puzzled when they do not find it on the menu at a Korean restaurant. Whether in Incheon, Seoul, Los Angeles or New York, you can find jjajangmyun only in a Chinese-Korean restaurant.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Feb 4, 9:25 p.m. Inappropriate

There used to be a place on Aurora and 137th in the '80s also called Tsing Tao that was Korean-Chinese. They served a mean jyajiangmyun. Unfortunately, hardly anyone serves the seafood version with sea cucumbers any more. The only places that still do it are Tai Ho in Kenmore and Peking Restaurant in Bellevue on 20th. They also hand-pull the noodles, too.

Thanks for the tip on this place, I'm there this weekend!

Posted Thu, Feb 4, 11:29 p.m. Inappropriate

I grew up on this stuff. Almost always go to Tai Ho for it (63rd & Bothell Way in Kenmore) — in fact, I even had my recent wedding rehearsal dinner there! Do yourself a favor and order some nanja-wanja (pork/beef meatballs) along with the tangsuyuk and jajangmyeon.

Tai Ho used to have a sister restaurant, Mandarin Palace, on Aurora around 163rd, but it has, sadly, closed.

Jonathan Kaufmann, former Weekly food editor, wrote about Tai Ho last year: http://blogs.seattleweekly.com/voracious/2009/01/noodle_draft_photos.php

He, too, mentioned Tsing Tao, and also mentioned the following:

Nara Chinese, 15033 Aurora Ave. N., Shoreline
Peking Wok, 12816 SE 38th St., Bellevue
Royal Box, 11101 Pacific Hwy SW, Lakewood

I've been to Peking Wok — it was OK, but didn't come up to the Tai Ho standard. I've been meaning to try the others. But it's looking like I might have to put Tsing Tao at the top of my list.

Still, though, it's hard to break a 30+ year habit.

Thanks for helping publicize this cuisine. I don't think Tai Ho even hands out Korean menus anymore (and when they did, they had no English translations) — not sure about the other places.

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