Little about To Sok Jip is comfortable. The line at the Annandale restaurant often extends out the door, past the refrigerator stocked with soju and onto the suburban parking lot, where huddled teenagers smoke cigarettes and cartons of daikon radish are stacked against the wall.
There’s no place to grab a drink, no text message when your table’s ready. Waiting in line usually means shuffling around a narrow hallway for takeout orders, or, in my case, making room for the guy carrying a kid outside in the cold, which prompted someone to shout, “Make room for the baby!”
The wait is worth it. In most cases, a taste of To Sok Jip’s delicious, unapologetically bold Korean cooking is no more than 20 minutes away.
Inside the cramped restaurant, decorated with hanging plants and tables packed so closely that it can be hard to get out of your seat, diners are more likely to speak in Korean than English. This is where Koreans go for a reminder of the unfussy food served back home: hand-rolled noodle soups, bubbling stews served on portable gas stoves and stir-fried meat, red and slick with chili paste.
If you can’t pronounce jeyuk bokkeum, cheonggukjang jjigae and boodae jeongol with ease, a few hurdles may stand in your way. While you’re waiting, a waitress impatiently hands you a menu then returns minutes later, notepad gripped tightly. Point to what you want — the menu is written in both Korean and English — and she’ll scribble your order. When a table becomes available, she’ll mumble something along the lines of: “Hot or cold?” The question refers to two versions of barley tea, both of which are whisked to your table as unceremoniously and as quickly as everything else here.
Then, just when the long lines and brisk service have you rethinking why you’re here, banchan appear on your table without a word. A complimentary treat served at the start of every meal, the tiny matching bowls are filled with chilled water radish kimchi, napa cabbage kimchi, bok choy, spicy daikon radish salad, bean sprouts, wobbly cubes of mung bean jelly and more. Try them all. This is about the time when you’ll begin to understand the lines at To Sok Jip.
It’s the seafood and scallion pancake that may have you lining up again soon. The haemul pajeon, more seafood than pancake, jams squid, scallions and green chilies into an enormous flat round, cut into wedges like a pizza, its edges crisp, its filling brightened by the chilies. The massive pancake could easily feed two, especially with the banchan, but at To Sok Jip, you won’t see anyone working on only one dish.
The same four or five plates, many large enough to share, crowd several tables, most of which can hardly squeeze in another cup of water. The shallow pots, a recurring presence in the room, carry the bo ssam: neat piles of raw garlic and jalapeño, napa cabbage, spicy daikon radish salad and boiled pork belly, each slice capped with the thinnest ring of fat. Grab a piece of cabbage between your fingers and layer it with a dab of ssamjang, daikon salad and pork for a petite flavor-packed bundle, each part improving upon the other. The thick spicy paste cuts through the fat; the daikon’s slight crunch plays nicely with the leaf.
The same sensibility infuses many of the popular dishes at To Sok Jip: the broiled mackerel and the whole fried croaker, both served with a delightfully simple seaweed soup and white or multigrain rice (go for the latter, a purplish mix that can be made with the likes of barley and brown and black rice); and the jeyuk bokkeum, a porkand-vegetable stir-fry served on a sizzling platter with raw garlic and scallions. The cheonggukjang jjigae, a fermented soybean soup with tofu, can please fans of deep funky flavors, with an almost nutty smell that’s easily distinguishable from several tables away.
Of course, none of these can top the pure showmanship of the boodae jeongol, a stew served on a gas burner that offers little in balance, but a lot in punchiness and history. Often called budae jjigae or “army base stew,” the recipe was born as a way to make the best out of surplus foods coming out of American military bases during the Korean War. Today it can combine Spam and baked beans in the same bowl as American cheese. At To Sok Jip, the boodae jeongol brings together rice cakes, hot dogs, scallions, tofu and noodles into a fiery, boiling flavor bomb that’s fused together by gochujang and kimchi. It’s the kind of stew best suited for ending a night out, its broth spicy enough to conjure the symptoms of a cold.
Not everything that comes out of To Sok Jip’s kitchen is so satisfying. The bland dolsot bibimbap, crowned with a sloppily fried egg in a hot-stone pot with vegetables and steamed white rice, is as much of a letdown as the cloying kimchi pancake and the beef and leek soup, a tangle of stringy beef in a burnt-orange pool.
Don’t let any of that stop you from visiting To Sok Jip. Meals here are as rewarding as they are brief, with the eager faces by the front door reminding you that it isn’t polite to linger after the check. If you want to be kind, you’ll exit through the side door on your way out.
7211 Columbia Pike, Annandale. 703-333-2861.
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers and soups, $7.99-$19.99; casseroles, meats and fish entrees, $7.99-$29.99.