Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Washington DC & Baltimore >
Jul 21, 2013 02:20 PM

Woo Lae Oak

I am invited to a dinner with some friends at Woo Lae Oak. I was wondering what they are known for. Any must-try items there?

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Their kalbi is served in cubes rather than slices, but is pretty good. I recall having an exceptional jap chae, with the noodles really picking up the broth flavors. I get taken to a banquet-style meal (limited menu selection, private room) there at least once a year through my tae kwon do connections. If you are looking for something lighter, they have Hwe Dut Bap, which is sashimi over rice and lettuce with a hot sauce on the side to season to taste.

    On the whole, I find Woo Lae Oak a little too much like Korean Lite; everything is good but strong flavors are often toned down. That being said, one of my former Korean clients and I must have come close to a world record for Most Garlic Consumed at a Business Meal. If the kalbi is being grilled at the table, they provide a plate with raw garlic and sliced peppers that you can add to the mix; my client got the server to bring several extra helpings of garlic.

    1. No, there are no must-try items there.

      WLO is Korean for non-Koreans. Sort of the PF Changs of Korean BBQ.

      Just be happy you're an invited guest, and will be spared of the final bill.

      3 Replies
      1. re: ipsedixit

        I'm not a fan of Woo Lae Oak myself, but I don't think it's correct to say it's for non-Koreans. The branch in Seoul receives very high recommendations from critics there and my two barbers, both first-generation Korean Americans, say it's their favorite restaurant and all their families' favorite restaurant -- they even warned me when I recently went to Korea that I would not find any food as good in all of Korea as the DC Woo Lae Oak.

        1. re: Mississippi Snopes

          Looking at the menu, this is the only place in the area I've seen with soon dubu jiri, the white tofu stew I've seen pictures of from the northeast coast of Korea. I've never eaten at Woo Lae Oak nor had this dish in Korea, but now I'm tempted to try it out.

          Also, I don't recall seeing anyone making fresh mungbean pancakes (bindaetteok) here, but maybe I just haven't noticed.

          1. re: Steve

            Their bindaetteok is good. Gom Tang E in Centreville makes a tasty version as well.

      2. Just came back from Woo Lae Oak.

        It is definitely not Korean food for non-Koreans. Our table was the only non-Korean table in the entire packed restaurant.

        However, it may be the most mediocre Korean food I have ever had.

        I enjoyed the hae mul pajeon (seafood pancake) and also a cod and tofu stew, which was actually quite delicious. But the ban chan weren't very exciting, and the kimchee in particular was blah. I love good kimchee. I feel sad when I eat bad kimchee :(

        The table top BBQ was disappointing. The meats themselves were marinated well. Not bad. But the ssam jang wasn't very flavorful and all they gave us were lettuce leaves for wrapping. No other veggies, no foil cup of oil and garlic to cook garlic slivers for our ssam. No additional sauces.

        I am very much a Korean food fanatic and now I feel I need to eat a good Korean meal to make up for this mediocre one.

        I saw all of the awards on the wall won by this restaurant since the 90s. What I think is that this place is surviving on reputation and also it is a bit fancy inside compared to other places. But it is just not good. It goes to show that you can't judge a restaurant that serves a particular ethnicity's cuisine based on the fact that it is packed with people of that ethnicity. (No one here said that, but you do hear that sometimes.)

        It wasn't terrible food. But just mediocre, while I am used to the very deliciously robust and complex flavors of well made Korean dishes, which are in no shortage in NoVa. So over all a disappointing meal.

        32 Replies
        1. re: luckyfatima

          That's what I mean by Korean food for non-Koreans.

          Toned-down, bland food in a nice, haute atmosphere.

          1. re: ipsedixit

            Woo Lae Oak is the Korean equivalent of Lauriol Plaza. They've been around forever. There's nothing really bad on the menu, but nothing really outstanding either. And they're both always packed. They're "ethic food" for people who suffer from flavor intolerance. 

          2. re: luckyfatima

            "It goes to show that you can't judge a restaurant that serves a particular ethnicity's cuisine based on the fact that it is packed with people of that ethnicity."

            YES! I wish people would stop using this as any sort of meaningful criteria.

            1. re: bmorecupcake

              Can you do the converse: judge a restaurant based on the fact that people of that ethnicity are absent?

              1. re: KWagle

                I've thought about that one, too. Excluding the obvious, like chains and things like "neighborhood sushi" restaurants and Chinese takeouts, I can't think of good examples. Grace Garden has a mix of patrons, so that wouldn't fit. Maybe a place like The Helmand? (I've never been.)

