Some of the greatest ethnic food in town is hidden in surprising places, such as the back of grocery stores—among the best of those are Bangkok Thai and El Burrito Mercado. Recently, a friend turned me on to yet another great place in Columbia Heights, a Korean mini-cafe called Dong Yang. Located in the rear of a supermarket stocked with gallon jars of kimchi, oceans of sesame oil, and aisle upon aisle of indecipherable Hangul-labeled packets, this small eatery is about as rudimentary as it gets.
It’s self-service all the way. After placing your order at the kitchen counter and paying up front, you grab whatever combination of plastic bowls, utensils, foam cups, and paper napkins you think you’ll need and sit and wait for your order to be called. When it is, go pick it up and bus it yourself.
In total, about two-dozen selections deliver a comprehensive sampling of Korean standards. Suspended above the counter is a helpful picture menu with brief descriptions in English.
For a starter, I highly recommend the mandu, traditional Korean crescent-shaped dumplings that are crisp and toothsome. Some might prefer a plumper filling, but I think they’re excellent here. If I had to recommend just one dish for neophytes, I would unreservedly recommend the beef short ribs known as kalbi. These bone-on pieces of grilled, marinated meat are swooningly tender, tasty, and suffused with a wonderful smoky essence. Another sure bet is the barbecued-beef dish known as bulgogi. There isn’t a spicy edge to this one, but I particularly relished the quality of meat and bed of grilled onions. Another slightly fatty pork version is swaddled in some sort of spicy bean paste.
Legions of online writers have praised the seafood pancake—an Asian omelet incorporating ingredients with a decidedly fishy character. I wasn’t a fan. I also was pretty indifferent about the rendition of bibimbap—a sizzlingly hot stone bowl brimming with shreds of beef, carrot, zucchini, onion, and spinach on rice, topped with a sunny-side-up egg. It was OK, but nothing special. The spicy beef and noodle soup is fundamentally a reprise of the bibimbap that’s been submerged in a bright red, albeit not as intense as it looks, chili broth.
All the meals include a bowl of rice and an assortment of banchan—the traditional Korean side-dish saucers containing bites of kimchi, seaweed salad, zucchini in pepper sauce, seasoned bean sprouts, and whatever other daily inspiration the kitchen has.
The most important thing to note about Dong Yang is that the kitchen and the surrounding store close early. The last call for orders is around 7:30 pm (and by 8 you’ll definitely get the vibe that it’s time to move on).
Wedged into a corner of a Plymouth strip mall between a Leeann Chin and a beauty parlor, you’ll find Uchu, currently the one and only local dining spot specializing in Peruvian cuisine. For those not familiar with this country’s food, it tends to be a combination of seafood, potatoes, corn, and the influence of the Asian and Creole transplants that are an integral part of Peru’s history. It’s also known for its peppers, including the piquant uchu for which the restaurant is named. Owner-chef Jorge Armando Sarmiento, a native of coastal Peru, has crafted a modest but solid menu of Peruvian standards that are faithful to their roots.
The portion sizes are substantial—an appetizer and an entrée would stuff two diners. My advice is to assemble a group of a half-dozen people to sample a variety of the offerings.
For appetizers, I recommend the jalea—a heaping platter of corn flour–crusted seafood and yucca that’s deep-fried, sprinkled with salsa criolla, and sided with a tartar-style dipping sauce. Some of the ingredients taste fresher than others, but overall it’s a pleasant choice. If you have a hankering for a bit of adventure (and Uchu has the dish on hand), by all means try the grilled beef heart. The skewered slices of flavorful, albeit leathery, meat are a popular Peruvian street food and actually quite enjoyable. Ditto for the selection of ceviches. Save for the surfeit of red onions piled on top of our ceviche mixto of fish and shellfish, everyone enjoyed picking at the collection of scallops, shrimp, calamari, and the particularly coveted tilapia. The dish also includes cancha, large homemade hominy-like corn kernels. In contrast, we weren’t captivated by the papa a la huancaina—a traditional cold salad of boiled yellow potatoes topped with a lightly spicy queso fresco sauce. It’s hard to get excited over a dish of potatoes and cheese.
When it comes to the entrées, a certified crowd pleaser is the tacu tacu—an arrangement of great-tasting sauteed beef, a wonderful mixture of beans and rice, a couple of slices of fried plantain, and an over-easy fried egg. Another good choice is the frijol con seco—an order of short ribs slow simmered in a low-key cilantro sauce. One of the two Asian-inspired dishes includes soy-marinated strips of beef tenderloin stir-fried with tomatoes and onions and paired with a choice of french fries or linguini. The concept is OK, but nothing stellar. There’s also a dish of shredded chicken cooked with one of the ubiquitous pepper blends, plated with rice and potatoes and bathed in a Parmesan cream sauce. I was the sole enthusiast for what the others in our group dissed as pedestrian. We only managed to sample one of the seafood preparations, arroz con mariscos, a seafood paella that was notable for the fact that neither the rice nor the shellfish was overdone or underdone, a cooking challenge few chefs manage to pull off.
Finally, a dessert combo that includes a purple corn pudding is quite unique, but given the runny nature and fruity sweetness, I would be inclined to serve it as an ice cream topping rather than a standalone.
Virtually all the activity takes place in a one-room setting that includes booths with slatted wood seating, freestanding tables and high tops, and an open-to-view kitchen. The servers are cheerful and outgoing, but on a busy weekend evening, the entire staff was understandably harried. The beverage options include a refreshing indigenous blend of purple corn, boiled pineapple, lime juice, cloves, and cinnamon called chicha as well as beer and wine.
Where to Find Them
Dong Yang: 735 45th Ave. NE, Columbia Heights, 763-571-2009
Uchu: 4130 Berkshire Ln. N., Plymouth, 763-577-3744, uchuperu.com