The Two Koreas
Battle Lines Drawn at Baltimore's 20th Street Parallel
They are neighbors standing side by side, speaking the same language, eating the same food - yet they are pitted against one another in the court of world opinion, each claiming superiority. Is this the story of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of (South) Korea? No, actually I'm talking about a clash of culinary ideologies to see who will reign as Baltimore's Best Korean BBQ Restaurant, a battle whose lines have been clearly drawn on 20th Street where Joung Kak (18 W. 20th Street) and Nak Won (inexplicably listed as 12 W. 20th Street, though the two properties are on other sides of the same wall) sit shoulder to shoulder as Baltimore reigning (and only) downtown BBQ houses.
Joung Kak last won the Baltimore City Paper's "Best Korean Restaurant" award back in 2000 (for some reason the CP had a love affair for years with the so-so Nam Kang restaurant, up the street on Maryland Avenue and once referred to by the CP in a fit of hyperbole as "the benchmark by which all other Baltimore Korean restaurants are measured"). To my knowledge, Nak Won, which has only been around under its current ownership for a couple of years, has never won any accolades from the City Paper. That's a shame, because I love this place.
As a former City paper writer, I'm familiar with just how subjective their "Best of Baltimore" criterion is. Basically, when you're not writing up your friends or the paper's advertisers (ka-ching!), you're not exactly picking a spot after exhaustive research. Far from investigative journalism, the picks are often the result of serendipity. You went to a place one or two times, had a good experience, and there you go, it's the Best of Baltimore.
But surely this year these sort of journalistic excesses went too far when, in perhaps the CP's most ridiculous award yet, they named Joung Kak NOT as its Best Korean Restaurant but - get this - "Best Kid-Friendly Restaurant."
Here at City Paper, we're (usually) firm believers in the old adage "Children should be seen and not heard." Particularly when it comes to dining out. There's just something downright unsettling about attempting to enjoy an intimate meal surrounded by screaming hellions and whining brats. But we're not so insensitive that we don't realize that every now and then, long-suffering parents need a place where they can take their tots to eat, without drawing looks of cold hatred. Which is where Joung Kak comes in. The folks at this long-established midtown Korean joint practically fall over themselves to make kids feel welcome--not that they offer crayons or games to amuse your offspring like other "family friendly" establishments, it's just that they truly understand and embrace the concept of family dining. Plus kids love getting involved in the whole DIY aspect of tableside BBQ. Trust us, it's a winner, and it sure as shit beats Applebee's.
I guess just naming a place Best Korean Restaurant would have been too conservative, too much like Baltimore Magazine, or too helpful for City Paper readers interested in knowing where to eat. I mean, can one really say Joung Kak is the place to take kids over Chuck E. Cheese or Applebees - a restaurant with an open fire charcoal grill at each table (where, worse case scenario, a kid could stick his hand in the grill in the blink of an eye)? Don't get me wrong, I like the waitstaff there and the food, but there are also lots of Korean men getting drunk off their asses slamming down shots of Korean vodka (soju) - which is not exactly like having having clowns come around performing for children at their tables. Plus the place is open until 4 in the morning - not exactly kid-friendly hours and not exactly a parental crowd piling in there in the wee small hours after the bars are closed. And why the totally unnecessary use of the word "shit' in the review (I suspect it was written by potty-mouthed attention-craver Joe Macleod now), which taints any chance the restaurant owners would hang up the review or quote it in full? In other words, what a stupid and pointless award, one that serves neither parents nor the restaurant owners (whose expertise is in cuisine, not daycare). Which is a shame because, while in years past the CP's "Best Of" categories had become increasingly self-indulgent (e.g., this year's "Best Fabulous Nobody" nod for Carey Anderson, which reeks of drinking buddy cronyism), this year's ish was fairly restrained and actually useful.
In its 2007 Best of Baltimore issue, Baltimore Magazine at least gave an award to a Korean restaurant for its food, naming Nak Won's Beef Dumpling Soup (pictured below) Baltimore's "Best Cold Remedy":
Here's what BM had to say about Nok Won's soup:
According to every Earth Mother we know, both ginger and garlic are good for fighting a cold. And the beef dumpling soup, right, at Nak Won, 12 W. 20th Street, 410-244-5501, is chock full of both. The mild broth is soothing on a sore throat, and a quart of it is filling enough to see you through a couple of days of lying on the couch with a box of tissues. It almost (almost!) makes us look forward to getting sick.
I recall bringing my copy of this issue into Nak Won and showing it to the owner, who had not yet received a copy from Baltimore Magazine. She was so delighted when I gave her the review that she brought a plate of Korean dumplings (mandoo) to our table in return. This is why I love Nak Won.
If I were a food critic, I would say both restaurants are great, with efficient waitstaffs and BBQ grills available at tables.
Joung Kak has authentic table top charcoal grills and big booth seating and offers more BBQ variety - go here if you want grilled chicken or fish (versus Nak Won, which only offers beef, ribs and shrimp). They also have a big fish tank by the cash register where, the last time I went, there was an ugly Otto fish that didn't move the entire meal (either this was a meditating zen fish or old Otto was dead). The wait staff is friendly, but I've found that Nak Won's staff speaks better English, especially waitress Sun, who explains every minute detail of every dish if you express any interest at all in Korean cuisine. They also feature a menu that has English translations of most of the dishes.
No one bothered to mention the great vegetarian/seafood dishes available at both restaurants, particularly the spicy squid (designed to be served with soju or beer, which cool off its "bite") and seafood pancakes (pa jun). I prefer Nak Won's pancakes, which seems to have more green peppers mixed in with the squid (which is the dominant seafood in any Korean dish). Also unmentioned was the fact that Joung Kak has a sushi bar.
Sometimes Nak Won has a TV set up screening Korean TV shows or, last summer, the Republic of Korea's national soccer team playing in the World Cup - not to mention that security camera showing your car in the parking lot (the neighborhood is not the most relaxing, so I like this feature! In fact, one reviewer aptly put it this way: "The restaurant occupies a quintessentially Baltimore category of real estate - nice when approached from one direction, considerably less so when approached from another.").
But don't take my word for it. And please, don't take the CP's word for it either. Check out both and make your own decision.
Joung Kak 18 W. 20th St., (410) 837-5231
Nak Won, 12 W. 20th., (410) 244-5501
Nak Won (Karen Nitwin, Baltimore Sun, 11/5/2006)
Joung Kak (Areaguides review)
Joung Kak (Richard Gorelick, City Paper "Omnivore" review, 9/14/2005)