Caveman Soup @ Ildeung Sikdang

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Good enough is good enough. The inertia of the never-changing. Since 1986, 일등식당 (Ildeung Sikdang) has been serving a lone menu item – byeo haejangguk or pork neck bone stew, a reddish orange soup stock with thick slabs of pork neckbone and recalcitrant strands of gnarly reconstituted dried radish greens called shiraegi. No need to even order because it’s all they serve. If you wanted something else, you should’ve gone somewhere else.

The restaurant’s sign is starkly unadorned block hangeul, the kind of no-nonsense labeling that shows a place has confidence in its food. For only 6,000 won, you receive a heaving individual-sized bowl of the good stuff. After confirming the number of your party, the food simply comes – no need for further conversation other than to maybe order a soju or beer. Water? Get up and get it yourself.

First, there is a flat aluminum pan which will be for dumping out the pork neck to cool off. After prying the bones apart, you can pull, prod, and plop the meat back into the soup, put it on top of your rice, and just settle for gnawing it straight from the skeletal. You will likely have to do all these things at some point, actually. Then there’s a couple of paltry-looking but necessary white dishes filled with kimchi and kkakdugi – both there to cut the grease of the pork neck. Finally, inevitably, comes the black bowl of byeo haejangguk, shards of bones jutting up over the ledge of the serving vessel like dinosaur remains being unearthed from a primordial pit.

The anatomical piecemeal of these vertebrae is always a mystery to me no matter how many times I’ve eaten the dish. Trying to unlock those joints, understanding the give and take of those grooves, always comes with surprising results. To take the bones apart gracefully, without slinging red juice or an errant piece of moist, greasy meat towards your white shirt or another table, is a challenge. To make the situation all the more elaborately demanding, unless you have the patience of a saint, you’ll try to get at these bones while they’re still hot enough to scald your greedy fingers. Until you learn better, the whole situation is like defusing a bomb – red wire or blue wire? – with the reward being a fantastically delicious meal.

The best move seems to be to take all the bones out and let them rest and cool on the bone-dispensation dish. Add rice to the siraegi-strewn broth and eat a bit to sate your hunger – the siraegi is sinuous, a bit bitter, and a great conduit for the savory broth. When your fingertips can take it, get at those bones with your chopsticks. Some meat will be agreeably pliant to your will and can be slid off the bone into the soup. It’s up to you how much grief you want to go through before just deciding to gnaw off an stubborn bits. Doing the same with other morsels, whether due to lack of patience or the impossibility to removing it with chopsticks, is a choose-your-own-adventure of texture and taste and questionable manners.

After excavating all of the meat that you can from the bones, relax. Now you can shovel the whole mixture, mindlessly, into your deserving maw. And you can do it again and again on future visits. The dance will be the same and then again, it won’t.

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