Korean restaurants in the Washington area often share the same general steakhouse architecture: lots of wood, gas grills built into the center of some tables and ventilation hoods overhead, complete with sprinkler nozzles. When the hoods are working, the noise can be distracting.
Although barbecue is often the specialty of the house, it's more a reflection of Korean restaurant cuisine than home cooking. Meat in Korea is expensive -- two or three times U.S. prices -- so dining at a Korean barbecue restaurant is analogous to dining at a premier U.S. steakhouse.
Other Korean dishes aren't always appealing to Americans, so many Korean restaurants offer Japanese dishes to attract more customers. Many of the best Korean restaurants in this area have extensive sushi and sashimi offerings, as well as cooked Japanese dishes such as teriyaki, tempura and katsu (breaded, fried cutlets).
Many Korean restaurants also offer some Chinese dishes. A few specialize in Chinese-Korean cuisine: Korean versions of Chinese dishes that originated with Koreans who worked in China. Those dishes often bear little resemblance to well-known Chinese or Korean dishes.
Servers at the Korean restaurants I visited were almost all women. Language is often an impediment to communication. Service is frequently perfunctory. That said, the servers seemed thrilled when I enjoyed their cuisine, and they became more helpful on subsequent visits. Few restaurants have Web sites, and many don't accept reservations. Paper napkins are the norm, even at upscale places.
There isn't a concentration of Korean restaurants in the Maryland suburbs similar to Koreatown in Annandale. Howard County, which has a large number of Korean residents, has only two restaurants that feature mainly Korean cuisine. There is a small cluster of Korean restaurants in Glen Burnie. There are several Korean restaurants in the Rockville and Wheaton areas, mostly in Korean-owned strip malls.
PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY
Gah Rham, just off Route 1, is a study in pine with a steakhouse-style interior. A buffet lunch draws regulars from government agencies near and far, and the regular menu features all the Korean classics, with a healthy dose of Japanese sushi, sashimi and cooked items.
There is a large banquet hall and several tables with grills and hoods. A sushi bar dominates the back wall.
The thin pan-fried dumplings had a tasty filling and a wonderfully pungent pickled pepper-soy dipping sauce. The jae yook boke um, sliced pork with vegetables in spicy sauce, was akin to a stir-fried pork dish. It was very good, as was the whole-cabbage kimchi. 5027 Garrett Ave., 301-595-4122.
* College Park
Yi Jo is a longtime favorite in the Days Inn in College Park. The dining rooms are just off the entrance and have blond woods rather than dark. The menu is in Korean, and the inexpensive lunch specials draw a diverse clientele from nearby businesses and the University of Maryland.
There are grill tables and ventilation hoods, but they don't seem to weigh down the space as in other restaurants. The dumplings were tasty, and the jap chae was even better, a pleasant tangle of chewy noodles, sweet carrot, mushroom, green onion and beef slivers. The panchan did not include cabbage kimchi. 9137 Baltimore Blvd., 301-345-6500.
ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY
* Glen Burnie
Goong Jeon Palace in downtown Glen Burnie, next to the Moon Dragon tattoo parlor, has been serving Japanese and Korean fare in upper Anne Arundel County for 15 years. A large sushi bar and seating area dominate the front of the restaurant, and grill tables line one wall of the main dining room. A large buffet, which attracts a big luncheon crowd, fills the other side of the room.
The restaurant has a complete range of Japanese fare, but the Korean selections are the most impressive. Goong Jeon features noodles, broiled fish, barbecue, stews, large family-style stews known as jungol and a smattering of Chinese dishes.
The dumplings were light and delectable. The dooboo kimchi kokeum, soft tofu stew with pork and kimchi, was the spiciest dish I found in more than two dozen restaurants in Maryland and Virginia. Advertised as a chef's special to share, the serving was huge: slices of silken-soft tofu with a heap of kimchi and pork slivers. 202 N. Crain Hwy., 410-768-9788.
* Ellicott City
Han Sung Restaurant bills itself as having Korean and Japanese cuisine, though the Japanese offerings predominate.
