Open daily 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. MC.
Food: Korean and American; simple foods well prepared
Style: Ex-cafeteria with a facelift and tablecloths
DON'T BE INSULTED when the waiter at Smile tells you not to order dishes K3, K4, K6 or K7 because they are only for Koreans. What he means is that such dishes as cold beef broth with chewy noodles, chooped apples and vegetables are an acquired taste. And do take his recommendations of marinated, charcoal-grilled Korean styel meats, for they require no special education to enjoy them.
Smile seems to be struggling to do a lot of things at once. Besides providing a tast of home for Koreans who have missed gom tang (boiled beef and bones) and kimchee (pickled cabbage and vegatables, a peppery side dish that can disable your taste buds), Smile is introducing Korean food to Prince George's County locals, and they are learning that it is not too different from what they can cook on their grills in the summer. Smile also serves as a low-priced all-purpose restaurant for the neighborhood, and its roast beef hash with fried egg could compete with the best of the great old diners.
Thus, the cooler in the middle of the room is stocked not only with plastic-wrapped dishes of kimchee, but also with Rice Krispies and lemon meringue pie. Attempting to seem familiar and American, Smile serves it rice with a pitcher of gravy, its kim bop (seaweed-wrapped rice stuffed with beef, vegetables, egg and sesame, like Japanese sushi but served warm) with a salad bar.
The restaurant looks American. In fact, it looks like a cafeteria, its kitchen open so you can see your beef being charcoal-grilled. Even the white table-cloths and brass chadeliers don't overcome the effect of the TV in the corner. But if the decor looks slapdash, the service is not. At least when the busiest times are past, the staff welcomes you as if you were the family's guests - which, in a way, you are. And even when the service is slow it is enthuasiastic.
While its steaks and pork chops are said to be generous and I can vouch for the acceptability of the souvlaki (despite the substitution of whipped cream cheese for feta in its accompanying green salad), it is the Korean food which makes Smile interesting beyond its own neighborhood. Gal Be goo e, charcoal-grilled short ribs, are marinated in a soy sauce mixture and served on a sizzling metal platter. Chewy the meat remains, but crisply browned, juicy and wonderfully flavored. Second best but not far behind is bul go gee, thin slices of beef marinated similarly in soy sauce with sesame seeds, and briefly cooked on the grill. Bothare so popular that they are served in two sizes ($4.50 to $5 and $6 to $6.50), the larger ones enough for two people. And both introduce you to Smile's predominant seasonings: soy, garlic, sesame seeds, black pepper, and a touch of sugar. If your party is sharing dishes, chop cahy provides a crunchy contrast of stir-fried cabbage, onion, carrots and transparent noodles with bits of beef. At $4 it is an enormous portion, easily enough for two. Smile seems to do less well with deep-fried foods; shrimp tempura was leaden, egg rolls soggy. Stick to grilled foods, and start your meal with a richly perfumed beef broth, preferably with meat-filled dumplings which are relatives of wonntons. As for desserts, they are about as interesting as those on a drugstore counter.
Smile rises above its luncheonette air with small touches like carved apple and carrot slices garnishing every platter. It serves wine and beer, and the unfailing politeness encourages you to linger.
What invites you to return often is the price. Most main dished are $4 to $4.50 (fifty cents or $1 less at lunch). If you tried very hard, you could spend as much as $10 a person with beer and wine. On the other hand, you could stuff yourself with a bowl of soup and a mountain of pork fried rice for $2.15. You would be safe expecting to spend $5 on a big night out a Smile, unless you insist on steak. At lunch, sandwiches with potato salad or cole slaw start at $1, and don't go beyond $1.75.
Beyond the prices, beyond the enthuasiastic service, beyond the tasty home-style food, what is intriguing about the restaurant is the great effort it has taken to organize the menu. Steaks and chops are numbered A1 through A8 (American?). Oriental specialties are, logically, numbered K1 through K20 (Korean!) And assorted American, Greek and seafood dishes from fried flounder through beef kapama to seafood newburg are labeled E1 through E12. I haven't figured whether that stands for entrees or European. In any case, it implies a certain ambitiousness that his family-run restaurant, with its small staff, envisions a day when they will be so busy and highly structured that they will find it necessary to communicate by numbers. I wouldn't scoff, as long as they continue to think big, cook well and kekep their prices low.