Korean Noodle House: Low-Budget Joy in Philadelphia’s Koreatown

Lean in, my children, and listen closely. I’m going to tell you the secret to being a working-class foodie.

See, a lot of people assume that being a ‘foodie’ means you’ve got to go to all the best restaurants. You should be able to rave about the zillion-course omakase tasting at Masa or your $400 dinner at Per Se. You should be able to voice your own opinion on every restaurant your local critic has given four stars. You should be able to taste the difference between two bottles of Beaujolais from different vineyards, etc. And indeed, a lot of foodies are that way, or at least that’s what the New York Times’ food section tells me.

Those foodies are rich.

We here at the Potato are not rich. We are very much not rich. (Ask our student loan agents.) But we like to eat well, and we want you to eat well too.

Here is the secret: Put your Zagat down, put your coat on, and go to your nearest immigrant neighborhood. Got a Chinatown? A barrio? A Little India? Get going.

When you get there, don’t look for flashy signs or ample parking. Look for humble little joints. If you can’t read the signs, so much the better. Find the busiest humble little joint, and take a look at the crowd. If they’re tourists, move in. But if you’re in, say, a Pakistani kebab house and everyone there is Pakistani, you’re in the right place. Check out the menu, if there is one, but don’t let it rule you. Look around– is everyone having the same thing? If so, get that. Does the woman at the next table have something that looks amazing? Ask what it is.

If nobody speaks your language, relax. You’ll be fine. Point, smile, say yes to whatever. When your food comes, look around to see how others are eating it and do your best. Open yourself up to a new experience.

After four years in New York, I find myself doing this wherever I go. I’m always on the lookout for a new neighborhood to scout. So when Joe and I bought a little used car and I began commuting to Elkins Park, I was thrilled to find out that Philadelphia has a Koreatown. I had no idea! It’s at the very far northern edge of the city, in the Olney area, where Fifth Street meets Cheltenham Ave. There are lots of restaurants and stores. There seem to be Vietnamese and Cambodian contingents too, but I haven’t seen any food– readers?

If you find yourself in Philly’s Koreatown and follow the procedure I just laid out, chances are good that you’ll end up in Korean Noodle House. It’s a little shack of a place– it looks like it was an ice cream shop in a former life– on the corner of Cheltenham and Oak Lane Road. Signs are in Korean, except for neon signs that say ‘KOREAN NOODLE HOUSE’ and ‘HOT DINNER’. There’s a teeny little parking lot.

Inside is clean and bright, with wooden floors and walls decorated with Korean menu items. The menu is bilingual, but everything on the walls is in Korean. The customers, when I entered, were also all Korean, and the woman who greeted and served me didn’t speak a word of English. (This is always a good sign.) I ordered Goon Mandoo (fried pork dumplings, a favorite of mine) for $5.99 and Ja Jong Myun (noodles in black bean sauce) for $4.99. Other choices included a variety of seafood soups, Korean rice platters, and an interesting assortment of Chinese dishes. Some highlights from the Chinese section included meatball stew, jellyfish with garlic sauce, and an intriguing ‘braised sea cucumber and abalone’ dish for $49.99, far and away the most expensive dish on the menu. (I worry about such dishes, though– how many of those do you think they sell, and how fresh will it be?)

The mandoo were huge and crisp, very tasty. The ja jong myun– ok. I’ve never had ja jong myun before. I figured I’d better get noodles, since it’s a noodle house. What I got was amazing– a massive bowl of noodles. You could share this with a friend and still have lots of leftovers. Fresh, springy noodles came covered in an inky, thick purple-black sauce filled with browned onion pieces, small chunks of potato, a few unidentifiable vegetables and little bits of ground pork. The woman who served me mimed mixing the sauce and noodles up with chopsticks, and I did that. It was lovely– deep, rich, plummy flavor with an oniony sweetness. I don’t know if the noodles were homemade, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were. It was a lovely dish for a grey, snowy day like today, warm and satisfying. And I’ll probably get three meals out of that $4.99!

And that, my friends, is why you don’t have to be rich, or even middle class, to travel the world, explore new flavors and sensations, fill your belly and be a happy foodie. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to turn down dinner at Chanterelle or Le Bec-Fin– if you’re paying, that is– but you really can eat well and even be a restaurant snob without paying any more than you would have paid for some awful salad at Wendy’s.


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Korean Noodle House in Elkins Park


13 Responses to “Korean Noodle House: Low-Budget Joy in Philadelphia’s Koreatown”

  1. Paula from Only Cookware Says:

    This is what I do when I am travelling overseas. I try to look for restaurants where there are no tourists but is packed full of the locals.

  2. Jonathan Says:

    The best ‘foodies’ ARE the working class ones cause we have to be creative and have to REALLY discover the places that serve authentic, delicious food! And we all know that peasant food is where gourmet food really started. I’m all for the working-class-foodie (that would be a great title for a blog…) — amy

  3. therealpotato Says:

    Right on, Amy!

    And welcome, Paula!

    By the way, I went back for takeout, and they seem to do a pretty brisk business on weeknights.

  4. Clio Says:

    omg i totally know what you’re talking about!! i go past it when i’m on the bus and i’ve always looked at it and wanted to go in there. i wanted to try the ja ja myun there and i’m happy there’s someone who’s gone there before. I didn’t know there was a koreantown but then again a bunch of my khmer friends live around there so i should have seen something lol. wow thanks for the tip, now i’m going there this weekend lol

  5. therealpotato Says:

    Oh, Clio, definitely check it out! It’s a wonderful little spot.

    Funny, I realized there was a Cambodian presence in the neighborhood when I saw a totally pimped-out car with Khmer characters airbrushed all over it. And here I am, sending my Khmer translations (I work in translation) to Asia like a sucker. 😉

  6. Clio Says:

    haha yeah i see it all the time, usually with Khmer Pride somewhere on the car lol. Now i can’t wait, i believe i’m going either wednesday or thursday since i got paid friday.

  7. David McDuff Says:

    Nice post, Sarah. “Go where the locals go” has long been a rule of thumb of mine, particularly when trying to pick a place in any city’s Chinatown. It’s yielded great results in DC, Philly, NYC and San Fran.

  8. Clio Says:

    i went there last night and it was great, i love the ja jang myun and had to take the rest of it home since there was so much. alot of the people looked around at me and my friend but they looked impressed because i’m handy with a pair of chopsticks lol

  9. therealpotato Says:

    Awesome! Yeah it can be a humbling experience being the only person in the restaurant who doesn’t know what they’re doing– but in a good way, usually. 🙂

  10. sonice Says:

    that place actually started out as a pizza joint. and for a while they still did all the pizza stuff like cheese steaks and etc, along with all the noodles. If you go next time and you like spicy foods, try the jjam ppong. i would say its a korean version of a bouillabaise with lots of spices and the noodles.

  11. joy Says:

    awesome review! my birthday is this week. i think i’ll make the trek up to philly to check it out. thanks!

  12. Maria Says:

    i stumbled on this place a few weeks ago while going on a reconaissance mission to check out the new korean spa in the melrose shopping center nearby. it was amazing! i got the seafood noodle soup (forget the korean name) and it was unbelievable. so flavourful, great seafood, chewy, yummy noidles. can’t wait to go back…

  13. Elaine From Cokware Help Says:

    I have found some amazing places over the years. One of the best was in Hong Kong that I just stumbled apon and even now 2 years later I can still remember what it was like. Now when I am travelling overseas I ake sure to get away from the main tourists traps and find where the locals eat.

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