First published at NK News on the 20th of June, 2019.
By Alek Sigley, founder of Tongil Tours and postgraduate student at Kim Il Sung University.
As consumer choice for the upper classes has grown, so too have options for eating out
Pyongyang may be better known for its monuments than its restaurants. But living in the “Capital of the Revolution” over the course of two semesters as a foreign student at Kim Il Sung University, I’ve discovered a number of excellent places to dine in the city.
My dormitory friends (some of the other foreign students) and I have a custom of trying several new restaurants each week.
They are sometimes not far from our home in Taesong District, and at other times further afield. A few are the recommendations of local or foreign friends, while others are places we simply stumble into.
By now I estimate that I have tried almost a hundred different restaurants in Pyongyang. Our ordering strategy usually involves asking the staff for recommendations on what their specialties are and what is popular, as well as looking for unique items on the menu.
Here I introduce five of my all-time favorites — all restaurants which are not on the tourist circuit that we’ve only been able to enter as long-term foreign residents.
There are some which might have made the list but I won’t mention because I have already written about them, such as Yonggwang (“Glory”) Restaurant, which does some of the best Chinese food I’ve had outside China.
It’d be prudent to first give a quick disclaimer: my experiences no doubt reflect those of a Pyongyang-based foreigner, and I am not in a position to comment on whether regular meals in the more costly of these restaurants is within the financial means of everyone, nor whether the picture of North Korean culinary culture here is generalizable to the country as a whole.
That being said, this does perhaps illustrate the gastronomic proclivities of the Pyongyang middle-to-upper class.
Number 1: Ryongbuk Shop
The Ryongbuk Shop (룡북상점) is located in Ryongbuk-dong in Taesong District, not too far from the main gate of Kim Il Sung University and behind the Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies (also known as PUST).
It is a mere couple minutes’ walk away from the Kim Il Sung University Foreign Student Dormitory, for which I think us to be very lucky, because it is indeed possibly my very favorite restaurant in all of Pyongyang.
It’s nestled away from the main road inside of a block. You’ll find it above a shop on the second floor of a nondescript building in a small alleyway that has little to mark it out other than a sign bearing its name and logo.
But upon entering one finds a clean, well-lit, modern-looking dining area which is usually full of customers.
The menu is eclectic, offering everything from Chinese dry hotpot (麻辣香锅；매운향종합볶음– $9 small/$13.50 large) to pizza. In fact, my first visit was when Howard (my Korean Canadian mate at Kim Il Sung University) took me there on my first weekend as a student in Pyongyang.
We had the dry hotpot, which was just as delicious and authentically spicy as what I’d had in China—an appraisal which the Chinese students in the dormitory who often visit the restaurant agree with. Since then I’ve had many good memories of sharing meals with dear friends in this restaurant, whose staff recognize us as regulars.
While many restaurants don’t get a great deal of traffic outside peak times on the weekend, Ryongbuk Shop is busy even on weekdays. Much of the clientele comes from the surrounding universities.
Eating there once during my first semester with my Korean roommate I saw him awkwardly greet one of his teachers — we often see students in uniform eating there (North Korean university students are required to wear uniform).
I’ve noticed diners to be quite sophisticated. I remember one time seeing a group drinking wine, pouring small amounts of it into the wine glass, smelling it and swishing it about gently, which means they know how to savor wine better than I do!
The restaurant does a great job of Korean classics such as the roast pork belly (돼지세겹구이– $4), roast beef belly (소세겹구이 — $6), and grilled beef rib (소갈비적쇠구이– $15).
Just like in South Korea, meat is eaten wrapped in lettuce leaf with slices of garlic. The pork belly comes with a brilliant ssamjang sauce (although it is called something different in the North), and compares favorably to what I’d often eat during the several years I lived in Seoul.
The pizza ($10) is decent and comes in nine flavors, including pine nut with olive and potato cream pizza. We still haven’t dared to try the fruit pizza though.
The restaurant serves other Western-inspired dishes such as cheese potato bake ($4.50) and pasta.
Chinese dishes include the hotpot mentioned above (both dry and with soup) and an excellent vegetable stir fry with lotus root slices and Chinese wood ear fungus (muer).
Other dishes have a more Japanese flavor, such as this appetizer consisting of dried squid strips that have been grilled and served with mayonnaise (마른낙지구이– $4.50). If you haven’t noticed from the pictures already, presentation is pretty outstanding too.
The restaurant is also well-known for its creative fusion offerings. Pictured below are the restaurant’s seven flavor fried chicken balls (7가지맛닭고기튀기–$4.50), and spicy chicken strips with cheese flakes (닭고기꼬치구이– $4), both of which have a distinctly South Asian flavor.