                I think if you could identify which cultures are still very particular about their food traditions, you could draw some conclusions about restaurants catering to those specific cultures. From what I can tell, admittedly based on a very small sample size of friends and acquaintances, food standards are dropping ever year across many cultures. Lately, I've even observed this disturbing trend for Japanese, Italian, and French cultures. (Again, very small sample size.)

              2. re: bmorecupcake

                It's one data point among many, no?

                If I'm looking at a Chinese restaurant in a city's Chinatown, and one has all Chinese people, and the one next door has all Caucasian people, I am definitely taking that as a sign as to which is likely to have the better food.

                But it's certainly true that the crappy Chinese buffet near my house tends to have a mostly Asian clientele, so it's not a universal truth.

                1. re: DanielK

                  I think this falls in with the rapidly becoming invalid assumptions about what's in the parking lot. It's a good diner if there are a lot of trucks. It's a good Ethiopian restaurant is good if there are a lot of taxis.

                  Truck drivers and taxi drivers are working folks. They want a cheap and edible meal that's quick and will let them get to work. Asians aren't any different than the rest of us. They don't always go out to dinner at the best restaurants only for special occasions, but tend to visit the most popular, less expensive ones.

                  1. re: MikeR

                    I never see any Chinese people in China Boy in Chinatown. Just plain folks eating great noodles. I see lots of big Asian families at Chinese buffets. Most are eating the American food. Or the Americanized Chinese food. 

                    1. re: monkeyrotica

                      I've never seen anyone eating at China Boy. Are there more than two tables? Four chairs? Most times I go in there, I don't even see anybody working, though I hear them in the back. Calling out doesn't help, so I just leave.

                      They make their living selling noodles to other retailers/restaurants.

                      1. re: Steve

                        They make their living selling noodles to other retailers/restaurants.

                        And take out, as well as late-nite eats.

                        1. re: Steve

                          I saw people eating at China Boy mid-morning on a Sunday. It looked incredibly crowded.

                          1. re: Mer_Made

                            Are we talking about the same place? What does 'incredibly crowded' mean at a place with two tables?

                            1. re: Steve

                              Yes, yes we are. I know just how tiny the place is and just a few people can make the space crowded and tight.

                          2. re: Steve

                            Steve... how could I not know about China Boy until now... :-(

                            1. re: KWagle

                              I'm not sure you have missed anything.....but next time you're in Chinatown you could always walk on over and see if anybody is there...... they only offer a few items.

                              1. re: Steve

                                It's the best Chinese in DC.

                                Yes, I know, that's a bit like saying China Boy is the tallest midget, but someone has to be the tallest.

                                1. re: ipsedixit

                                  The Great Wall in DC has totally kick-ass ma po tofu and hong you chao shou, though the latter is made oddly enough with an unusual chicken mixture, completely surprising and quite delicious. The wrappers have a thick, rough texture, they are barely folded over, more like a slab of noodle than a normal wrapper. The baby bok choy here is as good as it gets - and if anyone wants to know what great wok skills can produce, that is the item to order. Outside of a list of Chinese-American gloop, the menu here is limited, but a twice cooked pork and a yu xiang fish (appropriately vinegary) round out things pretty well. This is already much better than you can do at China Boy.

                                  1. re: Steve

                                    The Great Wall in DC has totally kick-ass ma po tofu and hong you chao shou

                                    No, not really. That's akin to saying McDonald's has kick-ass hamburgers.

                                    1. re: ipsedixit

                                      Typical internet snark.

                                      Not sure if you had the rare off experience, but every time I've been there they use enough hua jiao to make your statement say more about you than the restaurant.

                                      1. re: Steve

                                        I'm glad you like it. More power to you.

                                  2. re: ipsedixit

                                    New Big Wong remains a standout for authentic Cantonese food, as it has been for the 20 years I've been eating there. I can't say it's better than some of the suburban places, but I expect it's at least equal to the tallest midget.

                                    And I've had the Mapo doufu at Great Wall, it's quite solid.

                                    In another thread, ipsedixit exhibited the same rudely snarky attitude when I said i travel to DC regularly to eat at Hunan taste and Grace Garden.

                                    He was also quite dismissive of Chinese food in Manhattan because it couldn't possibly be as good as whatever he gets in California. So I'm unsurprised he'd make some random claim about what's the best Chinese food in DC. I have to wonder if he actually tries these places before scoffing about other people's experiences.

