Though technically part of the municipality of Anchorage, the mountain-flanked community of Eagle River has an ethos all its own. This is certainly true from a culinary perspective. From steak to sushi and pizza to pho, Eagle River boasts enough diverse eateries to appease even the most avid foodie.
Having opened its doors in 2011, Johnny Woos Korean restaurant is a relative new kid on the block. Situated in a strip mall next to Piccolino's, the restaurant curiously features a Mediterranean-cum-Asia design scheme. The space is cozy and clean, if a little nondescript. If it's atmosphere you're after, I might suggest going elsewhere. The food, however, should entice Anchorage residents to visit their neighbor to the north.
Unlike many Asian restaurants that feature a range of dishes from across the continent, Johnny Woos cooks up South Korean food and ONLY South Korean food. The cuisine might be a bit intimidating to the uninitiated, but those who take the time with the menu will be handsomely rewarded.
Being the restaurant's only patrons, my husband and I were greeted by the lone hostess / waitress and told to sit where we liked. Steaming cups of bori cha (barley tea) arrived at our table almost immediately. Having arrived at 6 p.m., we were a bit early for a weekend dinner. Service was prompt and friendly, but as the other tables filled up, service suffered slightly.
Appetizers range from $4 for a small order of dumplings to $10 for haemul pajeon (seafood pancake with scallions). Since we wanted to think outside the bulgogi-and-rice box for entrees, my husband and I selected some simple pork skewers ($8.99) to start our meal.
The four skewers arrived in short order, and the thinly-sliced meat was juicy and flavorful, with just the right amount of char. A teriyaki-esque sauce was vinegary and sweet without being too acidic or cloying. The execution was nearly perfect, but for the price, the portion was a bit lacking.
Johnny Woos offers vegetarian, fish, poultry and meat entrees ranging in price from $14.99 for soy bean paste soup (doenjang jjigae) to $18.99 for marinated beef short ribs (bulgalbi). I vacillated between the cod soup (daegoo jjigae, $16.99) and the egg-topped vegetables and beef over rice (dolsot bibimbap, $16.99), eventually deciding on the latter. My husband knewwhat he wanted and selected the spicy beef soup with young ferns and sweet onion (yukgaejang, $15.99).
One of the more delightful aspects of Korean cuisine is banchan, small dishes of food that accompany any entree. Johnny Woos doesn't skimp. Shortly after placing our order, an array of eight tiny plates arrived at our table, including spicy fermented cabbage (kimchi), pickled green beans and marinated tofu. All were delicious and complemented our meals perfectly.
I was exceedingly pleased with my bibimbap. Forget mac and cheese or chicken noodle soup -- when it comes to comfort food, this hearty dish is where it's at. (Bonus: It doesn't boast a week's worth of saturated fat and calories.) A hot stone bowl held strips of tender marinated beef, bean sprouts, shredded carrots and other vegetables. A fried egg added a dose of color and savory richness. I eagerly dug in, relishing each bite, but the real gem lay at the bottom of the bowl: Thanks to the hot stone bowl, the rice developed a delicious crust. White rice, usually little more than a plate filler or base for sauces, had been elevated to the star of the meal.
My husband's soup earned high marks as well, with bits of beef, glass noodles and veggies suspended in a spicy broth. When the waitress asked him how spicy he wanted it, he said "very." It came with a good amount of heat, but the spiciness didn't overpower the other ingredients. It's a dish we would both gladly order again.
The atmosphere at Johnny Woos leaves something to be desired, but if it's delicious, authentic food you're after, you would be hard pressed to do better than this. For Anchorage residents, the 20-minute drive is well worth it, and Eagle River residents are lucky to have some of the best Asian food in Alaska right in their own neighborhood.
By Carly Horton Stuart
Daily News Correspondent