Welcome to the first round of the Annandale Patch Korean Barbecue Battle.
We’re pitting eight local Korean barbecue restaurants in the Annandale area against a crack team of reviewers, and we’re asking our readers to weigh in on which restaurant is the best.
Read what our reviewers had to say, and then tell us which restaurant you think should win this round by “voting” in the comments. Voting will close at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, April 13. The winner from Round 1 and the reviews for Round 2 will appear next Friday, April 15.
Nak Won Restaurant
Reviewer Dave Seminara ate here at 7 p.m. March 27, and reviewer Erica Laxson ate here at 8 p.m. April 4.
Environment, Décor, Location
Dave: Nak Won is as unassuming as they come—it’s in the heart of Annandale’s Korean enclave, where one could easily forget that they’re not in Seoul. Nak Won and its catering wing next door consume half of a strip mall. The décor is minimalist, with large wooden tables each coming with portable cooking stove, and oven hoods overhead meant to fan out smoke. A large screen TV in the front plays Korean pop music videos. There is a sticker on the side of the grill which reads, “installation- for outdoor use only as a portable camp cook stove.” Next to the grill, there’s a little bowl that the fat drips into during the duration of your meal. The ambience is pretty smoky from all the grilling, it’s a bit like eating in a busy kitchen, but overall it’s a step up from your average hole in the wall ethnic restaurant.
Erica: Though late on a Monday night, the restaurant was fairly crowded with large groups and families. Each table seats a minimum of six, includes a small table grill and are screened by wooden partitions, so it's easy to hide any mistakes. With private parking and easy access from both sides of Little River Turnpike, it's easy to come and go, once you can find the place wedged in between other shops.
What We Ate
Dave: We ordered the pork for two, which I’m told was pork belly. The cost is $14.99 per person, and if you want the “table cook” option, you need a minimum of two diners. The pork comes with enough side dishes to fill the table: kimchi, lettuce, cucumbers with pumpkin, broccoli, bean sprouts, green onions, flat and string radishes, a basket of big lettuce leaves, sticky rice, soybean paste soup, a steamed egg, and a couple of other small sides which no one was able to translate or explain.
The pork belly was quite good- fatty, and chewy in a good way. I doused my pork in the soy bean paste and sesame sauce and it added just the right touch, giving it a very pleasantly smoky, salty taste. The side dishes were hit or miss, my wife liked the kimchi, I liked the spicy soybean paste soup, but little else. We brought peanut butter sandwiches for our toddlers and no one seemed to mind- but we had to constantly worry that they were going to burn themselves on our table grill.
Erica: The banchan quickly arrived and made the perfect snack while the meat grilled, creating mouth watering smoke. There was a bit of confusion with the waitress and fresh pork was brought out instead of seasoned beef that had been ordered, but it was still delicious. The banchan included several styles of pickled vegetables, tiny salted fish, bean curd soup and more. The pork wrapped in lettuce and rice sheets, then smeared with bean paste and scallion oil was the perfect combination of savory and salty. The portions are large, so come hungry.
Quality of Service
Dave: The place was full when my wife and I went, along with our two kids, and we were the only non-Korean diners. Our waitress spoke very limited English, so we had to seek help from neighboring diners (who were eating cattle intenstines) who spoke better English. Service was friendly, but they ignored us quite a bit because it was obviously mentally taxing for them to have to communicate with us in English- the result was that we pretty much ended up grilling our own pork while they fussed over all their Korean customers, who probably didn’t need as much help as we did. It took a long time for us to grill our massive portion of pork, and our kids were getting quite restless by the time the whole thing was finished.
Erica: After finally getting noticed and sat by the busser, the waitress was right there. Though friendly, she didn't offer to explain the BBQ and when asked questions, she had trouble understanding.
Rating and Conclusion (1 – 5 scale)
Dave: 3. If you’re like us, and have never had Korean BBQ before, this is not the place to start. The food is good, but you have to either know what you’re doing, or rely on the help of other diners who speak English. The pork is the star attraction, but after eating a massive portion of it, I immediately felt guilty and my eyes continued to burn from the smoke a full hour after leaving the restaurant. Not kid friendly either.
Erica: 4. The combination of atmosphere, food and ceremony creates a unique and delicious experience, but the staff could do a bit more to make you feel welcomed.
Choong Hwa Won
Reviewer Dave Seminara ate here at 1 p.m. March 28, and reviewer Erica Laxson ate here at 5 p.m. April 6.
Environment, Décor, Location
Dave: The place is located right in the middle of a bustling Korean neighborhood. There were 4 newspaper boxes outside- all Korean newspapers, and no Washington Post. The place is basically one large room with a partition in the middle, and then two smaller alcove rooms, with a large gaudy chandelier in the middle of the room. Soft jazz played in the background. Each table has a placemat menu and a box of spoons and skewers. I was the only non-Korean diner, most of the other patrons were either alone and hunched over a Korean language newspaper, or part of larger groups.
Erica: It was pretty empty inside, but extremely clean. According to the waitress, it had been remodeled not too long ago. It was easy to find in a shopping center and easy to access from Little River Turnpike. There are lots of large tables for groups and light from both the windows and ceiling make it bright and welcoming.
What We Ate
Dave: I was given small plates of pickled radishes, onions, and kimchi for free, along with a black bean paste to dip them in. And a hot tea was served, oddly enough, in a tall pint glass, suitable for a Guinness. I ordered the Yet Nal Jha Jang Myun lunch special, which is $3.99 for a regular portion, or $5.99 for an “extra portion.” I foolishly ordered the extra portion, which is twice the size of the regular one and far more than I needed. I wanted to try the Yet Nal Jha Jang Myun, because I’d read online that it is one of the best cheap lunch specials in the area, at $3.99. The dish, which is noodles with pork, vegetables, and a black bean sauce, was somewhat sweet and reasonably tasty. But there was very little pork, and what was in there was essentially flavorless. I was told that there were potatoes and zucchini in the dish, but I could barely taste them, as it was drowning in way too much sauce and a mountain of onions. It’s a mild dish and has a pleasant taste, but the sauce overwhelmed the noodles and everything else in the dish.
Erica: I had the Jha Jang Myun ($6) and the Egg Drop Soup ($2). The soup was delivered almost immediately after being ordered and was a little too hot to eat right away. Once cooled, it was everything a good egg drop should be. The Jha Jang Myun came out quickly and was such a large portion that there was enough left over for two more meals, but a larger appetite could easily finish them. The noodles were well seasoned, not too salty and made you just want to keep eating them.
Quality of Service
Dave: Excellent service all around. My waiter spoke perfect English and when asked for a Korean specialty said, “We serve Chinese food, Korean style. The Chinese food you get in this country, it is not like Chinese food in China—ours is different.” Support staff came over to check on me frequently, but I wasn’t there long—my meal came out in less than two minutes. When my steaming hot bowl of noodles came out, a woman came by with a plastic pair of scissors and proceeded to cut my meal in two.
Erica: The staff was polite and did their job, but didn't go out of their way to be overly friendly. The food was delivered quickly and someone was always coming by to fill up water.
Dave: 3. Not a bad meal- very good service and quite cheap, but would I eat there again? Probably not.
Erica: 3. If you're looking for a place for fast, delicious noodles and don't mind reserved staff, then this is your kind of Korean restaurant.
So, readers, which restaurant do you think should win this round of Patch’s Korean Barbecue Battle: Nak Won Restaurant or Choong Hwa Won?