By the time you are seated at Da Rae Won restaurant on Garrett Avenue in Beltsville, two things are obvious: Almost everyone in the restaurant is eating a version of noodle soup, and something is getting a mighty thwacking in the kitchen. Actually, the two observations are related.
This four-year-old restaurant just off Route 1 is perhaps the only Korean restaurant in the Washington area where noodles are handmade to order every day. Hyeong Mu Choe, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Inyoung Choe, is the chief noodle maker, and he or one of the three men he has trained is on duty in the kitchen all day, every day, just waiting to spring into action when an order is placed.
Inyoung Choe explained that because the work is so physical -- the dough is slammed repeatedly against a counter to soften and stretch it -- the demands are too great for just one noodle maker. "Handmade noodles are very important to Korean people," Choe said.
Although some describe Da Rae Won as a Chinese-style Korean restaurant, Choe says it is really just home-style Korean cooking. The more familiar Korean restaurants, particularly those with barbecue stations set into tables, are of a different type, even in Korea, more like a steakhouse.
There's no barbecue on the menu at Da Rae Won -- if you want that, try the other Korean restaurant in this small shopping center -- but that doesn't mean the place isn't packed on weekends and often busy other times, even at 3 in the afternoon.
The Choes -- he formerly worked at a similar Korean restaurant in Wheaton, she in her sister's Clinton liquor store -- opened their restaurant here largely because they believed two types of Korean eateries would complement each other.
Most of Da Rae Won's customers are Korean, and that's reflected in the menu, which is written mostly in Korean, though explanations of the dishes are given in English. Some of the servers speak a little English, but Inyoung Choe -- who runs the dining room while her husband runs the kitchen -- is eager to help non-Koreans choose what to eat.
Mandu (fried dumplings), listed under "pork," is best for an opener. Again, almost every table seemed to have a plateful. Everything about the dumplings is handmade, Inyoung Choe explained, including the thin, tasty wrapper. Although they are fried, the dumplings aren't greasy, and an order of eight is more than sufficient for a meal. Choe will show you how to combine soy sauce, vinegar and ground red pepper -- condiments on each table -- to make a sauce.
Like all of the dishes at Da Rae Won, the dumplings are meant to be shared -- even the tables come only in large sizes, seating four to 10. Often several tables are pushed together to accommodate even larger groups.
Panchan, the little dishes that serve as the accompaniments for Korean meals, here consists of pickled radish, chunks of raw onion, pungent cabbage kimchi and milder Korean radish kimchi. Diners also receive a small bowl of spicy black bean sauce, and there is red pepper paste on the table for those who want more heat.
The next menu choice should be one of the at least nine soups. The soups are served in large white bowls that hold about two quarts, and none costs more than $9.50. Whichever your choice -- the noodles with black bean sauce (which tastes more bland and better than the black mess it looks like) or perhaps the spicy seafood soup, the broth tinged red from spicy chili paste -- the noodles are the center of attention.
Although there are other noodle houses in the area (and one nearby), many of them no longer make noodles fresh every day. At Da Rae Won, the dough is made in advance (several times a day), and as soon as an order is placed, the thwacking begins. You can watch the noodle making through a window to the kitchen. Inyoung Choe said a chef can make four or five portions at once, but it is just as common to make a single order.
Choe steered me toward noodles with vegetables and spicy seafood soup, a bowl teeming with the soft yet slightly chewy noodles, bits of calamari, small shrimp, scallops, slices of octopus, baby corn, onion slivers and julienne mild peppers.
It's perfectly correct to slurp your noodles when eating such dishes, though I have a hard time doing that. Use your chopsticks to round up the solid pieces and the large flat-bowled Korean spoon to savor the broth -- or turn the bowl up to drink the broth.
Many of the other dishes on the menu resemble Chinese preparations. The fried pork with sweet and sour sauce is a large platter of pork nuggets, battered and fried to a light golden hue, mixed with vegetables including slivers of cucumber and napped with a mild sweet and sour sauce.
The chicken morsels in the sauteed chicken with spicy garlic sauce dish are also battered and deep fried, but then combined with snow peas and baby corn and slivers of onion in a heady garlic sauce that is fragrant but not overwhelming. Similar dishes, built around pork, beef and shrimp, are also on the menu.
Although many Korean restaurants tend to be ornate, Da Rae Won is rather plain but very clean. A half wall divides the dining room. The main decorations are panels of floral design on the walls. Everything is burgundy and white, including the tablecloths that are topped with glass.
There are three vegetarian dishes on the menu but no desserts. The bill arrives with a small bottle of yogurt drink that satisfies any taste for a sweet ending.
--Nancy Lewis (June 28, 2007)