Sometimes, eating at a restaurant is all about the adventure. You can try a dish you've never had before, and maybe even come home with a story to share with friends. At Mat Jip in Charles Village, you might just find both.
Mat Jip, which means "Taste House" in Korean, has taken over the space once filled by Famous Yakitori One. A small restaurant to begin with, it has none of the previous tenant's hipster panache.
The place is seriously stripped down: A few sheets of paper with house specialties are taped to the stark white walls, and blinds hang from the ceiling, in between tables, to help sequester diners. It's open late (or early, depending on your point of view) — until 4 a.m. most days.
A few minutes after being seated, we recognized what is ultimately the biggest problem with Mat Jip: the language barrier. No one there, our server included, spoke English well, which made ordering a bit tricky, to say the least.
Through finger pointing and the little broken English our earnest waitress did know, we were able to pick our food from their packed menu and settled in with some drinks.
Plates of free appetizers came out with the drinks we ordered (complimentary sides are, apparently, the norm at Mat Jip). Little bowls with an assortment of pickled and sauteed veggies, fish cake noodles, and a salad made for a great welcome to the restaurant.
Then a trio of complimentary chicken dumplings came out, hot and crispy. The herby dumplings and the freshness of the other sides were enhanced by two different Korean beers. Hite ($3.50) was bright with a lemony aftertaste that played well with the vegetables, while Cass ($3.50) had a deeper flavor with an orange note that went better with the dumplings. Both helped temper the spice of some of our other dishes.
A warning: After the dumplings were out and we had scarfed them down, I asked our server what they were called. She pointed out to me the Gool Man Doo ($5) and three minutes later brought us out an order of delicious dumplings. Realizing our error, we just shrugged it off and happily ate our mistake. This was the only snafu caused by our lack of communication.
One appetizer we did order was the Jing A Ti Kim, or deep fried calamari ($5). These dark tan wonders were craggy and crunchy outside and firm but not rubbery inside. The squid were served with a dipping sauce that was delicious if used judiciously. When too much was on the calamari, it became a bit too salty.
For our entrees, we decided to order food that ran the gamut from safe to exotic. None of it disappointed.
The Gop Dol Bi Bim Bob ($10.99) is a classic Korean dish that consists of rice, various vegetables and beef served in a hot stone bowl and topped with a fried egg. A sweet and spicy sauce was poured into the bowl by our server (you choose how spicy to make it), and everything was mixed together with chopsticks. This was one of the better versions we'd had. The crusty caramelized rice shell that forms against the inside of the hot bowl was a sign the Bi Bim Bob was properly prepared.
The Jam Pong ($11.99), which looked like a scorching, deep red hellbroth, was actually mildly peppery and filled with shrimp, calamari, mussels, vegetables and noodles. This comforting soup would be perfect on a cold day when you were under the weather. The portion was huge and came in a gigantic silver-colored plastic bowl.
The most interesting and adventurous dish of the night was the Gul Bo Sam, a make-your-own wrap with some unfamiliar combinations. The ingredients, which were layered in this order (our server said): napa cabbage, pork belly dipped in salted shrimp sauce, pickled diakon, raw oysters, bean paste, green pepper, and raw garlic slices.
That's a lot to deal with, but somehow it wasn't as overpowering as it sounds. It had a clean oyster flavor, backed up by the tender pork and bright daikon. It was unlike anything I've ever had. If you are not an oyster person, this dish is not for you. If you are, it's a great fall dish that's not too heavy. The trip was worth it just for that.
Mat Jip does not serve desserts, but to top off our meal, we were given free little bottles of Assi Yogurt drink. Usually for kids, this precious little goodbye was a fun palate cleanser. Imagine a Dreamsicle with a Smarties aftertaste and you get the idea.
Mat Jip will win no awards for interior design, but their food more than makes up for the drab decor. It also might be a little difficult to communicate with the staff to start with, but good food is universal — even if you have to get out of your comfort zone to try it.
Back-story: Housed in the former Famous Yakatori One, Mat Jip serves delicious Korean food in a spartan restaurant.
Parking: Street parking is available.
Signature dish: For daring eaters, the Gul Bo Sam, a wrap with raw oysters, garlic, pork belly, bean paste and green pepper (among other ingredients) is a great fall dish that's not too heavy.
Where: 2101 Maryland Ave., Baltimore
Open: 10 a.m.-4 a.m. Tuesday-Sundays, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Mondays
Credit Cards: Visa, MasterCard