                                    1. re: KWagle

                                      I've had a couple of very good dishes at NBW, so I think there is gold in them thar hills - but it would take a long time for me to go through the menu to find the hits.

                                      We are getting more into the topic of the other current thread - do Chinese restaurants in DC off too many choices while only executing a few excellent dishes? I think adding to that thread is probably a good move.

                                      1. re: KWagle

                                        That all depends on your point of reference.

                                        1. re: KWagle

                                          It's great that you like NBW and Great Wall. More power to you.

                                          I am just saying that they are not very good.

                                          I'm not even arguing with you. Just telling you.

                                          1. re: ipsedixit

                                            I've already told you what i liked at NBW and GW. You haven't said if you tried those dishes. Plus you don't say why you don't like them.

                                            Instead, you respond with snark and arrogance.

                                            1. re: Steve

                                              I've tried NBW, Great Wall, MIng's, and Chinatown Express, as well as Sichuan Pavilion, and know several of the owners or chefs at those places.

                                              I've eaten at those places, and the owners themselves tell me that their food is just good enough to placate the non-demanding clientele in/around the District.

                                              Just as an example, the snow peas at NBW is just too salty and veggies are old, not young or tender, the jelly fish dishes taste (and look) like rubber bands, even dishes like the BBQ pork are tough, and cloyingly sweet.

                                              It's fine that you like them. Like I said, more power to you, and you should continue eating at those establishments.

                                              Not sure why there's such hostility to someone calling out the Chinese in DC. I haven't called you a snark for liking them, not sure why you feel so insecure about your preferences as to label me a snark for not liking the Chinese food in DC.

                                              1. re: ipsedixit

                                                Did you miss the day in school where they taught the difference between fact and opinion?

                                                1. re: ipsedixit

                                                  Thanks for telling us about the specific dishes to avoid at NBW. I will follow your admonition, and I am sure your opinion of those dishes is valid.

                                                  The 'hostility' is on your part. Equating the ma po tofu at Great Wall with McDonalds is superficial snark and an insult. A proper response would say what you don't like about it. Surely even you can see that.

                                                  On top of that, you then proclaimed you are 'not arguing' but 'telling us.' Unfortunately your word 'handed down from on high' doesn't help me eat better. Now that you're more specific and less dismissive, you give me info I can use.

                                                  I mentioned two dishes I liked at NBW (I name them in the other current thread: the baby squid heads from the wall menu and the casserole of marinated pork and pickled vegetables), and 4/5 dishes at Great Wall. I haven't been to Sichuan Pavillion in DC.

                                                  Despite your conversation with the chef or owner, you are implying that I'm not demanding, even though I think I am. If I have something delicious, I'll say so, and it doesn't matter to me if it comes from a kitchen that is otherwise underwhelming. I only care about what is on the plate.

                                                  I don't give out blanket recommendations; I talk about specific dishes so I don't misinform people.

                                                  As far as The Great Wall is concerned, you are implying in your thread that the owners/ chefs are not very proud of their ma po tofu and hong you chao shou, when in fact I have talked to them as well and I know that they are very proud of those dishes. I went there based on a rec from local food critic Tom Sietsema, right after he had taken a food tour in Chengdu. He, in turn, was tipped off to Great Wall by someone else actually from Chengdu. I don't always agree with Tom, but as soon as I tasted it I loved it, and this is comparing it to my own experiences.

                                                  So if you are going to put it down, at least have the common courtesy to say why and not just give me SNARK! You don't have to agree, but at least an explanation would be nice.

                                                  Your blanket condemnation of Great Wall is simply bad Chowhounding.

                                    2. re: Steve

                                      I've seen Chinese customers getting an order of noodles to go there. I think that's more common than people eating at China Boy.

                                      1. re: pgm123

                                        I guess so. The last two times I passed by, the place was deserted.... no customers, nobody behind the counter, just the clanking of pots in the back.

                                        I've eaten the food, I thought it was about the same as similar dishes at Eat First. Probably the very same noodles.

                                        I'd consider going back the next time I pass by. Counter service is always cheaper, faster, and more convenient than table service.

                                  3. re: MikeR

                                    If I'm reading luckyfatima's response correctly they were the only non-Korean table which makes ipsedixit's statement completely invalid. I work in Tyson's so I've been to Woo Lae Oak for lunch and dinner a hand full of times over the past year and I don't remember Koreans being the minority group. Have you been to Yechon or Honey Pig? They both have higher percentages of non-Koreans at any given time.

