Down-Home Korean Kitchens
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Oct. 27, 2006
Annandale is the Koreatown of Washington -- although "town" might be too small a term in this case -- and the area where Little River Turnpike intersects with Columbia Pike, John Marr Drive and Backlick Road -- call it Six Corners -- is the unofficial town center. Script marquees are everywhere: Many of the restaurants, carryouts, clothing stores, salons, markets and karaoke don't bother to post English-language signs. Several of Washington's most respected Korean barbecue kitchens, upscale and homey, are nearby, and the scent of caramelizing marinade lingers over parking lots and strip malls.
But Vit Goel, a.k.a. Lighthouse Tofu House, stands out for several reasons -- including the bilingual sign. Although it does offer a few barbecue dishes, all are made in the kitchen; none of the tables has a grill, much less a smoke-eater; and none of the dishes comes with lettuce wraps or soybean paste. The atmosphere is a little less "dining room" and more "kitchen" and family-style than at many other establishments.
There is no menu in the usual sense, only a plastic photo stand on each table, and, in any case, most people order within the first three minutes. Pretty much everyone knows why they're here: for the soon dubu , a soft, fresh tofu that is the basis of a simple but infinitely soothing stew that can be flavored with a variety of seafood or meat. This is purely, honestly Korean fare, somewhat reminiscent of the Japanese chawan mushi , though not as set as that custard. The soon dubu is the star of an under-$10 meal that's almost impossible to finish.
Earlier this year, Vit Goel expanded across the river into Twinbrook, the Korean center of Montgomery County, taking over the landmark blue-roofed building on Twinbrook Parkway that used to be the House of Chinese Chicken. The two branches' interiors are nearly identical, with walls and traditional window screens of blond wood and great-looking wallpaper made from reproduced pages of tight Korean calligraphy. Each branch stocks beer, soju ( shochu ) and sake in glass-front coolers. Each kitchen sends out the food in double-quick time, though you're not hurried out at all. (But be considerate -- sometimes the smaller Annandale room in particular gets full and has people waiting.)
The service is routine, in the real sense: First come the small dishes, or panchan : fresh unfermented kimchi, spicy cucumber pickle, chilled bean sprouts, etc. (The garlic level is generally at a flavorful but not strenuous level.) You also get a bowl of a chilled clear kimchi broth with a little pickled cabbage and a star slice of jalapeño floating on top, which is fabulous. A large stone bowl of rice is provided for the table and two bowls per diner: One bowlful is served immediately for the meal, while the remaining rice, still in the bowl, is covered with hot barley tea and left to soften for the end of the meal, when it serves as a sort of combination dessert and tongue bandage. The standard drink is not water but cold barley tea, which has an unexpected corn-nut flavor and takes the edge off the spice.
The stews are ordered by level of heat: "white" (or unspiced), mild, medium, spicy and "spicy spicy," and they kid you not. Adjust not only to your taste but to the ingredients; too much chili is hard on the flavor of oysters but great with beef and pork, for instance. Don't be shy about consulting with the staff if you're not sure. You might also ask for guidance about the various soju brands.
The choices for flavorings are seafood (oysters, clams and shrimp), seafood and beef, oysters alone, mushrooms, beef and kimchi, pork and beef, just beef or vegetable. The hot stew is accompanied by a raw egg, which is to be broken over the hot broth. This is one of those moments where tastes diverge: Some break the egg up and stir it into the stew, which is more traditional, and some prefer to let the yolk set a bit by itself and eat it whole, a rich boost but not quite the same texture.
Among the barbecue dishes, which are generally fairly pedestrian ( bulgogi , ribs, chicken, etc.), easily the most popular dish is a huge griddle of thick udon noodles with small sauteed squid (or baby octopus) and vegetables in a spicy tomato sauce; it's enough for two. It's not listed on the menus, but both restaurants make a griddled haemul pajun , the traditional veggie and seafood quiche-style pancake, which is also nearly a meal for two.
The clientele is overwhelmingly Korean and all ages: college nerd and girlfriend, parents of young kids, guys'-night-out trios and older couples in suits. And patrons are welcome to more of the kimchi or cucumber, but, believe me, this is a lot of food -- and $1 cheaper at lunch.