During this cold and flu season, remember Hangari Bajirak Kalgooksoo, a compact noodle shop near the crook of the strip mall on Sixth Street and Alexandria. For while there’s deli-style chicken noodle soup with its limp egg noodles, mushy carrots and too-dry chicken breast, you can — and really, you should — upgrade with a bowl of dak kalguksu, or chicken knife-cut noodles.
Hangari Bajirak Kalgooksoo crafts a dak kalguksu that’s singularly Korean and yet soothingly familiar in flavor. Chicken (noodle) soup as a metonym for foods that heal your ills has deep pancultural roots, after all, appearing in at least 30 culinary traditions around the world, from Colombia to China, always simmered in aromatics and sometimes paired with a starch or three.
The broth here is no consommé, as made by the French or Hungarians. It’s semi-translucent, almost milky to the eye, and slightly viscous, thickened by noodles and crosswise slices of russet potato. Garlic and onion are among the ingredients that build the base of the soup. They also comprise the trimmings, a few whole bulbs of garlic and white onion slices, all sweet from a spell on the stove.
The soup becomes part stew by the time the bowl arrives at your table. It's a rustic soup, but Hangari Bajirak Kalgooksoo presents it with thought and more than some polish. The half bone-in Cornish hen sits atop the noodles, meat easily picked with your chopsticks, nearly blanketed by scallions. There are other pops of color, mostly primary, sizable crescents of zucchini and kabocha squash along with a dried jujube here and there. The wheat flour noodles have been cut to hit high-level tensility, retaining their chewiness even after being soused in hot soup.
Every order of kalguksu here is a two-course meal. Shortly after your order is taken, one of the ajummas will carry over a small bowl of barley to be paired with soybean paste and a trio of kimchis: cabbage, radish and young radish greens. She’ll also bring a mustard squeeze bottle filled with sesame oil, intended for the barley, which teases out even more nuttiness from the grain with the mixing in of just a few drops. If the bottle is not too quickly reclaimed for another table, consider adding several dots in your soup for an earthier profile.
There are some caveats to note before a visit. One, your wait time directly correlates to cold weather and proximity to conventional meal hours. A rainy, chillier day seems to only encourage a throng of people, many older and Korean, to sign in on the white sheet of paper taped to the storefront glass for a spot inside. Dress for a wait and snack accordingly, as you'd want to avoid overindulging on the first course or stare overlong at the diners. Don't be discouraged if you're alone, as you'll find the kind of community felt when sitting among those who enjoy their food and the company they're with.
Next, when you finally get seated, you might second-guess your intentions, but the restaurant's name in Korean is as straightforward as the food. The first part of the name refers to the earthen bowl the noodles are served in; the second denotes Manila clams; the last is a nod to the noodles. Whether or not it's the name that set its reputation, a survey of the dining room will confirm that the bajiraik kalguksu contends with the dak as most popular against other versions, such as the seafood. (The bajirak is even available in a hubcap-sized portion that comes with ladle and tongs in tow.)
Dak kalguksu probably will not be the first soup as remedy recommended by anyone in the know about Korean food, not when samgyetang, a chicken soup heavy on ginseng and stuffed with sticky rice, can be had. Order the dak kalguksu anyway. Heartier in taste and texture, the dak kalguksu will perk your palate and your frayed immune system the way we've come to expect from our best chicken noodle soups.