The Bold and the Barbecued
Korean cuisine's tempting appeal
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, Sept. 25, 2005
Sushi has become a staple of school lunchboxes, and the stews of Ethiopia are popular enough to sustain dozens of purveyors in Washington alone. But Korean food has yet to grab the D.C. area's attention the way other once-exotic cuisines have done, which is curious, considering the mass American appeal for barbecued meat and bold flavors. That hasn't stopped Korean restaurants from opening left and right, mostly in "Koreatown" -- aka Annandale -- but also elsewhere in the area.
Take your cue from the photo of the pig on the menu at Annangol. Pork is the specialty of this bustling Korean kitchen, which serves the protein in barbecue, in soups and as part of a stir-fry. One preparation in particular stands out: "marinated pork bellies," thick and rosy slices of meat edged in a band of fat and cooked before your eyes on either a small portable grill or a grill built into the table. As the pork segues from deep to light pink, and soft to gently crisp, much of its fat melts away, leaving diners with a succulent and fiery meal. Accompanied by a plate of chilled lettuce leaves, steamed rice and sweet fermented soybean paste, the dish is also interactive: Diners use the lettuce as a wrap to bundle the other ingredients and eat everything like a burrito.
Don't expect a lot of pampering at Annangol. You'll be greeted when one of the servers gets around to it, and the little parade of Korean snacks (panchan) that generally comes to the table, free, after you've placed your order sometimes shows up after your entrees. Do expect to do some miming if you're unfamiliar in the ways of Korean dining; in my experience, the staff's command of English is minimal. Yet without any prompting at one lunch, a waitress paused between customers to grill an order of meat for my companion and me. It was a welcome gesture. And those panchan -- typically garlicky sprouts, pickled radish, seaweed salad, mashed eggplant and a dark brown acorn custard -- are replaced with fresh bowls as they're consumed.
There are lots of satisfying paths to pursue on the menu. Octopus stir-fried with green peppers and onions is a blast in every bite, literally, thanks to its searing red chili sauce. The octopus is chewy but not unpleasantly so. Less incendiary but no less enticing is the "spicy chewy noodles," its tin bowl thick with spaghetti-like noodles, julienned cucumber and more. In another sweat-inducing main course, folds of pork and kimchi -- Korea's famously hot fermented cabbage -- are heaped on chalk-white slabs of creamy tofu. The intriguing flavors and textures of these dishes compel you to keep eating.
Paved with linoleum, the space is comfortable, if spare. Tables are separated by half-walls, and decoration is limited to half-roofs and whirling overhead fans, which draw away smoke from the busy table grills and whirl the perfume of chilies, garlic and sizzling meat about the room. Even if you're not hungry when you enter, you will be by the time you sit down. The aroma is that enticing.