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With a name customized to make any native Roanoker think “Korea,” Wonju Korean Restaurant is tucked back into a corner of Lamplighter Mall. On the way inside, I spied a Korean-language newspaper sitting by the door, and snatched it up to pretend to read it, and it speaks volumes about the courtesy and professionalism of our waitress that she did not call me out for being such a goober.
Neither of us had ever had Korean food before, so we decided to have an order of Goon-mandu from the appetizer menu to give us a few minutes to ruminate and masticate as we familiarized ourselves with the menu. These deep-fried dumplings, served stuffed with meat, vegetables and seasonings, were quite flavorful, but a bit salty for my taste, and we didn’t finish our order of six, preferring to save room for some other adventures. Another appetizer, the Kimchi-Pajeon, was a sort of pancake made with green onions and kimchi, which is a dish of fermented mixed vegetables. We enjoyed these a good bit more, and the only reason we didn’t finish this was because the order that came to our table was so huge.
While we ate, we moved on to the entrée section of the menu, and notwithstanding the exotic names, each selection featured clear and descriptive explanations. My bulgogi, a grilled beef dish served with more kimchi and fried rice, was excellent. Though the beef was a bit dry, it was very well seasoned and quite tender. But the thing that really sticks in my mind about the meal was the kimchi. Spicy and pungent, I would have expected a mixed-vegetable dish like this to be overpowered by the flavors of the seasonings. But the zucchini, cabbage, onions and other characters really kept their…character, retaining a crispness and a fresh flavor that was able to penetrate the spiciness. I’m going to take a year or two off of work and learn how to make this at home. My wife opted for the grilled spicy pork, and this was also delicious.
Wonju has recently added a full sushi bar to their offerings, but while I love sushi, and theirs looked fantastic, for some reason (see this magazine’s last issue), I’m a bit sushi-ed out just now. Go figure. I did, however, try one of the Korean beers they offer, a crisp and hoppy number with the unexpectedly pronounceable name “Cass.” It’s always fun to add an entry to my “Nations of the World Whose Beer I’ve Tried” list.
We had come in rather late (as is usual with us, we’re horrible guests), and had watched the dining room go from mostly full, to pretty much empty, but I couldn’t resist an order of green tea ice cream for dessert.
Pete Hoefling, owner of the nearby Star City Games, is a frequent diner at Wonju; in fact he’s such a fan that he’s turned his staff of around 30 employees on to their Asian goodness, and turned most of them into regulars as well.
“Wonju is one of Roanoke’s best-kept secrets,” he says. “I eat there several times a week, and between the delicious food, reasonable prices, generous portions and super-friendly staff, the place never disappoints.”
As we finished up and took our leave, I couldn’t help wondering what was next for Williamson Road. Roanoke has such a broad range of immigrant communities with vibrant and cohesive cultures, it’s hard to imagine that it will be very long before some other nationalities are represented on that car-friendly and storied strip. Greek souvlaki? Afgan kebabs? Salvadoran pupusas? Dare I ask, vegemite sandwiches? Food is such a powerful medium for expressing national identity and for exploring other cultures, and I can’t wait to get the next stamp in my culinary passport.
5524 Williamson Rd., 206-3453