A Korean adventure develops over time
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, January 20, 2013
One of the pleasures of eating out in Washington is the opportunity for diners to travel around the world without needing a passport or encountering jet lag. Living in a world capital puts you close to Ethiopia, Japan or Mexico, even if only for lunch or dinner.
I’ve never been to Korea, but my meals in the region’s best practitioners make me want to hop on a plane to Seoul. I’m a fool for meat grilled tableside, spicy accents and banchan, the array of small dishes of food that grace every Korean repast and distinguish the good kitchens from the great. Stir in some soju, or fire water, and you have a feast.
Ju Mak Jib has been in business more than a dozen years, and you can excuse yourself for not knowing about it even if you’re as much of a fan of Korean food as this paid mouth. The restaurant hides out in Alexandria rather than Annandale, where most Korean dining rooms are found. The neon sign above Ju Mak Jib, named for Korean restaurants serving homey fare, doesn’t help its cause; only the last word of its name glows.
A Korean acquaintance tipped me off to the restaurant, which she tagged as insider-y if not the most consumer-friendly. “A word of warning: The service can be slow,” she e-mailed. Ju Mak Jib is watched over by a mom, dad and daughter who can be easily distracted even when the space is less than half-full.
And so it was that on my first visit, I entered to find mom peeling garlic at a table; dad, apparently the lone waiter, not making any eye contact for several long minutes; and about a dozen diners chatting in Korean.
I couldn’t wait to eat. The air alone, a haze of garlic and chilies, hinted at good things to come.
Ju Mak Jib looks like a lot of the competition, so much so that initially I thought I had been there before without recalling its name. Big steel hoods hover over the tables to help contain the smoke of the small grills used to stir-cook meals while diners watch. A half-wall splits the square dining room, where a TV in the rear broadcasts Korean soap operas. English is a foreign language; the only time I’ve heard it spoken there was at my table.
The plastic menu isn’t very long, and it’s even more abbreviated after lunch, when some options are covered over with white tape, indicating they’re unavailable. But among my tipster’s reasons for sending me to Ju Mak Jib are several dishes that aren’t common on area lists.
One is black goat, native to Korea and appreciated for its supposed medicinal value. Another is aged kimchi, cabbage and other vegetables that have been fermented for a long time and develop agreeable pungency in the process. While you can order bibimbap, the Korean comfort built from rice, beef and shredded vegetables, why get what you can find at every competitor when there’s the chance to expand your horizons?
“You like spicy?” the owner, whom I later identified as Hun Rae Lee, inquires. We nod. He signals that his wife, Su Lee, can make the food so hot we will sweat. Pointing to his brow, he smiles and says, “Rain, rain.” With the help of pantomime and patience, my posse is rewarded with tender octopus and fatty pork crowding a cauldron bubbling with red heat. Each spoonful is balanced with agreeable sourness.
Of the barbecue, the choicest is pork belly, cut into thick strips and best eaten with sliced garlic and bean paste in a bundle of cool, crisp lettuce.
Food in Korean restaurants tends to come as it’s ready, rather than in courses, so don’t be surprised if what you consider a starter comes with, or alongside, what you think of as a main course. Regardless of their arrival time, the fried dumplings at Ju Mak Jib make a stellar impression. Crisp half-moons, the packets are so thin you can see the chopped green scallions inside; each bite is also meaty with juicy ground pork. I’ve not had better dumplings in the region.
The banchan break fresh ground, too. Potato salad is a staple in the repertoire of Korean snacks, but nowhere has it been as appealing as here, where the potatoes are joined by crisp green apple. What looks like a giant mint sprig is in fact wild sesame leaf, similar in texture and tang to a grape leaf. Garlic stems lapped with a sweet-spicy paste snap with crunch; fluffy egg custard dusted with minced scallions is soft comfort. Even the steamed rice, flecked with sweet rice and barley, stands out.
The owner is clearly proud to tell us that his spouse is behind the plates we are all but licking clean. “My wife make everything. No help,” he says, pointing to the banchan crowding the plain wood surface of our table. On a later visit, he overhears me tell a companion I’m sorry not to see sesame leaves among the banchan. Minutes later, a serving of the verdant treat appears.
Bring some patience. It can take 10 minutes to be waited on, and beer might show up after your food has arrived. If you want, say, more rice, you might have to go to the back of the restaurant to find someone to fulfill the request. An air of controlled chaos has accompanied every meal I’ve otherwise enjoyed here.
With a little effort on everyone’s part, however, Ju Mak Jib goes from challenging to rewarding. For the hungry travel buff, it’s worth the journey.