Sure, there are dishes with names that smack of the Great Unknown: Bibim bap. Bulgogi. Nakji bokum.
But when newcomers realize barbecue plays a starring role, they should be able to relax about Korean cuisine.
Cho Won Garden helps.
Here, elaborate woodwork and screens divide up the dining area, with heavy chairs that are comfortable (but hard to move), and calm music. The menu lists dishes with their Korean names, followed by English explanations that aren't as detailed as one might hope, but more clear than one might expect.
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Bulgogi, for example, is described as beef that's sliced, tender, boneless and marinated in traditional sauce. I'd say it's closer to shredded than sliced, and add that the sauce is a classic among Asian delicacies, a combo of soy sauce, sherry or wine, sesame oil, sugar and spices.
Special tables boast grills and hoods for groups of two or more ordering barbecue. (You can get barbecue at other tables, too, but to have someone cook it tableside, at least two people must order it.)
Barbecue prices are a little steep – about $18 to $26 – but be advised that it is a LOT of food: You get not only a plentiful amount of whatever meat you order – various cuts of beef and pork – but also rice, plus about a dozen side dishes or banchan (see slideshow). The Cho Won Special adds your choice of nang-myun: buckwheat noodles with various meats.
In other words, don't get appetizers (you'll be tempted, particularly by wonderful little steamed dumplings called jin mandoo), and figure that the complimentary and fabulous cold watermelon will finish things up nicely.
We tried both the bulgogi and the beef short rib barbecue versions, and next on my list will be the pork belly. You eat them like lettuce wraps, putting a dab (or a lot) of the orangey hot sauce called ssam jang (seasoned soybean paste) on a leaf, and adding meat and whatever else you'd like, then rolling it up. A confession: Sometimes I just eat the meat straight, the better to savor that sauce.
I wish banchan were more varied, and had more pizzazz; several feel half-hearted, and not as vibrant as they could be, though the kimchi with Napa cabbage was delicious.
For those looking to venture into something new a bit more slowly, bibim bap is a great choice. Moist rice is served in a hot pot with shredded beef, some vegetables and an egg. You mix it up a bit, the egg cooks, the rice crisps a little on the bottom, you douse it (if desired) with chile sauce, and the total effect is a warm, hearty and very filling meal for $10.95.
For those already familiar with the cuisine, there's plenty to explore, from nakji bokum (stir-fried octopus and vegetables with spicy sauce) to agu gee-ri (monkfish in clear soup) to several versions of jungol (hot pots with spicy broth).
Servers vary in their ability to explain dishes, but proprietor Cynthia Ji is often on hand to assist. She's usually cooking at a table, or slicing up the shellfish pancake that's a popular appetizer (she cuts it into squares, with scissors), and can define your side dishes, too.