Sang Rok Su
2500 Columbia Pike
Hours: Open 24 hours daily; lunch specials 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $2.50 to $7.95; entrees, $6.95 to $25 (mostly $7 to
$12.50); Lunch specials $4.95 to $5.95
Cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diner's Club.
No separate nonsmoking section.
I think of Korean food as the wallflower of the party: It tends to get overlooked among Oriental cuisines despite its many charms. It has easy-to-like grilled meats, for instance, reminiscent of those at locally popular Vietnamese restaurants, and spicy hotpots, not unlike full throttle hot Thai soups. Moreover, Korean cooking has a staightforward, uncomplicated earthiness that I find appealing.
All of these culinary virtues are on display at the family-run Sang Rok Su, a storefront in Ballston for seven years before taking over the former Tiki Fala on Columbia Pike. Now with a larger space, which is still decorated in Polynesian style with heavily carved wooden wall panels and numerous potted plants, Jong Park and his wife, Gun Ja Park, have been able to expand their menu of barbecued meats, hotpot soups and noodle dishes.
Like other Korean restaurants in Northern Virginia, Sang Rok Su tends to gear its cooking to a Korean audience, which is a plus for everybody because dishes retain their authenticity.
On the other hand, menu descriptions can be sketchy and the staff's limited proficiency in English can make ordering something of an adventure.
If you want to play it safe, stick to the standard Korean dishes, such as mandoo, a garlicky pork and vegetable steamed dumpling, which is delicious as an appetizer, or the blimp-like Korean egg roll stuffed with a well-seasoned cabbage mixture.
For entrees with wide appeal, choose any of the grilled meats, such as bulgogi, the thinly sliced marinated beef. In this version, the sweetened soy sauce marinade has a spicy kick.
The sauce on the thinly sliced pork barbecue has a generous supply of red pepper, so if you like spicy food, this makes a fine luncheon special for $4.95.
It comes with an egg roll, rice and soup, which recently was a filling egg drop chicken noodle.
There are about 10 of these specially priced dishes offered at lunch, including both beef and chicken bulgogi as well as a few Chinese-style entrees, such as beef with broccoli and fried rice.
Bi bim bop ($7.95) is another satisfying entree. This traditional dish, generally served at room temperature, comes in a large bowl in which steamed rice is topped with a poached egg, strips of stir-fry beef, and an array of cooked or pickled vegetables (spinach, been sprouts, bamboo shoots and carrots). A spicy red-orange paste is added to taste and everything is tossed together to good effect. Sang Rok Su also makes a heated version served in a heavy stone bowl.
For those who find a judicious use of black pepper more than enough stimulation for their taste buds, chop chae ($8.95) would be a wise choice.
Slippery, transparent noodles are bathed in a soy sauce-based dressing and strewn with vegetables and bits of meat. The noodles can be a challenge to scoop up but are worth the effort.
To fashion a meal for the intrepid diner, I would begin with kimbop, a variation of the Japanese maki sushi, rolls of vinegared rice wrapped in seaweed. In the center of these rolls are strips of vegetables and cooked beef, which have a colorful pinwheel effect when sliced.
For a lighter, more delicate opener, try the pale, vegetable gelatin rods that get their flavor from the mix of soy sauce, seaweed and sesame seeds drizzled on top.
While not all the hotpot soups are spicy, those that are can go up against the fire of any Thai soup. In daegu maeoon tang ($8.50), the flavor-rich broth teems with flat fish, clams, tofu and fresh vegetables, especially fresh hot green peppers.
The most exotic dish I tried was soondae jup she ($8.95), slices of Korean blood sausage that are dipped in a spicy salt. I liked this dish, although its richness is better in small doses, perhaps best as a shared appetizer.
In addition to the complementary assortment of vegetable side dishes, which includes a pungent and fiery kimchee, the legendary furmented, pickled cabbage, there is a complementary chilled fresh fruit soup for dessert that puts the perfect finishing touch on a wonderful meal.