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Some Washingtonians like to claim that the District is not really a city. It’s a Southern town, they say, simple and quaint despite its epic dysfunction. Proof lies in the heavy summer air, the townhouse living, the conspicuous lack of a skyline, the way outsiders puzzle over the behavior of locals. Washington is quirky. Georgetowners aren’t elitist for shunning the subway; they’re eccentric.
For me, this folksy spin has always reeked of bullshit, not so much because it stinks of phony myth but because it doesn’t account for something crucial to the South: barbecue. Granted, Washington is a long way from Memphis, although there are some good ribs to be had locally I like Rocklands, Capital Q, and even Old Glory, if only for its celebration of sauce. But I’ve always believed that burnt edges and pulled pork should be more prevalent in the culture of a city that looks north to find the Mason-Dixon line. Living here, I’ve come to the point where, when I meet folks from Texas or the Carolinas, I’m hungry for them just to talk about the meals they eat on trips home.
But the fact is that Washington is a respectable barbecue city if you broaden your definition to include more than just the American variants. I’m thinking of the Asian strains, more specifically Korean and Mongolian. Bear in mind that these are not outdoor sports: While “grilling” is involved in both styles, neither of the versions you’ll find in local restaurants depends on charcoal or real (read: nonelectric) fire. So the question remains: Can you consider it barbecue if there’s hardly any smoke?
“Damn straight it’s barbecue,” snaps one of the grill masters at BD’s Mongolian Barbeque. “It says so in the name, don’t it?” He’s got a point, but stir-fry is closer to the truth. BD’s is the sleek newcomer in town, whereas Tony Cheng’s Mongolian Restaurant is the weathered veteran; both of these all-you-can-eat emporiums center around buffets where diners load up on raw ingredients and then pass them along to chefs, armed with giant chopsticks, who throw them all onto the griddle for a flash fry.
Cheng’s, for better and worse, is showing its age. The shabby elegance of its dining room is classic Chinatown, and given that it’s a longtime tourist favorite, I like that the staff still doesn’t bother trying to make visitors feel as if they’re in Kansas. And the dense, crisp-baked sesame buns, to be eaten plain or stuffed with stir fry, are delicious. But the buffet deserves more attention; there’s no seafood, the vegetables are not camera-ready, and the chefs, who insist on spicing and saucing the meals themselves, are either not fluent or not interested enough to hear diners who beg for more garlic. That said, lamb carries enough natural flavor to save almost any stir-fry from blandness, especially when coupled with lots of onion.
It’s easier to warm to Mongolian barbecue at BD’s, despite its being a chain. This cuisine is only as good as your instinct for knowing what tastes good when you see it raw. But BD’s makes it easier by keeping a well-tended buffet most importantly, the seafood passes the smell test. And with 50-odd selections of thin-cut meat, vegetables, and sauces, you can tell whoever says he doesn’t see anything he likes to shut up.
The role of the griddle is strictly functional that flat surface won’t infuse anything with smoke and the time it takes you to bring your bowl of teriyaki-ginger-pepper-sauce-and-whatever-else-soaked ingredients to the grill station does not qualify as a long marinade. So go ahead and get weird with the seasonings. I spoon red wine, vinegar, pepper sauce, ginger, and soy sauce over an already garlicky mound of chicken, pea pods, and cilantro; most of the liquids burn away, leaving me with a slightly tart dinner that my smartass grill man returns to me with a rhyme.
Korean barbecue has more in common with its American cousin. For starters, ribs are a mainstay. On the menu at Korean/Japanese restaurants Hee Been and Sam Woo, and at the strictly Korean Woo Lae Oak (part of a Seoul-based chain), look for kalbi kui (“grilled ribs”), a dish of beef short ribs redolent of honey, soy sauce, and the faint bite of sake. Like most Korean barbecue dishes, the ribs much of the meat already separated from the bone arrive at the table raw, to be grilled on small tabletop braziers, which, despite being electric, imbue the meat with a crisp, vaguely smoky crust. Wrapped burrito-like in a leaf of romaine lettuce and dabbed with a bit of bean paste, this is the cleanest-tasting barbecue known to man: The meat flavors are unmuddled
by a long cook or gobs
of sauce, and that lettuce shell is a masterstroke akin to pairing ham
The high notes in Korean barbecue are hit by an arsenal of sides fire-hot kimchi, lightly pickled radishes, wilted watercress studded with garlic, nutty-tasting Korean sprouts, jiggly bean jelly draped in a salty hot sauce which come automatically with your order (although Woo Lae Oak is less generous than the other two). And while dessert isn’t even mentioned at any of these haunts, a waitress at Sam Woo brings a bite of the South with the check: fresh watermelon.
BD’s Mongolian Barbeque, 7201 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, (301) 657-1080.
Hee Been, 6231 Little River Turnpike, Alexandria,
Sam Woo, 1054 Rockville Pike, Rockville, (301) 424-0495.
Tony Cheng’s Mongolian Restaurant, 619 H St. NW,
Woo Lae Oak, 1500 S. Joyce St., Arlington,
My main concern with delivered pizza is that the cheese not yet have returned to its solid form, so geography has kept me from being an Alberto’s regular; although its drivers don’t have a problem delivering to me across town, getting it there hot is a challenge. But after one reader swore Alberto’s pies were “the shit” and another alluded to what they did for her libido, I figured I’d chance it. The stuffed deep-dish pie proves dense enough to insulate itself the tomato sauce topping’s a bit tepid, but the cheese inside is still oozy enough to cause blisters. What’s more, the mushrooms are fresh, and the shot-put-heavy pie is hearty enough to last several days.
Alberto’s Pizza, 1416 P St. NW, (202) 986-2121.