** (2 stars) Annangol
4215 Annandale Center Dr., Annandale 703-914-4600
Open: Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to midnight. AE, MC, V. Smoking. Free parking. Prices: lunch specials Monday through Friday $6.99, dinner entrees $7.99 to $13.99. Full dinner with beer, tax and tip about $25 per person.
* (1 star) Kuma
4441B Wisconsin Ave. NW
Open: Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 4 to 9 p.m. AE MC V. No smoking. Metro: Tenleytown-AU. Prices: buffet lunch $9.95, 11:30 to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner appetizers $4 to $10.50, entrees $10 to $20. Full dinner with beer, tax and tip about $30 per person.
Sushi has become a staple of school lunchboxes, and the stews of Ethiopia are popular enough to sustain dozens of purveyors in Washington alone. But Korean food has yet to grab the D.C. area's attention the way other once-exotic cuisines have done, which is curious, considering the mass American appeal for barbecued meat and bold flavors. That hasn't stopped Korean restaurants from opening left and right, mostly in "Koreatown" -- aka Annandale -- but also elsewhere in the area. Here's my take on two:
Take your cue from the photo of the pig on the menu at Annangol. Pork is the specialty of this bustling Korean kitchen, which serves the protein in barbecue, in soups and as part of a stir-fry. One preparation in particular stands out: "marinated pork bellies," thick and rosy slices of meat edged in a band of fat and cooked before your eyes on either a small portable grill or a grill built into the table. As the pork segues from deep to light pink, and soft to gently crisp, much of its fat melts away, leaving diners with a succulent and fiery meal. Accompanied by a plate of chilled lettuce leaves, steamed rice and sweet fermented soybean paste, the dish is also interactive: Diners use the lettuce as a wrap to bundle the other ingredients and eat everything like a burrito.
Don't expect a lot of pampering at Annangol. You'll be greeted when one of the servers gets around to it, and the little parade of Korean snacks (panchan) that generally comes to the table, free, after you've placed your order sometimes shows up after your entrees. Do expect to do some miming if you're unfamiliar in the ways of Korean dining; in my experience, the staff's command of English is minimal. Yet without any prompting at one lunch, a waitress paused between customers to grill an order of meat for my companion and me. It was a welcome gesture. And those panchan -- typically garlicky sprouts, pickled radish, seaweed salad, mashed eggplant and a dark brown acorn custard -- are replaced with fresh bowls as they're consumed.
There are lots of satisfying paths to pursue on the menu. Octopus stir-fried with green peppers and onions is a blast in every bite, literally, thanks to its searing red chili sauce. The octopus is chewy but not unpleasantly so. Less incendiary but no less enticing is the "spicy chewy noodles," its tin bowl thick with spaghetti-like noodles, julienned cucumber and more. In another sweat-inducing main course, folds of pork and kimchi -- Korea's famously hot fermented cabbage -- are heaped on chalk-white slabs of creamy tofu. The intriguing flavors and textures of these dishes compel you to keep eating.
Paved with linoleum, the space is comfortable, if spare. Tables are separated by half-walls, and decoration is limited to half-roofs and whirling overhead fans, which draw away smoke from the busy table grills and whirl the perfume of chilies, garlic and sizzling meat about the room. Even if you're not hungry when you enter, you will be by the time you sit down. The aroma is that enticing.
The eyes have it at Kuma, a year-old restaurant whose pale wood floors, brown wood tables and assorted greenery make it an attractive place to hoist chopsticks. The ears pay a price for all those hard surfaces, however, as well as a musical loop that seems stuck on a thumping techno beat. And while I appreciate attention and efficiency in my servers, it would be nice to have a nanosecond to look over the menu before having to make any decisions. "Whatwouldyouliketodrink?" the otherwise congenial waiters tend to ask right away -- once, before I even sat down.
Pretend you don't see the sushi bar in the rear, and feel free to skip over the first few pages of the menu, which leads off with a bunch of Japanese dishes, running from teriyaki to tempura. The sushi is pallid, and the tempura is leathery, a waste of decent vegetables. Just as too many Salvadoran restaurants think the only way to bring in American diners is by serving Mexican food as part of the deal, a number of Korean restaurants feel compelled to offer sushi and other Japanese dishes. In my experience, such marriages of convenience are often a mistake.
To get to the best of Kuma -- that's "bear" in Japanese -- you have to concentrate on the page of Korean specials. My favorite is the rice-based bibim bap, which diners hear before they see. Served in a deep clay bowl, the rice crackles against the heat of the vessel as noisily as fajitas do. The mound of grains is prettily arranged with crisp bean sprouts, threads of beef, batons of carrot and a sunny, runny egg, all of which are blended together at the table for a delectable and comforting one-dish meal. Kalbi is Korea's answer to barbecue, shavings of tender short ribs seasoned here with soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, brown sugar and a bit of mashed pear, and served over a thin layer of cabbage. I'd like it more if it weren't so sweet. Of the soups, I'm partial to beef broth flavored with scallions and floating fat dumplings with soft beef-and-vegetable centers. As for noodle entrees, jap chae is a sure bet. Thin and glassy vermicelli hooks up with shreds of beef, onion, carrot and more.
Kuma is easy to look at, easy on the budget and something of a rarity in the District. Within city limits, there aren't more than a few sources for Korean food. What in Annandale would be lost among a field of fierce competition is in Washington a modest find.
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"My wife and I eat at Silverado in Annandale weekly," writes Terry E. Wood, who also lives in Annandale. "We almost always substitute a baked potato for fries," for which the restaurant charges a dollar, "we figure for pure profit," adds Wood. For an explanation, I contacted Great American Restaurants, which owns Silverado, and spoke with Lori Castagna, assistant to the company's CEO. She said there were a couple of reasons for the extra cost. "We charge more for some sides for the same reason we charge more for different menu items," she says. "It accurately reflects our costs, and our guests can choose whether they prefer to spend a dollar more for the baked potato." Thus, diners who don't want the baked potato get a lower price than those who want it. Second, "the baked potato costs us over twice as much as the fries," says Castagna, because the baked potato comes with toppings such as bacon, sour cream, butter, cheese and chives. But even if it were served naked, the baked tuber would cost more. Unlike the fries, which are cooked to order, baked potatoes take longer to prepare and involve more waste, since they are discarded after they exceed their "holding time limit" of less than 30 minutes, Castagna says.
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