Chung Su Jang
6118 Columbia Pike
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Lunch specials 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Prices: Soups and appetizers $1.50 to $4.95. Lunch entrees $4.50 to $4.95. Dinner entrees $7.50 to $20 (mostly $8 to $12.50).
Cards: MasterCard, Visa.
Non-smoking area available.
"This is a Korean restaurant," the waitress announced as I entered Chung Su Jang on my first visit. Indeed, it appears to be the standard greeting for all Westerners, a well-intentioned way of alerting you to the fact that the premises are no longer occupied by the Cuban restaurant, Las Palmas. But you'd have no way of knowing that as you drive toward the parking lot from the nearest main road, Columbia Pike, some 200 yards away; the restaurant is literally invisible from there, hidden behind a garage and a clump of trees.
Once inside, and after assuring the waitress you're here for Korean food, you soon discover that the attractive interior is virtually unchanged from the Las Palmas era. The box-like space is dramatically divided by a pair of modern arches topped with stylized sunbursts done in stained glass. Sleek gray banquettes blend into the walls painted in wide horizontal bands of gray and white.
As with other Korean restaurants in Northern Virginia, the menu consists of not only Korean specialties, but also many Chinese dishes and a few Japanese standards such as sashimi and tempura. Throughout, there is a good mix of spicy and mild dishes to please diverse palates, with a number of quite good renditions.
In fact, the overall quality at Chung Su Jang is sufficiently high to compensate for the small communication problems you might encounter with Korean staff members.
Appetizers are pretty much an afterthought here; two that I tried -- a bland hot and sour soup and a tasty but chewy short rib -- were less than captivating. A better choice if you have a party of two or more is to share the entree of steamed mandoo, a dozen plump, pork dumplings ($7.50).
If Chung Su Jang has a specialty, it's seafood; the selections are more numerous than at other Korean restaurants and invariably well-executed. The Chinese-style shrimp with cashews ($8.50) is a good buy with a dozen medium shrimp, and a seafood flavored noodle soup, samsun gochu champong ($7.95), is wickedly hot and addictive.
When I asked for a translation for a section of the menu printed in Korean, I discovered two other winning seafood entrees: a delicious whole fried flounder with sweet, delicate meat beneath a crispy exterior (No. 11 on the menu for $11.50) and a similarly prepared yellow fish (No. 10 for $12.50).
Also listed in that section of the menu, and quite good, was the Korean standard, bulgogi: thinly sliced charcoal cooked beef that has been marinated in a sweet soy sauce (No. 8 for $8.95). But less to my liking was the charcoal grilled spicy pork, which was tasty but fatty (No. 6 for $9.50).
In contrast, there is the lean, non-spicy, and easy-to-like bibim bop ($8.50), a rice salad served at room temperature with grilled beef and vegetables (although you can make it spicy by adding some red pepper paste).
All the entrees come with a sizable assortment of side dishes. On my last visit there were nine, ranging from spicy kimche, the sinus-clearing fermented cabbage, to mild, barely seasoned bean sprouts and spinach.
Dinner ends on a simple but refreshing note, especially if you've had a goodly amount of the garlic-laden kimche. With the check, each diner receives a stick of Doublemint, Spearmint, or Juicy Fruit gum.