8240 Leesburg Pike
Vienna, VA 22182
PRICE $$ ($13-$20)
HOURS Open for lunch and dinner daily.
NVM AWARDS None
NEARBY METRO None
By Warren Rojas
An all-inclusive showplace for those who favor South Korea’s cooking, Woo Lae Oak continues to attract curiosity-seekers and native diners alike by dishing out traditional cuisine in stylish environs.
The restaurant—which relocated to Tysons in 2006 after decades as a popular fixture of the Crystal City dining scene—dwarfs most Asian dining competitors, both in size and approachability.
The wide, inviting main dining room boasts an array of seating options ranging from chummy booths to a bank of contiguous tables most often occupied by extended families or celebratory groups.
Textured swirls (reminiscent of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”) add literal grooviness to one wall, painted tiles adorn another, while glowing pillars bearing sketches of feudal life in the Far East draw eyes to the center of the room. The high art extends to every table, where sleek, square plates and stainless-steel chopsticks intimate that the forthcoming meal merits just as much aesthetic appreciation.
Manager Susan Paik touted bulgogi and their other barbecue dishes as their bread and butter.
“That’s the most traditional dish we have here. Plus, you get all the sides and steamed rice, so it’s a full meal,” she said of the wondrous spreads that typically accompany a Korean barbecue outing. She said native Koreans tend to gravitate toward galbi (marinated short ribs), bibimbap (spicy noodle and protein medley) and miso stew—“that’s like a basic Korean meal that everyone can enjoy throughout the year”—as well as seasonal favorites like their assorted cold noodle dishes.
Just make sure to consult with staff before you wander too far into unknown territory.
An opener of ground chuck and Korean pear woven together into a raw food blossom proved too exotic for even my Korean compatriots, several of whom said they’d never encountered such a dish. Paik cited it as long-standing delicacy, but hinted that some U.S.-born Koreans might not be as familiar with the quirky pairing.
(For the record: I enjoyed the beef tartar, got used to the pear, but couldn’t quite get over the stares of disbelief from the server.)
Stuffed crepes are doused in zesty cream sauce (think wasabi light) and filled with a savory beef-seafood-shredded vegetables mix. Beef jeon is like an edible lunar eclipse, delivering buttons of savory ground beef ringed by crispy yellow edges of fried egg; plunge them into the complementary sesame seed-garlic-scallion soy dipping sauce for added zing.
Barbecue short ribs are prepared before your very eyes in sizzling tabletop woks, yielding tender cubes of dulcet meat you season, after the fact, with scoops of assorted banchan (favorites include the chewy dried fish, tangerine miso paste and marinated bean sprouts).
An order of chilled noodles reveals shimmering buckwheat pasta, thinly sliced beef, shaved cucumber, garlicky kimchi, a hard-boiled egg and assorted vegetables, soaked through in a spicy beef broth (who knew cold dishes could produce hot flashes?). Across the temperature scale, fist-sized beef ribs (the carnivorous rewards arrive with their protein bundles still wedded to the bone) are slow-cooked with carrots, chestnuts and dates until the meat achieves untold sweetness (delicious).