Whether Washington's diners can support all the Asian restaurants shooting up around the area like bean sprouts is debatable. But one place that deserves a long and profitable life is seven-month-old Smile, a Korean restaurant in Riverdale.
Nothing about Smile's location (on busy Kenilworth Avenue) or its bland if spotless interior is alluring. These considerations recede, however, in the face of the gently service, well-executed dishes and rock-bottom prices.
Six of us visited Smile the other night and were momentarily sidetracked from the business at hand until we had read placemats defining jargon used by CB enthusiasts.
Meanwhile, the waitress brought us cold vegetable salads - cucumber, beets, beans and lettuce. We finally got around to the menu, which, unlike the book-length ones often found in many Asian resturants, offered a manageable list of two dozen Korean-style entries, plus a number of American meals. Most were in the $3 to $4 range; none was over $7.
My eight-year-old daughter and her chum, who had given their salads away while I was learning CB code, were told to order whatever they pleased. They did - spring eggs rolls (three for $2), onion rings and Sprite.
When the eggs rolls proved to be too fiery for their young palates, they had bowls of rice so as to not disrupt their diets of straight starch.
The rest of us did better by Smile. We inherited the egg rolls - among the best we've had anywhere. An order of Man Doo Goo E, at $2.30, is a must - six fried dumplings that actually are flat, meat-filled pastries, carefully seasoned.
My husband had a dish inexplicably called King Vegetable Cuisine, for $4.95, which in fact included beef and shrimp and noodles along with several kinds of vegetables all cooked up in a zingy but very palatable sauce. The portion was gargantuan.
For $4.45 I had beef sukiyaki, a Japanese dish, but in this case served with a sweet sauce. Aside from tasting fine, it looked pretty - a wide assortment of vegetables cooked very quickly to keep their crispness and color, no mean trick if you've tried this at home.
A third adult with us waffled around and at last ordered Smile's assortment platter for $5.45. It included an egg roll, the meat dumplings, a vegetable mixture and Bul Go Gee. This last item - thin strips of high quality flank steak marinated in a garlic sauce and broiled - sounds ordinary, but somehow comes out with an especially good flavor.
Our 10-year-old had her favorite, shrimp tempura, for $2.95, which she loved, but I didn't think it came off as well as the other dishes.
Along with all the meals came piles of rice, and everyone got a dish of Kim Chee, spiced cabbage that had a rather sour taste. Nobody at out table could make up their mind if they liked it or not.
Smile offers several other enticing dishes like marinated and broiled pork tenderloin or shot ribs, hot and cold versions of Nang Mein (noodles, beef, apple and vegetables), beef curry and various soups.
Korean cooking, compared to Japanese and most Chinese, is spicier but has a distinctive flavor that is very pleasing. The emphasis is on beef - no chicken and few seafood dishes were offered.
Smile is owned by Tae Kyung Kwon, who also is the chief. He watches over the dining room through a small window in the kitchen wall, frequently nodding and smiling at the diners.
After the dinner rush, he came out and stopped by each table to greet the customers. We learned that when he first came to the United States three years ago, he worked at a Greek restaurant (which explains why shish kabob and souvlaki appear on the menu), but, he said, it was not a happy place.
"I decided when I open my place, everybody be happy - they come here and everybody smile, right?" he said.
Right. And we especially smiled when we got the bill for dinner, including dessert and coffee - $31 for the six of us.
Open Monday to Saturday, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday, 5 to 11 p.m. Reservations accepted (large parties should call two days ahead). Wine and beer license expected in mid-July. Wheelchair patrons accommodated. Master Charge accepted.