The term “pojangmacha” literally means “covered wagon,” and it’s commonly used to refer to the tented restaurants on wheels in Seoul. The Korean community in Upper Darby has its own version by the train crossing on Terminal Square. With a 15-year track record and dedicated clientele, however, this particular pojangmacha has a permanent parking spot.
Pojangmacha is actually housed in a bona fide building, a onetime White Castle. Though the tiny dining room, ancient luncheonette counter and chipped tiled floor all whisper “slyder,” the place has been spruced up with pretty paper lanterns, individual seat cushions and traditional Korean macramé. It’s the perfect hybrid of homey and hole-in-the-wall.
Pojangmachas generally cater to students looking for cheap, late-night eats. After an evening of drinking — I mean, studying — bowls of super-spicy stews are the perfect thing to fortify the soul and awaken numbed extremities. This eatery’s no exception, and it does a brisk business after midnight. You can start the party or keep it going with bottles of soju — wine made from some combination of fermented rice and sweet potato, barley or wheat. There’s also bek seju, soju flavored with licorice, ginseng and other herbs.
Ordering is the trick: The menu comes on a slice of tree trunk, the names of dishes burned in Hangul — i.e., no translation —into the wood. If, like me, you don’t speak the language, you may want to bring a friend who does.
Cups of earthy boricha (barley tea) come first. Then there are the panchon, or complimentary small plates. There are not many of them, but they’re served in larger portions than what is served, say, at a Korean barbecue restaurant. (For the record, you can have your bulgogi here, too.) On one recent night, we got cool blocks of silken tofu bathed in soy, sesame and scallion sauce, and a plate of fresh kimchi — cabbage tinged with chili paste, garlic and ginger — which came with a pair of scissors for splitting.
The haemul panjan, or seafood pancake, is a golden, magical thing. Cockles, baby shrimp and octopus are bound with scallions and slices of fiery red pepper in an egg-and-flour batter, then fried until crisp.
The specialty of the house is gamjatang, a spicy, make-you-sniffle stew of potatoes and pork in a crimson chili-paste broth strewn with long strands of scallion, served with a burner and finished on the table. The pork in question is spine, so eating the stew is a process of disentangling the tiny sculpted bones from the shreds of meat. The quartered potatoes, meanwhile, absorb the simmering bone marrow and take on an unctuous, buttery texture. A few spoonfuls followed by sips of sweet wine very quickly becomes an addictive little pattern that could have you there for hours at a sitting, thanking your lucky chopsticks that this wagon isn’t going anywhere.