Once a year, the Extras for the District and the suburbs focus on one type of food and publish reviews of restaurants that serve it. This year, we are featuring Korean cuisine.
For years I have driven along Little River Turnpike between Shirley Highway and the Capital Beltway and marveled at the growing number of signs in Korean. I have no facility with languages; I'm the product of a homogeneous Atlanta suburb, meaning I have a tin ear and a mouth that can't even roll an R. The unfamiliar characters, writ bright in neon, overwhelm my brain. But as I prepared local dining reviews for The Guide, a community guide published in each of the Extras this year, I vowed to unravel the sights and tastes of Annandale's Koreatown.
Cookbooks are my culinary textbooks, and I settled on a new Korean cookbook by Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee as my primer. After studying it for several weeks, I discovered that Lee is the sister-in-law of Brenna Maloney, The Post's Metro graphics editor, and that she was coming to Washington to promote her book "Eating Korean: From Barbecue to Kimchi, Recipes From My Home."
That is how on a hot June day, Lee and I began a brief tour of Koreatown and several hours of her teaching me about her homeland's cuisine. It was eye-opening just to drive along Koreatown's main street, Little River Turnpike, with Lee translating the signs as we settled on a destination that might provide a no-frills traditional Korean meal.
Annangol is an unpretentious restaurant inside a triangle of concrete and strip shopping centers bounded by Little River Turnpike, John Marr Drive and Columbia Pike. Lee decided it looked like a good place to begin. From the moment I walked in, I felt I was in a foreign country. Lee was greeted like long-lost kin. Most of the dozen or so tables were filled; I was the only non-Asian person there.
In the United States, Lee explained, most Korean restaurants are designed primarily for Koreans; non-Asians are hampered by language difficulties and unfamiliarity with Korean foods at all but the most westernized establishments. She was surprised that so many Korean restaurants here serve Japanese food, especially sushi, to lure more customers.
At Annangol, Lee did all the ordering: the house specialty of hot and spicy pork ribs, seafood pancake, a rice dish called Annangol dol sot (which I later learned was more commonly called dol sot bibim bap) and a cold noodle dish that wasn't on the menu.
Everything I tried over the next hour was new to me.
First came a parade of tiny dishes called panchan. The seafood pancake arrived next, about a foot across and cut into large wedges. Lee said it was acceptable to use the chopsticks as a knife and fork to separate the wedge into more manageable pieces. "That's what I do," she said.
I had envisioned a rack of pork ribs, but what arrived were thin slices of raw pork the color of Georgia clay, the result of having been marinated in hot chili sauce. The server brought a portable gas burner to our table, put a wire basket atop it and cooked the pork slices right there. The pork didn't sizzle and pop; it cooked slowly while more dishes arrived. The server used a large pair of utility scissors to cut the pork slices into bite-size pieces when they finished cooking. She brought a basket of freshly washed lettuce leaves, cucumber spears and a couple of long, green peppers.
Lee showed me how to put the meat in the lettuce leaf, add a bit of fermented soybean paste, fold or roll it up and eat it. She cautioned that if she weren't there, I might be given only lettuce and no soybean paste. On subsequent visits, I had to ask for the soybean paste but got only lettuce, when I got anything.
Lee said that though many Korean dishes are served family style, on large platters, others -- such as rice and noodle dishes -- are for one or two people.
The server brought small bowls so we could share. Lee showed me how to transfer a small portion of noodles and cool broth to a small bowl and then told me that if I ate the broth with the wide-bowled spoon, it would be easier to deal with the slippery noodles.
The rice dish was the least flavorful, until Lee showed me how to mix in a hot pepper sauce, gochu jang, that is used about as often as ketchup and mayonnaise, combined, in American cooking.
Our next stop was To Sok Jib, a tiny diner about a block away. Again I was the only non-Asian person there. Again the server dealt with Lee, never speaking to me. That was a good thing, because To Sok Jib's menu was in Korean only. There is one copy in English, which is covered in plastic and kept at the counter, but Lee said many items on the Korean menu aren't on it. Fellow diners at the half-dozen tables were truck drivers and laborers, all partaking of the hot stews that are To Sok Jib's specialty.
We decided it was too hot for such food, so Lee ordered dumplings and chicken soup with homemade noodles. The dumplings were tasty, but the soup was the hit. It tasted just like the chicken and dumplings of my southern childhood, only with more broth.
Our last stop was at nearby Koryo Bakery, where we ordered patpingsu, the Korean version of a snow cone. The shaved ice is made with water and sweetened condensed milk. This frozen concoction was topped with sweet red bean, what tasted like gummy bears, and bits of melon and other fruit.
From that short tutorial, I branched out over six weeks to Korean restaurants from Glen Burnie to Woodbridge. I have tried numerous versions of the introductory dishes Lee recommended, also sampling new dishes at almost every restaurant.
My brain no longer shuts down when I'm confronted with a lengthy Korean menu, and I've become adept at convincing servers that I really do want to eat that. And every time I do, I feel empowered to try something else. I hope you do, too.