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).
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.
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 there are 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.
There is also Yee Hwa, a sister to the Korean-Japanese restaurant of the same name in Herndon. But the D.C. location is a poor relation. 1009 21st St. NW, 202-833-1244. In Herndon, 645 Elden St., 703-787-7604. www.yeehwa.com.
[Editor's note: Adam Express, a year-old carryout in Mount Pleasant, recently was reviewed in The Post's Food section. Its owners, natives of Seoul, serve Korean dishes as well as sushi and Chinese stir-fry. There is a four-stool counter. 3211 Mount Pleasant St. NW. 202-328-0010.]
Gah Rham in Beltsville, just off Route 1, is a study in pine with a steakhouse-style interior. There's a buffet lunch and a regular menu that features all the Korean classics, with a healthy dose of Japanese sushi, sashimi and cooked items.
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.
Yi Jo is a longtime favorite in the Days Inn in College Park. 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. 9137 Baltimore Blvd., 301-345-6500.
In Rockville, Ha Dong Oak draws a construction worker/auto mechanic crowd, at least at lunch, for hearty Korean food. 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. 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. 2104 Veirs Mill Rd., 301-340-6880.
Hyahn Korean Restaurant, also in Rockville, 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. 4007-D Norbeck Rd., 301-929-9066.
Sam Woo is the best-known Korean restaurant in the Maryland suburbs. 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. The more familiar dishes lack soul. 1054 Rockville Pike, 301-424-0495.
Dae Sung Kwan in Wheaton is the premier Chinese-Korean restaurant in the area. 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.
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 Wheaton's Korean Korner shopping center. The room is nondescript, a study in gray. 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. 12203 Veirs Mill Rd., 301-942-5200. There is a sister restaurant in Annandale's Koreatown. 4231-L Markham St., Annandale, 703-642-2220.
Woomi in downtown Wheaton is a hidden jewel, tucked just off Georgia Avenue. 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. 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.
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.
Annangol doesn't look like much outside, or in. Wedged in a tiny strip shopping center in Koreatown between Little River Turnpike and Columbia Pike, Annangol is a no-frills traditional restaurant specializing in pork. Korean was the only language heard throughout the room, though at least one server spoke fluent English. The menu is printed on the place mats, and not everything is translated from Korean. The meat is cut from pork ribs, then marinated in a Korean hot pepper sauce before barbecuing. Traditional wire baskets hold the meat while cooking, creating smoke that flavors the meat. 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). Mugwort, a plant highly prized by Koreans, looks like chrysanthemum leaves and lends a musty taste and olive drab color to the noodles.
Perhaps I should have chosen the version with spicy sauce, because I didn't think the dish had much taste. 4409 John Marr Dr., 703-256-8006.
Palace, also in Koreatown, has the most elegant dining room of Northern Virginia Korean restaurants -- oak paneling with exotic plants and a baby grand piano -- and some of the most expensive and unusual dishes. 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.
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. 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 a California roll (okay but lacked wasabi), rice and a small portion of very good jap chae. 6669 Little River Tpk., 703-750-6846.
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.
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 and is part of an international chain that began in Seoul in 1946. 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. 1500 S. Joyce St., 703-521-3706, www.woolaeoak.com.