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Given the importance it accords to beef and its strong affinity for sweet sauces, Korean cooking would seem to be a neat fit with the American palate. Yet the cuisine remains lodged pretty firmly in the second division of Asian eats, sharing company with the likes of Burmese, Malaysian, and Cambodian—all of them, of course, lagging far, far behind Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese.
You don’t have to poke too far into a standard menu at a good Korean restaurant to see why. The fishy fishes, for one thing: Dried, fermented squid can be tough going for a culture that has only just now come around to the idea of eating tentacled creatures in polite company (and even so, the suckers are generally battered and fried and then served with gobs of mayo). And the sweetness that Americans know and love and embrace at every opportunity most often turns up in Korean cooking as counterpoint, as the balancing note to a dish that is either wickedly hot or mouth-puckeringly sour.
If there’s any chance of Korean food going trendy on us—and I’d venture to guess that you’re more likely to see a chain of Amish-fusion restaurants dotting the landscape—it probably rests on the accessibility of Korean barbecue, which delivers up major quantities of the beef and the sweet, with none of the highly daunting tartness or fishiness.
So Gah-Rham, in Beltsville, appears to have a pretty firm read on its audience—which, incidentally, is split right down the middle, according to owner Moon Park, whose only previous service-industry experience was the nine years he spent catering to American tastes at a Subway. “At lunch,” he says, “it’s 80 percent American—this is because of the office workers nearby—and 20 percent Korean and Chinese; at dinner, it’s 80 percent Korean and Chinese, and 20 percent American.”
A sweetish smoke wafts over the open, amiable dining room, and if you can resist ordering up one of the nine varieties of barbecue on offer, then you’re one of those rare creatures who is impervious to the seductive, primal charms of meat slowly cooking over a fire. Diners can opt to let the kitchen barbecue the meat for them, or, better yet, do the deed themselves—a more modest version of what you’d find at a Benihana, minus the extraneous, knife-wielding flash. A portable electric grill is brought to the table, slices or cubes of meat are dumped out onto the round Teflon surface, and the show, such as it is, begins. You can’t expect the same sort of charring you’d get from a charcoal or wood grill, but the marinated short ribs, dusted with sesame seeds, are tender and sweet, and the thinly sliced pork belly develops a nice crispness around the edges to go with all that soft, luscious fattiness. Tuck a piece or two in one of the accompanying frond-sized leaves of lettuce, spoon a little of the ginger-miso sauce over the top, and you have a tasty little wrap.
Another of the reasons to visit Gah-Rham is for the marvelous panchan, the spread of pickled, spicy snacks—prepared daily by Park’s mother, Eun Lee—that inaugurate every meal. The rotation of dishes changes frequently, and although some are better than others, the range on display is impressive. Besides a firm and fiery kimchi, there are smoky cellophane noodles, thin strips of potato with scallions and sesame oil, and two kinds of eggplant (one sliced into sticks and smoked, the other cubed and paired with green chilis). Oh, and don’t overlook the little cauldron of steamed egg—a wonderful soufflelike concoction.
If you were to leave it at that, with a mound of beef sizzling away atop the grill and a tableful of panchan, you’d walk away with few complaints. Venture beyond the relative safety of the barbecue, however, and you might find yourself bitching a bit on the way out.
The sushi so often found at eager-to-please Korean restaurants in this country here displays all the earmarks of a chef who has learned his trade secondhand. The sashimi is cut either too thick (the ungainly slabs of salmon, in particular, make for a clumsy pickup) or without care (the slices of yellowtail haven’t been shorn of their dark pockets of fat), and the monkfish with vegetables is a particular disappointment. The moist, meaty fillet that you might reasonably expect for 20 bucks turns out, instead, to be a gargantuan stew consisting of hacked-off pieces from the tail end of the monkfish, swimming in a sweet-spicy red sauce strewn with mung beans. The fish is dry, but even worse is all the cartilage and bone you have to negotiate to eat it.
The even more expensive seafood casserole ($27.95) is gorgeous to look at—a bright, bountiful stew of lobster, shrimp, clams, squid, scallops, and monkfish, topped with leaves of baby spinach and a generous clump of enoki mushrooms. But when the dish is set to a hard, roiling boil at the table, all that shellfish is reduced to rubber.
If you somehow require a change of pace from meat, your best bets are actually a couple of relative cheapies: the sizzling squid, served up in a smoke-wafting skillet with sliced onions, or the wonderful seafood pancake, a dense, eggy creation, laden with baby shrimp and chopped squid and shot through with green onions and chilis.
The former resembles nothing so much as a plate of fajitas; the latter is, well, a pancake. For delicate American eaters, already cautious about a difficult, sometimes off-putting cuisine, only barbecue could be more reassuring.
Gah-Rham, 5027 Garrett Ave., Beltsville, (301) 595-4122. —Todd Kliman
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