Han Sung looks more like a coffee shop or carryout than a sit-down restaurant. There are no grill tables or ventilation hoods, just a lot of red-and-black kitchen-style chairs and laminate tables.
Most of the favorite Korean dishes are available, including pan-fried dumplings, seafood pancake, jap chae (called chab chae here), a few Korean soups and a couple of barbecue dishes. The panchan don't compare with Shin Chon Garden's. 3570 St. John's Lane, 410-750-3836.
Shin Chon Garden, in Ellicott City's Lotte Plaza, is the only Korean restaurant in Howard County that offers barbecue cooked at the table. Korean newspapers and fliers are strewn in the foyer, but the interior is stylish in an Asian steakhouse way. It's all dark wood and rice paper screens. The sushi bar is across the back; the private dining spaces are to the side.
A single order of bul go gi was cooked in the kitchen and carried to the table on a sizzling platter, similar to the way fajitas are presented. The dumplings were tasty, and the seafood pancake was plump with shellfish and nearly greaseless.
But a luncheon bento box, which included good sushi and California roll, had too-chewy pork belly slices, though they were wonderfully spicy.
The panchan are especially good, and on occasion included cubes of well-cooked beef with boiled egg, silken whole-cabbage kimchi, Asian pears in mayonnaise, and lettuce with Thousand Island dressing. 8801 Baltimore National Pike, 410-461-3280.
Ha Dong Oak draws a construction worker/auto mechanic crowd, at least at lunch, for hearty Korean food. Here you find the requisite dark room and tables with grills, but it's all a little run-down. In the foyer are stacks of Korean newspapers, a bulletin board with notices in Korean and boxes of audiocassettes of evangelical sermons.
There is a small sushi bar just inside the entrance, and there is unlimited sushi on the luncheon buffet. I watched some people load up two plates and eat every piece.
The dumplings are fatter than most, more like round pouches than smooth half-moons, and the dough is thin and tasty. The shrimp pancake -- plump with shrimp, squid, green onions and peppers -- is flavorful and cut into squares, in the traditional way. The barbecue is well cooked -- in the kitchen, for a single order. The servers are attentive, and the kimchi is excellent. 2104 Veirs Mill Rd., 301-340-6880.
Hyahn Korean Restaurant looks nothing like most of the other Korean restaurants I visited. It is light and bright, with white walls, white floors, pale white tables and black chairs that look like they could have come from Ikea. There are no grill tables or ventilation hoods, and the restaurant is spotless.
The welcome is friendly, the explanations come easily, and the menu doesn't stray from Korean standards. The spicy barbecue pork belly was tender and delicious. The easy-listening hymns playing in the background seemed a bit out of place, but not jarringly so. 4007-D Norbeck Rd., 301-929-9066.
Sam Woo is the best-known Korean restaurant in the Maryland suburbs. This Rockville favorite features typical Korean steakhouse decor, but with blond wood. There is a large sushi bar, a luncheon buffet and grill tables along the side. There is also a heavy westernized flair to much of the food.
Order bul go gi, and instead of lettuce for wrapping the meat you'll get a lettuce salad -- and no soybean paste. The meat is good, and so are the panchan, but it all seems too homogenized for me. Although there are some exotic dishes on the menu, such as beef intestines, the more familiar dishes lack soul. 1054 Rockville Pike, 301-424-0495.
Dae Sung Kwan is the premier Chinese-Korean restaurant in the area. The decor is old-time Chinese, with lots of red and heavy lacquered furniture. The menu doesn't include any standard Korean dishes, and even the dishes with Chinese names often don't look like anything familiar.
We began with dumplings, which were large and thick, Chinese-style, deep-fried rather than pan-fried. The dish identified on the menu as kung pao chicken (mawoondagogi in Korean) had none of the punch or peanuts of the traditional Chinese dish, and a lot of vegetables and onions.
Gunpunggi, which was listed as spicy fried chicken, most resembled General Tsao's chicken, but on the bone. The buchoojabchae, described as shredded pork with vegetables and crystal noodles, had no vegetables and no noodles. It was shreds of pork coated in cornstarch, quickly fried and then stir-fried with copious quantities of julienned leeks. It was good, but nothing I'd anticipated.
