Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Koreana: Little Mexico's hidden gem

I have a confession to make. The real reason I go to Korean restaurants is not for the Bulgogi (Korean BBQ Chicken), or the Kalbi (Korean BBQ Short Ribs) or even the dolsot bibimbap (Rice in Stone Pot). I go for the panchan; all the lovely little side dishes of pickled "this and that" of which, frankly, I haven't a clue of what's in half of them. Still, I love them and that's the real reason I go.

After reading a Yelp review of Koreana, by Su K one of my favorite fellow yelpers, we decided to give it a whirl. Steven and I are familiar with the neighborhood, having been frequent diners of the venerable Alamo Mexican Restaurant for years, so we were surprised to learn that a Korean restaurant had opened up in a portion of the space that used to house the Alamo lounge. Lucky for us we knew where to look, because the only sign Koreana has on the building is written in Korean.

The decor is funky, bordering on weird. You enter into a large empty room. It took us a moment to realize that we needed to keep going to actually find the dining room. You can tell that this used to be a Mexican establishment, but now it looks something akin to a Korean Hacienda. Feel free to form a mental picture of that before reading on.

The dining room is brightly lit and flanked on two sides by large flat panel televisions. We were "blessed" with the rantings of Lou Dobbs in stereo while we ate.

We ordered the mandoo dumpling as an appetizer. For entrees, I got the chicken Bulgogi and Steven had the dolsot bibimbap. The mandoo were perfect; thin, light wrappers, perfectly seared layering in a nice crunch which gave way to a luscious soft meat filling, made perfect with their soy dipping sauce. I had the chicken Bulgogi, which was passable but not the best I've ever had. The Bibimbap was exemplary. A large stone pot filled with rice, vegetables, shredded beef and a fried egg is brought to the table. It’s accompanied with a generous helping of Korean red pepper sauce. The trick to bibimbap is to let the rice on the bottom of the pot get crispy from the hot stone then stir in the pepper sauce and eat. It’s just the right mix of crunch, heat, spicy and savory flavors. The panchan are unbelievable.

Our lovely server did not let us run out of anything, constantly refilling the little panchan dishes and Miso soup as fast as we could gobble them up. We loved the Kimchee, the cucumbers, the fish cake and more. We were also served a dish of tiny fried fish. They were tossed with sesame oil and vinegar and very tasty. I loved them… Steven… not so much. Admittedly, they resemble fried guppies.

Service was flawless. Our server could not have been nicer and more eager to please. We felt like we were the only people in the place... oops, uh, yeah, that's right, I forgot. We WERE the only people in the place. That's right, no other customers the entire time we were there.

It may be alright to do signs in only Korean lettering in Annandale, but in little Mexico, that aint gonna fly. We don’t have a lot of quality Korean restaurants on our side of the beltway, so I sincerely hope they change this soon, because I would hate for this place to close due to a lack of customers. For all of its idiosyncrasies, this is a fine restaurant with great food, gracious and friendly service at reasonable prices. What more could you ask for?

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