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.