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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

To Sok Jip offers homestyle cooking at reasonable prices

Dak kalguksu, a noodle soup
in chicken broth.
By James Moon

To Sok Jip (pronounced roughly as “toe soak jeep”) is a hole-in-the-wall Korean dining hall at 7211 Columbia Pike that could be described as a refuge for homesick foreign students on F-1 visas. The prices are relatively cheap, the portions are large, the food is home style, and the atmosphere is quite down to earth, with lunch specials handwritten (in Korean) on the walls and a television tuned to programming from the motherland in the corner.

Like many Korean restaurants in Annandale, To Sok Jip doesn’t make a big effort to cater to non-Koreans. English is neither the lingua franca among the wait staff nor very descriptive on the menu, which can be a turn off for some but also draws others looking for an authentic experience.

If you’ve never had Korean before, you might not want to start here. But if you have a healthy appetite for Asian cuisine and have an idea of what you like, don’t let any language barriers deter you.

Gimchijeon,  a pan-fried
pancake-like vegetable platter
filled with kimchi.

The menu isn’t much to look at, which is both appropriate and comforting for such a niche of an eatery, and most of what’s listed are Korean standbys: soups, grilled fish, noodles, pan-fried jeon (pancake-like vegetable platters, cut into pizza-esque wedges), bossam (lettuce wraps of steamed pork), and of course several kinds of bibimbap.

To Sok Jip doesn’t scrimp on the basics that make a meal a Korean meal. The spread of banchan (side dishes) is admirable for a restaurant so small (and they are complimentary, by the way, so ask for refills of your favorites). Other entrees come with soup, as dictated by Korean culinary principles for any meal that isn’t a soup itself. (Without a soup on the table, a Korean meal it is not.)

Rice (also required to complete a Korean meal when noodles are not present) comes in your choice of (1) plain white or medleys of white rice mixed with (2) barley (light brownish colored, but not brown rice), or (3) bean and wild rice (the latter of which colors the rice purple). When your server asks, choose a bowl of white, brown, or purple.

We ordered kalguksu (a chicken noodle soup), grilled mackerel, and gimchijeon (a jeon made with kimchi) for around $40 including tip and we could have probably used a third person to help us finish our food.
Our jeon, which turned out to be huge, came with miyeokguk (a light seaweed/wakame soup), and the mackerel came with a flavorful doenjang jjigae (fermented soybean stew). The mackerel was great, although quite salty.

I’d say the grilled fish (croaker, saury, cutlass, mackerel, and more) is one of the main draws of this place, although immaculately picking a fish from its bone with chopsticks is a Korean art I have yet to master. On my next visit I’d like to try a jeongol (a large communal pot of stew or soup meant to be shared by the table), bossam, or yukgaejang (a spicy beef-based soup).

Doenjang Jigae
Many of the entrees are under $10, and nothing on the menu is over $20. Seating is quite limited, so this place can fill up fast. If you come without proficiency in Korean or a guide, you could be facing one of those I’ll-have-what-he’s-having finger-pointing situations. And if you’re watching your sodium intake, be warned that the chef may be a little heavy handed with the salt.

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