Throw a stone in Centreville and you will likely hit a bowl of bibimbap. In the last decade or so, folks who live more than a quick jaunt from the longer-established Koreatown of Annandale have had a reliable pack of Korean restaurants through which to taste their way in Centreville. But “reliable” is the key word. Not much stands out from the pack in a sea of bulgogis and tteokbokkis.
In 2018, the Bai family, owners of highly esteemed To Sok Jip in Annandale took over Danji, which shares strip mall space with H Mart and Spa World on Braddock Road. Though they didn’t change the name, they brought with them a menu of street market fare that’s won raves for years and attracted long lines of diners. Luckily, Danji has more space than To Sok Jip’s tiny dining room and there usually isn’t a wait to be seated. But, if for some reason there is, it will only mean more time to soak up the aromas emanating from the kitchen.
Though all the American-friendly basics find space on the menu, often with discounted prices at lunch, the ordinary tosok bibimbap is not the reason you take time out of your day for a visit. Danji is no place to be selfish. Diners who don’t like to share their food should look elsewhere. The extra-large plates here are designed to be spread between as many friends as possible.
The best example of this is the bossam. Boiled pork belly can either be a thing of beauty or the stuff of gummy, chewy nightmares. Luckily, the bossam at Danji takes the former path.
Warm slabs of pork belly are cooked to so profound a tenderness that it can be difficult to distinguish meat from fat. That’s also thanks to the mercifully thin margin of pure adipose tissue at the top of each slice. The thick, savory slices are elegantly arranged in three lines the exact width of the chunks of Napa cabbage that accompany it. Diners grab a good-sized leaf of the cabbage, swipe ssamjang (spicy soybean paste) on the pork, and pile it with skinny strands of chile-flecked pickled daikon, jalapeno slices and slivers of raw garlic to taste.
That isn’t the only time that daikon plays a strong, featured role in a dish at Danji. The galchi jorim, a bubbling pot of braised cutlassfish (long, skinny fish that look like the weapon for which they’re named) is complemented by thick slices of the radish, which take on a unique texture somewhere between sweet potato and watermelon when they’re cooked. Jorim dishes, spicy stews, aren’t common on American menus, and Danji has four of them, all sized for two and finished on the table atop a portable burner.
Diners shy about picking through pin bones might not enjoy the fish dishes at Danji. But skipping them would be a shame. Whether it’s the tender braise of the jorim, with its white fish that slips from the bone in satisfyingly meaty chunks or the crispy-skinned grilled mackerel. The latter fish is unadorned, but doesn’t need much to impress.
Mackerel can be unpleasantly fishy. Not here. Instead, its robust flavor is that of fresh fish and the char of the grill. A squeeze of lemon shines a spotlight on the mackerel, which is served with rice and a choice of stew. Don’t make the mistake that I did and go with the oversalted soybean paste stew. I ended up just eating the dense little pillows of tofu bobbing within and avoiding the saline broth. The seaweed soup may not wow either, but is a better alternative.
Luckily, there are far tastier soups at Danji. I can never pass up a Korean rice cake. The tteokguk promised to be a showcase for the chewy dumplings, but the broth was what impressed. Its milky aspect augured good things. This wasn’t just beef broth. This was long-stewed bone broth that left my lips sticking together with collagen. Dancing through the broth were also feather-light bits of egg so thin I thought that they were cabbage until I tasted them. Best of all, strands of pulled beef that reminded me of Cuban ropa vieja wended their way around the rice cakes and eggs.
On days when kimchi and fish cakes are among your personal cravings, know there is a place beyond the ordinary to fulfill them. Whether eating Korean food means you’re looking for dishes your mom cooked or it’s where you turn when you want to try something new to you, Danji has the comfort food that will fulfill your desire. Just skip the soybean stew. // 13826-B Braddock Road, Centreville
See this: It’s all about the food at this bare-bones-but-comfortable restaurant, where servers whiz by with fragrant, sizzling dishes.
Eat this: Bo ssam, galchi jorim, tteokguk
★ Fair ★★ Good ★★★ Great ★★★★ Excellent ★★★★★ Superior
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