My server appears impatient as the minutes tick by and my bowl of jajangmyeon remains undisturbed. She hovers on the fringes of the dining room at Moa Korean Restaurant in Rockville, waiting to see, it seems, if I’m going to dig into my entree anytime soon.
Finally, she appears by my side, pulls out some scissors and slices up my noodles. She then pulls apart her own pair of wooden chopsticks and uses them to mix the strands with the thick, molasses-like black-bean sauce that floats atop the bowl. Is this the Korean analog of an American mother cutting up her child’s steak?
Her tableside service feels more like a cultural rebuke than a maternal favor, as if she thinks I’m utterly clueless. She may worry that I don’t understand the dish is the Korean equivalent and combination of fast-food and comfort food, an addiction for kids of a certain generation and practically custom-made for quick consumption. I can almost read her mind: Lingering over jajangmyeon is like lingering over a Big Mac or a Philly cheesesteak. It makes no sense. You just shovel the noodles into your mouth in large stringy clumps, your enjoyment derived as much from fast, endorphin-rush slurping as from the dish’s sweet, earthy flavors. Speed intensifies the thrills, as it always does.
Perhaps I am committing a faux pas by temporarily ignoring my jajangmyeon, but I can hardly help it. I’ve been absorbed with the standard complimentary banchan, these shallow bowls of pickled and fermented bites and other pleasures. Within arm’s reach, there are two kinds of kimchi (radish and cabbage) and a bellflower root muchim, or salad, which strikes similar notes. None of them are wickedly spicy or pungent, but they’re all variations on a theme, each providing small differences in heat and crunch. I’m particularly transfixed by the rehydrated bellflower roots, with their wormy, sun-burned appearance. They pack all the crispness of fresh-cut celery, with the added benefit of bold Korean spices.
When I eventually dig into my jajangmyeon, I find its limited palette — low-to-the-ground flavors smacking of starch, caramel and root vegetables — incalculably brightened by little kimchi chasers. The crunch of a radish cube plays off the chewiness of the house-made noodles; the spice of the cabbage cuts through the sweet muddiness that can coat your tongue. I feel as if I could continue this pas de deux of the Korean table all afternoon and not be bored by the two-character drama.
But the rest of the Moa menu awaits. This two-year-old operation is, in a sense, an expression of devotion to one’s native cuisine. Elisa Choi opened Moa in an odd, otherworldly section of Rockville, which can’t seem to decide whether it’s retail or industrial. After 30-plus years of watching her husband run Star Pizza on Pennsylvania Avenue SE, Choi decided it was time to launch her own place, where she would cook the food of her home country.
Choi’s menu is so wide and deep it feels like an eruption, as if decades of pent-up Korean home-cooking energy were released in one volcano blast of appetizers, soups, noodle bowls, hot pots, rice dishes and other plates.
Despite some reservations, I’m quite fond of Choi’s galbi dolsot bibimbap, a stone bowl loaded with a vibrant mix of rice, vegetables and shredded beef short ribs, the whole as colorful as a jar of jellybeans. Even when drenched with gochujang, a fermented red-pepper condiment, the short-rib meat doesn’t cower; its rich, pot-roasty flavors are prominent but never dominant over the more delicate slivers of carrots and zucchini. The bibimbap would have been ideal if only it had a layer of crusty rice on the bottom and a just-cooked egg on top to shellac the contents of the bowl with its golden yolk.
I was slightly surprised at how much I admired the doenjang jjigae, a vegetable stew brimming with soft tofu, zucchini, onions and potato. Its fermented soybean paste, or daenjang, locked all the ingredients into place, while allowing the pepper to roam free over the top, turning everything up a few degrees. The same soybean paste elevates the daeji bulgogi, but you have to be more proactive. Slather a little of the paste onto a crisp romaine leaf, add some rice, maybe a slice of pickled radish and those succulent pieces of marinated pork loin, and you have a spicy, two-bite ssam sandwich that will have you burning through greens like a rabbit. The only entree that didn’t state its case well was the nakji bokkeum, or stir-fried octopus, a victim of tentacles that could double as squeegees.
The dining room itself sports a sort of Quaker modesty: functional wooden benches and a bare minimum of decor, mostly expressions of loyalty scribbled onto Post-it notes that are affixed to the wall, as if Moa were one giant junior high locker. The biggest distraction can be the soundtrack, a throbbing dance-club mix that seems desperate to add a nightclub excitement to what is, at its core, a home-style Korean restaurant.
Moa doesn’t need the manufactured passion. The kitchen has the ability to generate its own thrills: It could be a platter-size seafood pancake, rich with shrimp and squid, which is thinner and crispier than its Chinese cousin. Or it could be the kun mandoo, these elastic, house-made fried beef dumplings that are delightfully chewy. Or it could be the electricity of defying convention and enjoying your jajangmyeon at your own pace, supplemented with little jolts of kimchi.
12300 Wilkins Ave., Rockville. 301-881-8880. www.moakoreanrestaurant.weebly.com.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to
11 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday-Saturday;
11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro station: Twinbrook, with a 0.8-mile walk to the restaurant.
Entree prices: $8.99-$19.99.