Ryongbuk Restaurant also serves desserts such as tiramisu and matcha cake which are made in-house.
Compared to the restaurant’s other dishes I wouldn’t rate these so highly. Indeed, while it’s not hard to find delicious appetizers and main dishes in Pyongyang, the quest for a decent dessert, which are not as prominent in traditional Korean cooking, is still a struggle.
It’s also the first place in which I managed to get my hands on a recent development in the Pyongyang cold noodle scene: the green tea cold noodle (록차랭면), which is made with bright green colored green tea flavored noodles.
It’s a good concept, and they certainly put in a lot of effort serving the noodles with hard-boiled quail egg and pear slices, but the green tea flavoring of the noodles is somewhat artificial tasting.
So while the desserts and green tea cold noodles were considered average, this restaurant has much else to offer the gourmands out there. The menu is a culturally diverse mix of Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Western influences, which is actually quite common in North Korean restaurants.
But it really stands out in that the chefs work well across the board, delivering mouth-watering comestibles in each tradition, and seamlessly combining them in the fusion dishes.
The average meal here costs $10 per person.
Number 2: Taesong Heaven Lake Shop
Taesong Heaven Lake Shop (대성천지상점) is in another plainly adorned building away from the main road, a little bit further down Ryomyong Street from Ryongbuk Shop and the dormitory.
We found it one day while taking a stroll through our neighborhood. While its unremarkable exterior may leave one to believe otherwise, this restaurant does in fact serve the best tofu I’ve ever eaten in North Korea.
Taesong Heaven Lake Shop (Heaven Lake is the lake in the caldera of Mt Paektu, the chonchi), which contains a shop on the first floor and two separate restaurants and a bar on the second and third, serves a truly amazing block tofu (모두부), which arrives freshly steamed in this elaborate box.
The box features an opening that can be unfastened to drain excess water, which the waitress does after bringing it to your table.
Inside one finds soft, tasty, warm, and adequately moist tofu onto which can be drizzled an appropriate amount of the provided chili sauce, which by the way packs quite a spicy, tongue-burning punch to it. Bean curd connoisseurs will find here a true taste of tofu heaven.
The restaurant also serves other interesting dishes such as curry pasta with capsicum, sausage slices, hard-boiled quail egg, and powdered cheese.
Also exceptional is the medicinal steamed chicken rice (약닭밥), which is basically a samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup) without the soup and a full grown chicken instead of a young one, and an ample amount of rice.
The sticky rice which stuffs the chicken comes with gingko nut, chestnut, ginseng, and jujubes, and soaks up the chicken flavour. The chicken is eaten dipped in a bit of salt mixed with sesame seeds, or sesame oil.
Taesong Heaven Lake Shop’s restaurant also serves great home-style dishes such as garlic and soy sauce capsicum, and avant-garde cuisine like this glutinous rice cake in orange sauce (오렌지찹쌀경단, $2.50 for a two-person serving, $4.50 for a four-person serving), which was neither particularly bad nor amazing.
But all in all, this restaurant serves beautiful food in surroundings which remind one of a 1980s Hong Kong movie.
Taesong Heaven Lake Shop’s restaurant is slightly cheaper than Ryongbuk Shop. With dishes ranging from about $2 to $10 in price, a meal here will set one back about $5 to $10 per person, depending on what one orders.
Number 3: Mansudae Restaurant
Mansudae Restaurant (만수대식당) is located in the heart of Changjon Street, the first high-rise residential complex to be built under Kim Jong Un in 2012.
It’s a stone’s throw away from the bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at the Mansu Hill Grand Monument, and part of a cluster of upmarket shops and restaurants in this area.
The restaurant is apparently a joint venture set up with the help of a relative of one of the Chinese students at Kim Il Sung University, who is a good friend of mine, and is as every bit as luxurious as its central location would expect of it.
Mansudae Restaurant is a little bit less kitsch than many of the other restaurants in its price range. The first time I stepped in I felt as if I’d been transported to an upmarket restaurant in Beijing or Shanghai.
The same kitchen serves the first-floor bar—which contains its own microbrewery—and the second-floor restaurant. The bar has a sort of faux Victorian aesthetic with a gramophone machine, wooden interiors, floral wallpaper, and wooden electric chandeliers.
The second floor is decorated according to the modern meets traditional, rustic design seen in a lot of South Korean restaurants. It’s done up like the courtyard in a traditional courtyard house with fake tiled eaves with plastic vegetables hanging off them.
