No, it’s not River Eel straight out of the Taewha you’d be eating. It’s that the restaurant is situated along the Taewha River and they serve eel as their specialty.
Although most foreigners here in Ulsan are familiar with the pork barbecue meats of Galbi and Samgyeopsal, not many are customers of the eel restaurants and their fare, Jang Eo. Taewha River Jang Eo Gu Ee (태화강 장어 구이) is one of Ulsan’s more famous eel restaurants. Located in Taewha-Dong near the end of super bulgogi street, the place is not difficult to find. But perhaps because of its distance from night life, or more likely its abscence of foreigner-friendly restaurants nearby, they don’t get many waygookin in for dinner. But don’t let either of those facts deter you. Barbecued eel is a delicacy that rivals its pork cousins in taste while eclipsing them in health content. Higher in protein and far lower in fat content, eel is a healthy, delicious alternative to grilled pork.
Eating eel is slightly different than eating galbi. Koreans grill their eel and then bath the cooked pieces in either a sweet red pepper sauce or a thickened soy sauce. Then they’ll wrap the meat in lettuce with a piece of garlic and bean paste as one would with pork, but with eel they’ll add a slice of fresh ginger, marinated onions and dried seaweed for a super thick wad of Korean goodness. I’ve eaten eel numerous times in Japanese sushi houses, but this was my first time to have Korean style eel. I was surprised by the delicate consistency of the meat but also the fabulous mix of flavors from the additional goodies they wrap into each bite.
Korean tradition has it that eating the tail gives men good power, especially in the bedroom. My wife swears I don’t need to eat tail, but she encouraged me to have some anyway. Women – sheesh! The head is also considered good for you, although the reason I was given was a bit more nebulous. I ate a head anyway, including the brain and eyes, which after grilling had become hard little marbles. Not my favorite, but when people are sneaking peeks out of the corners of their eyes to see how the waygookin does I’m not about to back down.
If you’re a veggie-saurus like me, you’ll also appreciate the numerous side dishes that Taewha Gang Jang Eo Gu Ee supplies. While I like meat, I’m not a big fan of the galbi joints where the only veggies are kimchi and onions. I need generous servings of veggies or I feel like my inner caveman starts to take hold. Taewha Gang did not disappoint and the veggies were copious.
And, as is the case with most galbi places, one can finish off the meat with rice or noodles and a bowl of bean pates soup. I’m a big fan of deonjangshiggae and will usually get my own bowl with not out with a large crowd. But at Taewha River Eel you can also choose a bowl of Eel Mae eun tang (장어 메은탕) a spicy soup with chunks of eel from the bones left over after filleting or Eel Chu Eo tang (장어추어탕) a less spicy but more pungent soup with pureed eel. We had the Chu eo tang and sprinklings from the additional pots of spices at each tables were generously added.
If getting out and eating something out of the ordinary is what’s called for, Taewha River Eel Barbecue is surely a place to consider. The food was delicious and I ate until I needed help in standing up. The price is, however, not as cheap as Galbi. Expect to pay about 2-3X the price of a full course galbi dinner (or 4-5x of the 3-pigs style, no-or-few-side-dish places.) Our bill for four people, including a few bottles of Hite, came to over 60k won. Also, as few foreigners frequent this restaurant, expect your share of hearty generosity (and inquiries of how you liked it) from the owners.