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If you want to test how transportive a Japanese restaurant can be, see if you feel a little strange dining with your shoes on. Most restaurants in Japan require diners to remove their shoes and stuff them into cubby holes by the door upon checking in. Gyu-Kaku, a Japanese barbecue restaurant now partially open on Hudson Street in Clarendon, is almost there.
Co-owner Pierre Lee contextualizes Japanese barbecue by comparing it to Korean barbecue, which is more familiar to the D.C. region because of the strong concentration of such restaurants in Northern Virginia. It’s also a fair comparison because Korean immigrants brought the cooking technique to Japan during the Showa era. The Japanese call it yakiniku, which translates to grilled meat.
“A lot of people here don’t know about Japanese barbecue,” he says. “They know about Korean barbecue. It’s similar, but there are many differences. The cuts of the meat are different. The marinades are different. The portion sizes are different.”
According to Pierre, an order of kalbi or bulgogi at a Korean barbecue restaurant is more than one diner can handle, limiting the variety of proteins and veggies customers can try in one meal. With yakiniku, the portion size is limited to a few strips of meat. If you’re ambitious, Lee says, “You could try twelve different types of meats.”
Just like in Japan, diners use a tongs to cook the meat on a grill at their tables. There’s a page inside the menu that provides guidance on food safety and how long different cuts of meat should kiss the grill. Instead of an overhead vent, the built-in grills suck air downward so there’s limited smoke in the dining room and only a hint of food smell stuck to your clothes.
To make things simpler to navigate, Gyu-Kaku offers several prix fixe or “course menus,” as they call them in Japan. They start at $60 for two people and go to $180 for a party of six. The sumo wrestler-sized Shogun set feeds six and packs in more than 9,000 calories.
Gyu-Kaku’s menu contains calorie counts for almost everything, including beer, sake, and cocktails. As of May 2018, restaurant chains with 20 or more locations nationwide are mandated to display calories on menus.
The Gyu-Kaku in Arlington (1119 N Hudson St.) is the 47th location in the U.S. There are more than 700 Gyu-Kaku restaurants worldwide, most of which are in Japan. The first U.S. location opened in Los Angeles back in 2001.
You can bring along a vegetarian or pescatarian dining companion because there are ample vegetable and seafood selections to grill, in addition to a wide-ranging menu of appetizers, salads, ramen, and bibimbap. Start a meal with “Addicting Cabbage Salad” or “Spicy Tuna Volcano.” See the complete opening menu below.
Gyu-Kaku is currently in its soft-opening, meaning that they are limiting the number of diners that come through. It’s open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday from 5 to 8:30 p.m. by reservation only. Reservations can be made by calling the restaurant. This week, the restaurant is discounting meals by 20 percent and asking diners to fill out surveys with honest feedback. The family-friendly restaurant features a bar and a dining room with abundant tables for groups of four to six people.
There could be more Gyu-Kaku restaurants on the way. “We’re planning to open more in the area,” Lee says. “This is just the first one. Hopefully we can open one in D.C. eventually.” Lee co-owns the restaurant with Kijun Sung and David Chung.
Gyu-Kaku, 1119 N Hudson St., Arlington; 571-527-0445; gyu-kaku.com/arlington