Happy Family looked and tasted like typical Happy Family (a combination of seafood and meat with vegetables in a mild sauce). The server tried to dissuade us from ordering each dish. The whole-cabbage kimchi was sensational. 11215 Veirs Mill Rd., 301-949-1500.
Seoul Soondae is in the Korean Korner shopping center. The room is nondescript, a study in gray. There is a small bar in one corner, stacked high with karaoke paraphernalia.
The house specialty is soondae, or Korean sausage. Even my Korean friends have warned me off the dish because of its ingredients, which include offal and blood.
We tried a dish translated on the menu as "tender beef," which turned out to be cold, paper-thin slices of cooked brisket, a dish usually served at major banquets and festivities. An order of spicy cold noodles was refreshing on a steamy afternoon, and the dumplings and seafood pancakes were typical fare and hearty.
The dish listed as barbecue pork was more like stir-fried marinated pork, with peppers, onions and carrots. It was served with lettuce topped with Thousand Island dressing.
The barley tea, a faintly flavored favorite, was cool and soothing.
There is a sister restaurant in Annandale's Koreatown. 12203 Veirs Mill Rd., 301-942-5200; 4231-L Markham St., Annandale, 703-642-2220.
Woomi in downtown Wheaton is a hidden jewel, tucked just off Georgia Avenue. There is a sushi bar to one side, lots of tables with grills and hoods, private rooms and a fish pond.
Half the menu is Japanese and half Korean, with a picture of every dish.
The kalbi meat was cut into chunks, rather than thin slices, giving it more taste and texture once cooked. The seafood pancake was the best I ate anywhere in the Washington area and the best looking -- stuffed with seafood, green onions and slices of brilliant red sweet pepper. There were a few language problems, but the servers were eager to assist. Strains of Vivaldi played throughout dinner. 2423 Hickerson Dr., 301-933-0100. Yett Gol, which means "old town" in Korean, has been in the crook of the Glenmont Shopping Center for more than 15 years. This is a true neighborhood place; many of the regulars are Korean War veterans who grew fond of the food during their service years.
The menu is strictly in Korean, and the dining at large tables is communal. At each is a wooden box filled with thin Korean-style metal chopsticks. If you aren't an expert, ask for a wooden pair. The seafood pancake is exemplary. 12337-C Georgia Ave., 301-949-9060.
Kuma is a new Korean-owned restaurant just south of the Tenleytown Metro stop. It trumpets its Japanese dishes and has a good sampling of Korean cuisine.
It's a sleek space: all blond floors, black furnishings and high-tech lighting. There is a sushi bar, but no grill tables or ventilation hoods to emphasize its Korean offerings.
The servers are helpful and knowledgeable about Korean food. Try dol sot bibim bap; the crusty rice on the bottom is especially crisp and good. And don't be afraid of the cabbage kimchi, which is delicious. 4441-B Wisconsin Ave. NW, 202-537-3717.
Hee Been is set in a Latino/Korean shopping area on the edge of Alexandria along Little River Turnpike near the Fairfax County line. Recently expanded to three times its former size, Hee Been has the trendiest decor of Northern Virginia's Korean restaurants, including a sleek bar near the entrance. Servers wear traditional Korean gowns, called hanbok, and scurry around, tongs and scissors in hand. The tongs are for turning meat cooked on the grills built into the tables; the scissors are for cutting the meat into bite-size pieces and snipping noodles into more manageable lengths.
A large, square buffet dominates the room and draws a varied lunchtime crowd. Servers were helpful and instructive on the proper way to eat unusual dishes.
There is a large selection of sushi and sashimi, plus a full range of Korean dishes and barbecue. For a different raw fish experience, try the hwe dup bap -- chunks of raw fish over lettuce, mixed with rice and spicy Korean pepper sauce. 6231 Little River Tpk., 703-941-3737, www.heebeen.com.
