Owner Lee Ae-ran is a force of nature. Once a food engineer in Pyongyang, she defected to the South, where she became the first female defector to earn a PhD, studying food and nutrition. Her restaurant, Neungra Bapsang, and her nonprofit, the North Korean Traditional Food Institute, provide jobs for female defectors and help them adjust to life in a capitalist society. She has an incredible energy, and you’ll often see her mingling with guests and greeting familiar faces. And as for the food? “Diners in the south are obsessed with taste,” she tells us. “So restaurants use too many sweeteners and seasonings. Here, our goal isn’t taste; it’s nutrition. If you use good ingredients, the taste takes care of itself.”
The food is, of course, delicious. A good choice for spring is the dong-dal-naeng jeongol, a casserole-like pork-based stew with two kinds of fragrant spring greens. It bubbles away on a portable stove and its heat and mild spice are tempered by the addition of doenjang and nutty perilla seed powder. The gamja mandu are another popular menu item—these dumplings have a thick and almost-translucent wrapper that’s pleasantly chewy to bite into, especially while they’re still warm (tip: eat them with the perilla leaf they come served on). If you order the mung bean pancake, which is especially golden brown and crispy here, take a bite with a piece of the pleasantly sour white kimchi on top. Perfection.