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Bending over backwards for a pork cutlet in Seoul

A Korean restaurateur is only on the market for serious customers.

SEOUL — I arrived too early. Terrified of being late, I had given myself more time on top of the extra time I usually allow and had arrived at the restaurant 20 minutes before my 7:30 p.m. reservation.

Standing outside, I practiced my line: “I’m Jiyeon Lee for the 7:30 reservation,” while incessantly checking the time on my phone to make sure I hadn’t missed the five-minute window during which I was allowed to arrive.

It had to be done just that way. Customers are to enter five minutes — and only five minutes — prior to their reservation time and they are to introduce themselves as soon as they step foot in the door. There were a lot of rules, and the owner, Shin Dong-il, was serious about them. I had no intention of losing my reservation, so I went along.

I opened the restaurant door at 7:25, announced myself and sat down at one of the three tables after being greeted by the owner, who was the only other person present. He was dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt. The interior of the restaurant, like its exterior, lacked adornment save for a large, faded poster of Shin Dong-il. I took it as a sign of the owner’s absolute confidence in the food being served.

My rather nerve-wracking dining experience was inspired by a friend who told me about this famous donkatsu restaurant with an intricate reservation system. Donkatsu, or Japanese-style deep-fried pork cutlet, has become one of the most common and popular dishes in South Korea, known for being relatively cheap yet filling. This particular restaurant, however, boasted a slightly different take on the conventional dish.

Shindongod, short for Shin Dong-il’s donkatsu, quickly drew crowds following its 1999 opening, thanks to its one-of-a-kind dongod menu. Dongod, simply put, is donkatsu minus the heavy sauce with which it is usually served.

The restaurant, located in a busy shopping district in Seoul, wasn’t particularly accessible in the beginning, though, thanks to endless lines that seemed ever-present. But Shindongod was forced to relocate due to redevelopment about five years ago, and that’s when Shin decided to take matters into his own hands. The clearly high standards Shin has set for his food are matched only by what he expects from those who visit him at his new location, which is in a hidden alleyway adjacent to a bustling college neighborhood.

“Do you know why I agreed to the interview?” Shin asked from under the brim of his black cap, after serving the beer I had ordered in advance. “It’s because you followed the rules. You went through all the proper steps to make a reservation.” I had heard about other reporters being kicked out, or being ordered to clean the premises as retribution for a surprise visit.