A Woodbridge Surprise
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 23, 2008
At first glance: In a dim front window in a slightly down-at-the-heels Woodbridge strip mall, a neon sign reads "Sushi" and "Teriyaki." Inside, Jangko is much cheerier, with bas-relief versions of classic Japanese prints and costumed dolls on the walls. But the interior seems like a sort of unfinished renovation or at least a change of plan. Three tables on the left were designed for Korean barbecue with built-in grills and smoke hoods, but these are not in use. There is a smallish bar at the rear that once served as a sushi bar and still has the traditional blue-print curtain hanging overhead, but the sushi is prepared in the kitchen. A television runs karaoke videos but only as background music.
On the menu: Jangko, which originally offered several Korean dishes and nibblies, now concentrates on Japanese fare: not just sushi and teriyaki, but very crisp and creditable tempura, generous donburi (rice bowls) and home-style yakisoba, or pan-fried noodles with brown sauce. Bento boxes are fairly large (various combinations of teriyaki, tempura, dumplings and sushi), and since they come with rice, soup and salad, they are extremely filling. In fact, most tables receive a family-size bowl of iceberg lettuce and a gravy boat of dressing, so even a few appetizers or sushi can make a substantial meal.
At your service: Jangko is a family business, and the staff is friendly, though sometimes a little distracted. Dishes of tiramisu are frequently complimentary.
On the table: The nicest surprise is the sushi rice, more authentically tangy with rice vinegar than at many restaurants these days. It is portioned out beneath the fish in small balls, which is perhaps a little too restrained but still better than the too-common slab o' rice. It also means that vegetarian rolls that can be bland elsewhere, such as the shiitake roll, have just the right bite. Crunch fans will enjoy the tempura maki, which are battered and fried after rolling; the technique works particularly well for the salmon.
The gyoza (pan-fried dumplings) are unusually good and lean. There are eight rather than the usual six for $5.95. Among the remaining Korean-flavored dishes are the "rib-eye" skewer (three slices of marinated short rib, cut crosswise to be nibbled off the bone; you don't want to leave any of this) and the donburis topped with boneless marinated beef or short ribs. The chicken skewer is four large morsels of moist white meat in teriyaki sauce (thickened with cornstarch, which is not exactly authentic but tasty enough). The donburi topped with grilled chicken is similar, and there's easily enough chicken to share. The shiitake udon (noodle soup) has a delicate rooty flavor and fresh mushrooms, though the smattering of tempura batter bits, presumably meant to add texture, simply add oil.
What to avoid: The large sushi rolls are not always rolled quite tightly enough, and some (such as the "rock 'n' roll" with eel, avocado and cucumber) are heavily sauced, so the slices tend to fall apart; be sure to lean over the plate. The least successful of the yakisoba toppings is the shrimp, which also appears in the combo, because they tend to be overcooked. Stick to the chicken or beef if you want protein.
Wet your whistle: Jangko has a small assortment of wine, beer and sake.
The sign at Potomac Plaza on Jefferson Davis Highway in Woodbridge describes Jangko as a sushi and teriyaki restaurant. But the tiny eatery, tucked in the corner of a shopping center of mostly Hispanic businesses, defies such a traditional description.
For starters, owner Sue Trodon is also the primary sushi chef. Although Jangko opened about five years ago, Trodon took over in November after learning sushi preparation from the previous owner and through private lessons with a sushi chef. Jangko is Trodon's first experience in the restaurant business; her husband owns a Korean market next door, but it is a separate operation.
Jangko serves an extensive selection of cooked Japanese dishes and a small group of cooked Korean dishes, but sushi orders account for about 80 percent of sales.
The tidy space, decorated with a few traditional Japanese artifacts, has three upholstered booths (with overhead exhaust fans typical of Korean restaurants, but they are not in use) on one side, and several tables on the other. A small sushi bar occupies the rear. On days when there is another sushi chef on duty, Trodon works the room, greeting diners and waiting on tables.
Traditionally, rice is the heart of sushi. It should be slightly sweet, slightly tangy, a perfect, warm counterpart to the items for which it serves as a base. Jangko's rice doesn't quite measure up to those standards; it doesn't have the taste and texture of a true sushi master's rice.
But these days, the focus in sushi is more on the fish, and Jangko's is fresh and clean-tasting, with a firm texture and a uniform cut. One of the key principles for selecting a sushi bar is to make certain it is busy enough to provide rapid turnover of the fish so it doesn't get mushy waiting to be served. Jangko meets that criterion.
Single pieces of sushi, known as nigiri, need a little more rice to stand up to the fish slices, but nonetheless are the stars of the menu here. The specialty rolls -- maki sushi -- are more uneven. Simple preparations are best.
One fancy specialty, called Dance on the Fire, is a roll that encloses tuna and cucumber in a wrapper of seaweed with rice on the outside. The roll is coated with bits of cooked tempura batter, then sliced and each piece is topped with chopped tuna in a spicy sauce. The batter bits add a nice crunch, but the assemblage seems like overkill.
And though Jangko's tempura rolls sound promising -- individual pieces of rolls lightly dipped in tempura batter and fried -- the just-overcooked batter competed too much with the taste of the fish, even the stronger-flavored eel.
One of the delights of the menu is gyoza -- pan-fried dumplings -- that were light and perfectly cooked, highlighting the delicate dumpling dough and the flavorful pork filling.
Although Jangko doesn't emphasize its Korean roots, the Korean dishes on the menu offer a rare opportunity to sample this cuisine in Prince William County (most of the Korean restaurants in Northern Virginia are in Annandale and Centreville).
Bulgogi, grilled marinated beef, is a great way to begin. Jangko's kitchen-cooked version is better than many of the places where diners cook the meat themselves. From there, graduate to one of the rice dishes, such as dol sot bi bim bap, which includes an assortment of toppings on rice cooked in a stone pot. The crispy rice that sticks to the bottom of the pot is considered the best part.
After-hours -- the restaurant is transformed into a karaoke bar from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. -- the offerings are limited mostly to sushi and dishes that don't require a hot kitchen, Trodon said.
--Nancy Lewis (June 28, 2007)