Monday, October 22, 2007

Off The Beaten Turnpike

Hankook Kyoja
4210 John Marr Dr.
Annandale, VA 22003

3.5 out of 5 grains of rice

Submitted by Senior Korean Cuisine Consultant Toby D and SK

While our roving LA correspondent took in the delights behind the Orange Curtain, we ventured again behind the Great Annandale Wall for a shot at doing something unheard of: trying a place that hadn't yet made it into the various food blogs (at least not that we could determine) or official newspaper reviews. While getting hopelessly lost on the way to Annangol exploring the outer burbs a few weeks back, we noticed a nondescript standalone building cheerfully advertising its noodles and dumplings across from the K-mart on John Marr. So this time, instead of peevishly sitting in the parking lot arguing about the right way to get to Annangol driving by, we decided to give Hankook Kyoja a whirl.

Inside, the place looks like Dennys crossed with Heebeen: Ye Olde Homey country chairs and decor up against bright light, industrial-strength bbq hoods and shoji screens. But no Moons Over My Hammy here - the closest you'll get is a sausage, bacon, ham and kimchi casserole, which did look pretty tempting in a heart-attacky kind of way. In the end, though, we decided that we'd concentrate on the dumplings and noodles advertised - and we certainly weren't hard up for choices. The menu features several types of noodles (traditional, anchovy, seafood, cold buckwheat) and various types of mandoo, or dumplings (steamed, fried, in soup etc.), enough to send the most die-hard low-carber into glycemic conniptions. Given our small group, we finally narrowed it down to three: the house specialty mandoo, the haemul kalkuksoo (seafood noodles) and the olgun soojaebi (hot dough stew). We threw in the samgyupsal (pork strip bbq) for good measure - it's hard to find and worth ordering when it's available.

The banchan, which were admittedly slow to arrive, were the first indication that we might have stumbled upon a pleasant surprise. The regular kimchee and coleslaw were nothing that special, but the gagdogui, or daikon kimchee, was particularly zippy on the tongue. How something that effervescent and perkily spicy could emerge from many long hours fermenting in a cold dark place, we'll never know, but why question process? The slightly nutty, almost molasses-y hard red beans (at least we think they were red beans - we have to do some research into our childhood here, because they tasted awfully familiar) were also a welcome change from the usual array. While the banchan weren’t as plentiful as those served up in other Korean joints around, the selection was highly complementary to the food and the taste didn’t disappoint.

The house specialty mandoo (8 per order) arrived hot on the heels of the banchan, and were simultaneously straightforward and pleasantly delicate. The filling was light (pork?) with a balanced, almost Chinese mixture of chives and spices, and the homemade skin was quite thin, but substantial enough to contain the generous helping of filling without disintegrating in the pepper paste dipping sauce - something of a feat to pull off, as anyone who's ever tried to make any kind of dumpling at home knows.

With the mandoo dispatched in short order, we turned our attention to to the next dish to arrive, the soojaebi. As anyone who has tried soojaebi knows, it can be quite a challenge to manage with traditional metal Korean chopsticks, and this was one time we were happy to have the disposable wooden ones – made grabbing the unusually slippery noodles (think large, raggedly torn sheets of pasta) a bit easier. This dish was probably the highlight of the evening. It started with an excellent broth, at once both fishy and spicy, and was complemented by noodles that were appropriately sized and just al dente. Unlike most under-spiced chiggae (Korean stews) that one finds in your typical NoVa restaurant, this clearly wasn’t adjusted for the western palette, but tasted as if you were at a mom and pop noodle house in Seoul. (Our server, noting with amusement our attempts at nonchalance while surreptitiously dousing our mouths with soda, advised us that on our next visit we should try "the spicy version.")

While we had been enjoying the soojaebi, our friendly server had started frying up our order of samgyupsal on a tableside stove. For the price (about $18), the order was decently sized and the strips of pork were both thick and fatty, just the way samgyupsal (which translates as “delicious coronary”) should be. As with kalbi, we took the fried bacon, dipped it in a sauce of sesame oil and salt, and wrapped it in a lettuce leaf with some spiced green onion. The result was delectable – salty, sweet, savory, refreshing and bit spicy all at once.

We concluded the main course with haemul kalguksu, or seafood noodle soup. The noodles, as with the soojaebi noodles, appeared to be handmade and were very tasty. Although we had ordered the anchovy soup and received this one by mistake, we were pleased with our misfortune: a good fishy broth, nice noodles, and a few clams and mussels to boot. Of course, there was some mystery ingredient posing as seafood (conch maybe?) that none of us could easily ingest, but it didn’t take away from the experience.

The end of a Korean meal typically brings shikke (a sweet rice drink) or soojeonggua (a persimmon-cinnamon concoction). But at Hankook Kyoja, they brought out a fantastically good and different after-dinner treat: smashed rice (ddok) in a puree of red bean with cinnamon on top. Even the red bean hater among us couldn’t resist…tasted a bit like chocolate, and very good.

Nursing our almost uncomfortably full stomachs, we contemplated our Hankook Kyoja experience: some of the best Korean food we’ve found in the greater Washington rice bowl, reasonably priced, and packaged in an environment at once disconcerting and slightly comforting. It is definitely worth a return trip, and we’re already plotting to try one of the gut-busting casseroles and some of the other noodle and dumpling dishes. The one downside is the service: while pleasant and friendly, it was a bit slow and they appeared to be short on staff.