Woo Lae Oak in Arlington is the granddaddy of upscale Korean restaurants in the area. Part of an international chain that began in Seoul in 1946, this location between two buildings of the River House apartment complex opened in 1982. The main dining room is on the top floor of the two-story, crescent-shaped wooden structure and affords a treehouse view of the surrounding Pentagon City buildings, filtered through nearby trees.
The menu is not extensive but is still broader than those of many other Korean restaurants. It is also more westernized, with a section for appetizers, though at traditional Korean meals all the dishes are served at once.
There is a series of private rooms, and exquisite antique Korean pottery lines the corridors leading to the dining room. This is the only restaurant where I saw a large proportion of non-Asian diners, who were still in the minority.
Woo Lae Oak is a good choice for anyone who likes the exotic in gentle doses. A second Woo Lae Oak is scheduled to open within a month in Tysons Corner, in the Leesburg Pike (Route 7) building formerly occupied by Sam & Harry's. 1500 S. Joyce St., 703-521-3706, www.woolaeoak.com.
Koreatown has become the name for downtown Annandale, where Columbia Pike and Little River Turnpike intersect, and for the more than three dozen Korean restaurants scattered along those and other nearby thoroughfares. Some restaurant signs are in Korean only.
Although there are fierce political and regional loyalties among the Korean patrons who frequent Koreatown restaurants, and although some restaurants serve only regional specialties, most places offer a broad range of dishes and have English-language menus.
Annangol doesn't look like much outside, or in. Wedged in a tiny strip shopping center between Little River Turnpike and Columbia Pike, Annangol is a no-frills traditional restaurant specializing in pork. A few tables have built-in grills.
Korean was the only language heard throughout the room, though at least one server spoke fluent English. The restaurant's name is a play on Annandale's name (gol means town in Korean).
The menu is printed on the place mats, and not everything is translated from Korean, including the hot, spicy pork rib barbecue. The meat is cut from pork ribs, then marinated in a Korean hot pepper sauce before barbecuing. The grills are fired by gas, and traditional wire baskets hold the meat while cooking, creating smoke that flavors the meat.
The dol sot bibim bap is accompanied by what was described as a steamed egg: almost an egg souffle, presented bubbling in its own stone pot. Annangol is a great place for anyone not afraid of trying new things. 4215 Annandale Center Dr., 703-914-4600.
Choong Hwa Woon is Koreatown's most popular Korean-Chinese restaurant. There are no ventilation hoods or table grills here. The walls are rough plaster in creamy yellow beige; there are dark wood trims and lots of large tables.
I had the sook mou mill sam sun gan jha jang (special mugwort/buckwheat noodles served with shrimp, squid, vegetables and black bean sauce) but not without having to convince the waitress I really wanted to try the dish. Mugwort, a plant highly prized by Koreans, looks like chrysanthemum leaves and lends a musty taste and olive drab color to the noodles.
The noodles and sauce are served separately, and you mix them together in the larger bowl, using a rounded-bowl spoon. Perhaps I should have chosen the version with spicy sauce, because I didn't think the dish had much taste. The fried dumplings were good, but were more Chinese style than Korean. 4409 John Marr Dr., 703-256-8006.
Palace has the most elegant dining room of Northern Virginia Korean restaurants -- all oak paneling with exotic plants and a baby grand piano -- and some of the most expensive and unusual dishes. It's a chamber of commerce kind of place, where you'd take someone who's squeamish about trying Korean food.
It features yhak-sun cuisine, which incorporates traditional Korean herbal medicine. There is a selection of porridges described as aiding various parts of the body, such as the spleen, and helping ailments such as asthma. I passed on those.
There are many Japanese dishes on the menu, and a sushi bar stretches along one side of the entrance. Although we were only two diners, we were seated in one of the private rooms off the main dining room. The seclusion was great, but it also meant that after the meat was cooked, we were mostly abandoned for the rest of the evening.
The servers were very attentive in cooking the grilled shrimp, beef and pork, and the kimchi was especially good. 7131 Little River Tpk., 703-256-9292.
SamBo is a seafood restaurant on the edge of Koreatown in a separate building set back from the road. It features a blond palette rather than the usual dark wood decor.