This restaurant is on the pricy side at about $15 to $20 per person. But you get what you pay for with some of the finest gourmet delights you’ll ever have in North Korea.
We were recommended the steamed buns with a topping consisting of stir-fried vegetables—cucumber, bracken fern (고사리), bean sprouts, and mushroom.
I think of it as a Sino-Korean hamburger that one cuts and fills oneself (the buns feel very Chinese but the fern gives it some distinct Koreanness). Gochuchang chilli sauce can be added for spice.
The spicy fried snow crab (꽃게 매운볶음) on the other hand is meaty, spicy, and hard to resist.
The barbequed pork belly has a really nice smoky flavor which puts it a cut above the rest.
Number 4: The Cooking Festival Hall Fast Food Restaurant
A hop, skip and a jump away from the Kim Il Sung University Foreign Student Dormitory is the Cooking Festival Hall (료리축전장).
On the first floor is a North Korean-style fast food restaurant which serves the people with cheap and delicious Korean fast food.
One simply goes up to the counter and picks up one’s food cafeteria style to take to one’s table. Dishes that require preparation and beers will be brought out by a waitress. Prices are advertised in Korean won and are very affordable.
A pork hamburger (돼지고기햄버거—which uses an English loan word) costs 3,500 won (~$0.40). The delectable mutton meatball skewers (양고기완자꼬치), which come wrapped in sausage, are 5,000 won (~$0.50). Fist-sized dumplings are a mere 1,000 won (~$0.15).
Most of the food is deep fried and tends to be a bit greasy, but is delicious nonetheless. You just wouldn’t want to eat it every day for your arteries’ sake.
This restaurant is always buzzing with crowds of local people and feels very authentic. And when three people can eat here, beers included, for about 30,000 won (~$3,50), there’s nothing not to like.
Number 5: Unjong Comprehensive Service Centre Foreign Dishes Restaurant
Across the road from Mansudae Restaurant in Changjon Street are three circular glass-paneled buildings.
They lie adjacent to the bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at the Mansu Hill Grand Monument, and each contains a shop, restaurant, and other facilities. Above the entranceway of all three are affixed the red signs noting the dates Kim Jong Un has visited.
The one closest to Kim Il Sung Square includes the Haemaji supermarket, café, and restaurant, which are each notable in their own right, but the one I’d like to introduce today, the Unjong Comprehensive Service Centre (은정종합봉사소), contains a “Foreign Dishes Restaurant” (외국료리식당) which serves remarkable fusion cuisine of a high quality.
The restaurant was first recommended to me by a local friend, a tour guide in the North Korean partner company of Tongil Tours. Her mother is a chef and she herself is a bit of a foodie, which certainly reflects in the list of restaurants she advised me to try.
On our visit we had a splendid salmon in lemon sauce, pictured below.
The Korean-style beef rib stew (갈비탕) was also very good, although different from what I was used to in South Korea. In comparison, it had a much thicker soup which was considerably heavier on the garlic.
In addition to that, we had these top-notch croquettes.
And Sichuanese-style spicy squid on a teppan griddle.
But the most surprising dish was this cheese fried rice. We ordered it because it sounded somewhat out there, and were not wholly expecting it to work, but to our surprise it really did! The savory umami flavor of the parmesan cheese balanced out the greasiness of the fried rice quite well.
Note that powdered cheese is used rather than the American-style melted cheddar sometimes seen with kimchi fried rice in South Korea.
In summary, one evident outcome of the recent growth and diversification of North Korea’s consumer economy is a surprising range of excellent restaurants in the capital.
These, in turn, cater to a taste that is increasingly sophisticated and well acquainted with not only Korean food but also Chinese, Japanese, and to some extent European food (if there is such a thing) too.
It was difficult to choose just five restaurants because there are many more that we’ve discovered which are worth introducing. Perhaps I will introduce more in a future post, but for now I leave you with this appetizer from Pyongyang’s restaurant scene.
I would also like to announce that due to my master’s thesis and other study-related obligations I will be putting my column on hiatus. I plan to return to it later down the track. In the meantime, you can continue to follow my updates on Twitter.
Those considering a visit to North Korea can join me on the Tongil Tours North Korea Highlights Tour 2019 in August, which will be the first tour I lead personally in years. This will be a great opportunity to tour the country during which I look forward to sharing more stories of life as a foreign student in North Korea.
I hope that you have enjoyed reading my columns just as much as I have enjoyed writing them, and I can’t wait to bring you more in not too long.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
All photos, unless otherwise stated, belong to Alek Sigley