                                    Having said that, I've definitely had hit and miss experiences there but that's true for many restaurants. Their lunch menu is a great value and the dolsot bibimbap and hwe dup bap is as good as any Korean restaurant.

                              2. re: luckyfatima

                                Interesting to hear your report. I know very little about Korean food but went several months ago with friends just to try it out. We were also the only non-Koreans in the entire restaurant. The food, overall, was pretty bland. Glad to hear it wasn't just me!

                              3. Woo Lae Oak is a leftover from a time when there wasn't a plenitude of Korean restaurants in Annandale for anyone to try. The original Woo Lae Oak (now closed) was attached to a hi-rise apartment building in an area where you'd never expect a restaurant of any sort, and when I moved to that hi-rise in the early 1980s it was a daring ethnic adventure. But its day has passed.

                                1. I would say that Woo Lae Oak is generally consistent and the quality is high (I've been going there since the Arlington days). The banchan is more hotel-style than home style, especially the kimchee.

                                  The reality is that Korean food in the DC area isn't very good. Most places in Annandale are very questionable in quality particularly when BBQ is concerned.

                                  I think popular places like Yecheon and Honey Pig are pretty horrid with low consistency in my opinion.

                                  There are exceptions, such as Ju Mak Jib, whose kimchee is excellent (maybe even the best in this area), as is the rest of the banchan and the intestines are excellent, but the atmosphere is very poor and the owner barely speaks (easily misunderstood to be poor service; though its not).

                                  Outside of BBQ, Tok Sok Jib is good particularly for their grilled and fried fish dishes for lunch (which are very affordable), and Bang Ga Nae if you like Jun Gol black goat (but maybe not so much for anything else on the menu).

                                  LIghthouse Tofu in Annandale had a period of poor consistency, but the quality has dramatically improved since its expansion. From my experience the Rockville location has been consistently bad (but it might have changed since I haven't been there in awhile). But LIghthouse is the best location for sundubu and is generally very good for the rest of the menu.

                                  So it comes down to what you want. Woo Lae Oak is consistent, and most of their menu is probably more hit than miss. Its more expensive than Annandale, and there might be specific dishes that are better in Annandale than Woo Lae Oak, but in a much less fancier atmosphere.

                                  3 Replies
                                  1. re: Temple

                                    Restaurants can be good or bad, foodie or family, no matter where the cuisine comes from. The Korean restaurants in Annandale are there to serve the community. Like most Americans (who aren't 100% chowhound all the time), most Koreans in the neighborhood just want a place to eat out for a change. Just because they're Korean doesn't mean that they only want to eat at Korean restaurants equivalent to Minibar or Volt or wherever else you can go to spend $500 for dinner for two. Maybe Woo Lae Oak is kind of like the Central of Korean restaurants - not the best there could possibly be, but a little nicer than the BBQ or soup dives that serve comfort food.

                                    1. re: Temple

                                      "The reality is that Korean food in the DC area isn't very good"

                                      You have to pick and choose. Generalizations are often misleading.

                                      The soon dubu at Vit Goel (aka Lighthouse) is my favorite Korean meal in the area. I can have a very good meal at almost any of the places in Annandale if I choose wisely.

                                      1. re: Steve

                                        >>"You have to pick and choose. Generalizations are often misleading."

                                        I think I've eaten at 95% of restaurants in Annandale and I make it a point to eat at any new one that opens at least once.

                                        But I stand by my statement, given the size of the Korean community here the level of consistency and quality are fairly poor.

                                        I think a lot of the problem is that a lot of the Korean restaurants in this area try to do everything under one roof. Overly large menu, everything from bibimbap to bbq, and a lot of places also throw in sushi or Japanese dishes just to be safe.

                                        The kimchi, which is the first and most import impression a restaurant makes, is too frequently terrible in this area. Often plagued by mere neglect (kimchi needs to be stirred daily), its not rare to go to a restaurant in Annandale and have kimchi with pockets of acidity indicating it wasn't properly stirred and cared for.

                                        But as you said, you have to pick and choose, and you have to put some effort in finding places that are good. There are exceptions,Vit Goel being one of them (though having its ups and downs in the past). The decent places in Annandale are the ones that focus on a smaller menu.

                                        As far as Woo Lae Oak, its consistent, and the menu is generally good. Due to its size and scale, its one of the few places that has actually managed to have a large menu and be consistent with most of their dishes. I've also noticed it seems to be the place where Koreans take guests from out of town.