There have been many interesting theories about the mysterious, windowless Bamboo House north on Route 29. 1) It’s a cocktail bar acting as a front for the dreaded central Virginian mafia. 2) It’s a strip club/Asian massage parlor. 3) It’s some sort of mason, rotary, Kiwanis-type clubhouse. 4) It is a tasty Korean restaurant. If you suspected the answer was option 4, you’re right! Well, at least you’re right about the fact that it serves Korean food. Sadly it is not tasty, but it’s worth a visit for the delightfully peculiar experience.
If David Lynch was scouting locations for his next movie in Charlottesville, the Bamboo House would inspire quite a flick. As anyone driving up to DC knows, there are rarely cars outside the beige, boxy exterior. On our most recent visit, however, there were close to 20 cars in the parking lot – yet it was empty inside. We stepped inside to have our noses bombarded by an unsettling citrus perfume aroma and our ears by muzak at its worst. Let’s just say we heard a very loud “Hopelessly Devoted to You” twice within the first half-hour (yes, an instrumental version of the Olivia Newton John sleepover song after Rizzo is mean to her). The bar holds a cheery large red tapestry of ducks with light fixtures reminiscent of a jail, and the floor-to-ceiling entertainment system could host a truly kick-ass karaoke party. The giant room was filled with mostly empty tables and you could spot a bedroom off the back wall. And then there’s the taxidermy. Apparently the husband owner-chef is a recreational taxidermist so the restaurant is sprinkled with stuffed foxes, ducks, deer and even an angry looking little squirrel. Many are lovingly arranged in outdoor nature scenes with fake plants that make for a truly charming and bizarre setting. We had heard good things about the Korean food, but should have suspected it would be hard to live up to the decor.
The Bamboo House actually serves Korean and Chinese food, but we had been advised to stick with the Korean dishes. When we asked the wife owner-server what their best dishes were, she recommended the classic Korean dishes Beef Bulgogi and Bibimbap. We also ordered the Kimchi Jun appetizer, a spicy pancake with kimchi and promised yet nonexistent lean pork. The pickled vegetable topping had an interesting flavor, but the pancake itself had a strange, bloated texture. And while it was supposed to be a starter for one, the two of us could have easily split the one appetizer and gone home full.
The main dishes were next and things did not improve. I prefer my Bibimbap – a mixture of rice, vegetables, chili paste, egg and sliced beef – as the variety served in a hot pan so the mixture continues to cook through and you’re left with deliciously crispy bites to scrape off the bottom. The Bamboo House dish came in a plastic bowl and the entire dish tasted bland and underdone. The Bulgogi – barbecued beef – smelled good but was an unsettling gray color. While I can sometimes ignore grayish meat, it’s harder to do so when you’re surrounded with dead stuffed animals. Some bites were okay but I wished there were some scallions, mushrooms or more garlic to distract from the slightly older tasting meat.
The server was very sweet and small touches continued to delight, such as the watermelon and two slices of wrapped Wrigley chewing gum that came out with our bill. We agreed the watermelon and Tsing-Taos were the best part of our meal. It’s worth a trip to enjoy this one-of-a kind location and support the lovely family that runs the place. But for any return visits, I’m sorry to say we’ll go for a beer and then hit the Korean House for dinner.
Rating: Erin: Jed:
Pros: Fabulously eccentric interior complete with taxidermy touches, family-owned with welcoming service.
Cons: Korean dishes were mediocre.
Price: Korean dishes $8-15, Chinese dishes $6-9.
Parking: Parking lot.