Some of the new Korean restaurants that have sprung up in Montgomery County are quite small and plain. One is the businessmen's hangout Seoul Soondae, which is unadorned except for a few posters and the rich aroma of barbecuing meat.
Once you get into Korean food, you might want to go where they don't know your name, so to speak: places filled with tables of after-hours execs, their shirt sleeves rolled up and bottles of soju -- something like a cross between vodka and sake -- and beef on the table. Seoul Soondae, an offshoot of a popular Annandale restaurant, has cheery menus that look more like placemats but are rich with stuffed pancakes, noodles, steamed pig's feet and the wonderfully named dong ghee rang tang, described as pan-fried egg-battered meatballs.
If you've been scared off by tales of the chili-spiked Korean kimchi (the fermented pickle or relish that is so revered in Korea that it has its own museum in Seoul), or simply been perplexed by the menu language, remember that this is great food to experiment with -- and it's made for sharing. After all, garlic seems less pungent if everybody's eating it.
Korean barbecue dishes are the easiest for Americans to enjoy, particularly bulgoki, the thin-sliced beef round, or bulgalbi, the grilled marinated short ribs. These and various other barbecued dishes (which may include chicken, pork, other cuts of beef, shrimp, squid, octopus and even the chewy puffer fish), are grilled at the table on portable grills or built-in tabletop appliances, and then rolled up in large lettuce leaves, along with a smattering of the various vegetables provided (typically julienned carrots, daikon radish and bean sprouts) and whatever other flavorings you choose (soy sauce, chilies) and eaten like Peking duck or tortillas.
As with all transliterated words, Korean dishes are frequently spelled a little differently from menu to menu, "kalbi" and "galbi," for example, "gae jang" and "kajaeng" and "mandu" vs. "mandoo"; but the English definitions should keep you straight; otherwise, ask your server.
-- Eve Zibart