Like many Korean restaurants, SamBo has adapted the Japanese luncheon bento box. At lunch one day, along with pieces of grilled chicken (bland), I got California roll (okay but lacked wasabi), rice and a small portion of very good jap chae. In addition to extensive sushi and sashimi selections, there is an emphasis on fish dishes, including stews. The servers were helpful, and there were more non-Asian diners than at most other places I visited near Koreatown. 6669 Little River Tpk., 703-750-6846.
Sorak Garden sits just off Little River Turnpike on Backlick Road and offers a variety of private party rooms, in addition to a big main dining room. A large sushi bar stretches across the back of the dining room, and see-through refrigerators sit nearby, displaying an assortment of beer, wine and soft drinks.
The menu is extensive, with lots of specials (all expensive) that aren't translated into English. Fake orchids are everywhere. On the evening we visited, Shania Twain blared throughout the evening.
The mood in the room was frenetic, as was the service. It was never clear who was supposed to cook the grilled items, we or the server. As a result, the squid cooked far too long and was tough. The seafood pancake was greasy, and the jap chae (they call it chop-chey) was overcooked and tasteless. But there were nearly a dozen panchan, and a pleasant rice punch for dessert. 4308 Backlick Rd., 703-916-7600.
Yechon is a 24-hour operation and perennially popular. It offers a huge menu of Korean and Japanese favorites. The servers, who wear hanbok, work hard to keep up with the crowds.
And Yechon attracts crowds. Even the menu is tailored to large groups: Many of the dishes (including all the barbecue ones) must be ordered for at least two people and are served family style.
Some call the atmosphere festive. I found it bordered on the raucous, with large groups of young Koreans -- many talking on cell phones as they ate -- setting the tone.
The restaurant is smaller than it looks from the outside, where luxury SUVs compete with expensive motorcycles for parking spaces. Even the Web site vibrates with a heavy beat. This is the only place I had to ask for kimchi. 4121 Hummer Rd., 703-914-4646, www.yechonrestaurant.com.
Pyung Rae Oak is a large barbecue restaurant not far off Interstate 66. It hews to the typical steakhouse motif, with grills in the tables, hoods above and private rooms. The chairs look like relics of a French wine country place: blond wood with curving legs, and with wrought iron grape bunches and leaves set into the seat backs.
The seafood pancake was thicker and heartier than most and a tad greasy. Joe Cocker blared in the background. 6023 Centreville Crest Lane, 703-815-8885.
* Falls Church
Han Sung Oak, in a shopping center a few miles from Koreatown, draws Koreans by the busload. The typical steakhouse decor -- lots of wood and rice paper screens -- predominates. Korean barbecue is the specialty, but there is a full assortment of casseroles, rice and noodle dishes, porridge and even a few Japanese dishes.
The servers were attentive, even explaining each of the side dishes. The seafood pancake was greasy; the barbecue was good. I tried yook hwe, which is frequently described as Korean beef tartare. It was a large mound of raw beef threads or slivers, mixed with sesame oil and accompanied by large slivers of Asian pear. The server mixed the beef with the pear and advised me to eat each bite with a dab of Korean chili sauce. It was very different from French steak tartare. 6341 Columbia Pike, 703-642-0808.
Yee Hwa is a sister to the District's Korean-Japanese restaurant of the same name. But the D.C. location is clearly a poor relation to this jewel.
Herndon's Yee Hwa has a rich steakhouse feel, with dark-paneled walls, sleek hoods, a long tempura bar and a baby grand piano. Something akin to Korean rap music pulsated during a recent luncheon, but not at migraine-inducing levels.
This was among the most inviting of the restaurants I visited. Servers were eager to describe various dishes, quick to show how to eat them, painstaking in their explanations of the panchan and attentive without being smothering. The restaurant's version of pyung yang naeng myun was incredibly refreshing on a sweltering day.
The two Yee Hwa locations were the only places where I was given a cloth napkin. 645 Elden St., 703-787-7604; 1009 21st St. NW, Washington, 202-833-1244, www.yeehwa.com.