A Korean-Style Pigout
Just try to resist barbecue in Annandale by way of Seoul
By Candy Sagon
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, Feb. 1, 2008
"I feel like I'm back in Seoul," said a friend, happily gazing around the crowded, noisy Honey Pig in Annandale. "It reminds me of the places I used to go to with my friends."
Visiting this 24-hour Korean barbecue place, especially on weekends, is like mainlining Red Bull. The place thrums with energy. Thumping Korean hip-hop, disco and rock music (and the occasional Britney Spears) blares from the speakers, and the din of conversation bouncing off the corrugated-metal walls and cement floor makes you feel as if you're in the midst of a hectic, noisy street party. (If conversation is important, avoid the tables in the corners; they're directly below the music speakers.)
Be forewarned: Smoking is allowed in the restaurant. That, combined with the pungent, garlicky steam and smoke rising from the tabletop grills, means your clothes definitely will need some Febrezing afterward. (As one fan put it on the review site Yelp.com, "wear clothes you don't mind washing immediately after or placing in a Zip Lock cuz you WILL leave wearing eau de Korean bbq.") You also may grab one of the aprons hung on hooks along the wall if you're worried about splattering yourself. That probably would be a smart move, because the round tables are small and quickly get crowded with the side dishes, the hot grill, the drinks and the utensils. Plus, after a few rounds of soju -- Korea's version of sake -- your aim might be a little off.
The clientele is mostly Korean and mostly young, from tables of partying 20-somethings to families with little kids (we're talking the before-10 p.m. crowd, not the 3 a.m. post-drinking crowd). On weekend nights, expect a looong wait unless you come early. My first attempt to visit was about 6 p.m. on a Saturday. Foolish woman: The place was mobbed. The line would have been out the door, except that it was so cold, almost everyone was crammed inside the tiny waiting area, flinching every time the door was opened and another blast of wintry air swept through. We left.
We returned on a weeknight at 6 and were seated immediately. By the time we finished, about 8 p.m., the place was full.
When you sit down, a server immediately brings glasses of barley tea and the panchan, the assortment of side dishes and condiments that are traditional at any Korean meal. The array of panchan is not huge, but it's adequate, including two kinds of kimchi (the spicy traditional version and a milder one in water called mool kimchi), pickled radish, bean paste, fresh garlic, jalapeo peppers and a small bowl of salad with a light rice vinegar dressing. We later asked the waitress to bring what my friends called moo ssam, paper-thin slices of daikon radish marinated in sweet vinegar and wasabi that you use to wrap up a chunk of grilled meat. The crunchy, tangy radish and the warm meat are a terrific combo.
And meat is the story here. It's why people come to Honey Pig -- that and the fact that prices here are cheap compared with those at the better-known Korean places. There are some soups and stews on the menu, but nearly every table had a waitress in a black "I [heart] Honey Pig" shirt attending a grill sizzling with beef, pork or chicken. Depending on the cut, meat is grilled either on a small grate over a flame or on a dome-shaped iron grill that resembles a large lid. Meats in sauces are stir-fried on a shallow woklike surface.
Other than for the marinated or sauced entrees, the kitchen either skips seasoning or applies it with a light hand, so the quality and flavor of the meat (particularly the beef and pork) can shine. The grilled meat is eaten ssam style, meaning wrapped in cool lettuce leaves along with condiments of your choice and then dipped in a sauce.
Grilled, sliced pork belly, either thick or thin versions, is a specialty. Pork belly is uncured bacon, beloved for its rich flavor and unctuous texture. Mainstream chefs recently have discovered its attributes, but food-loving Koreans have long enjoyed the cut.
Before the grilling starts, I suggest beginning with an appetizer of seafood pancake: "Korean pizza," my friend jokingly calls it, because Koreans love the thin, round pancake for a snack or light meal. Honey Pig's version is notable for being light, golden-crispy and not too greasy, studded with chunks of seafood and scallions.
Bulgogi, the marinated strips of beef that most non-Koreans consider synonymous with Korean barbecue, is done well here. The meat is tender, the marinade not overwhelming. It's still a great introduction to those unfamiliar with Korean food.
But I would encourage beef lovers, in particular, to branch out. Two terrific alternatives are the jumuluck, seasoned boneless short rib meat, and the galbi, lightly marinated beef rib. Rib meat, with its ribboning of fat, is notoriously tender and juicy, and both of these dishes provide lots of pure, beefy satisfaction.
My favorite of the beef dishes I tried? The brisket. Recommended by our waitress, it's like no brisket my mama ever made. It's brought to the table as a large platter of paper-thin, bright-red slices of fat-studded rolled meat that my husband thought looked like carpaccio. The meat was cooked on the domed grill along with onions and sliced jalapeos. It was so good, we didn't even bother with the lettuce leaves. We just picked pieces of meat and browned onions off the grill with our chopsticks, dipped them in the salty sesame oil sauce the waitress brought and popped them into our mouths. Oh. My. God. It's incredibly simple, but so delicious.
Service at Honey Pig is attentive initially, but less so once the meat is cooked and the eating begins. Just expect that you will have to flag down a server to get more water or tea or the check. It's just the way it is; don't stress about it.
Also, to be frank, you will get better attention if your group includes Koreans. The servers are busy and have little time to give a Korean Food 101 lecture to novices. On the other hand, the menu has English translations of all the dishes, and the walls are plastered with pictures of every dish as well as some specials. If worst comes to worst, just point.