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 of 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 a few 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 either 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.
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.
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, us 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 (side dishes), 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.
PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY
Korean Grill has been open only seven months but is one of the best Korean restaurants I visited. Located in a shopping center not far off the Prince William Parkway, this is a spare and elegant space with lots of wood and lovely Asian artwork. There are just a dozen or so tables and no grills or hoods. The grilling is done the old-fashioned way: over charcoal, in the kitchen.
There are some Japanese dishes, along with barbecue and Korean selections. My favorite was the kal guk soo, a large bowl of pungent seafood soup with hand-cut noodles. This dish is a treat of steaming seafood broth accented with bits of shrimp, scallop, squid and mussels, and flavored with hot peppers. It comes with a large tangle of noodles, which taste just like the dough dumplings that were in my favorite aunt's chicken and dumplings.