It’s only been a few weeks since my last escapade to northern Virginia, but it feels like it’s been forever since I’ve had a steaming spoonful of my mom’s delicious Korean cooking. For those who may not be familiar with the wonders of Korean cuisine, or if you’re craving something savory to awaken your taste buds after eating microwavable macaroni and cheese for a week straight, you’re in luck. Charlottesville happens to have just what you need — three popular Korean restaurants that are sure to suit your particular cravings.
The Big Three
MARU (마루), Doma (도마) and Kuma (쿠마) are well-known, not only for being the main Korean restaurants in Charlottesville but because people constantly confuse their similar, two-syllable names. Since I have obsessively visited all three, I want to emphasize the differences between each of them in terms of taste, ambiance and location to highlight some key distinguishing features — and why it’s worth it to visit all three.
Located on the Downtown Mall, MARU Korean Restaurant and Bar is the furthest of the three Korean restaurants from Grounds. Despite its distance, the easily accessible Charlottesville Area Transit route seven bus or trolley can take you to the Downtown Mall where MARU is located. MARU is wheelchair accessible and meal prices can range from $11 to $30 per person, including tip and a drink.
The inside is one of the most rustic and cozy of any Korean restaurant I have set foot in. Your first impression of MARU is the reddish-white timber accents in the wood-paneled walls and floors — sure signs that this is a restaurant that has put effort and time to make the customers feel at ease while enjoying the warm Korean meals they’ve ordered.
MARU's Korean cuisine leans toward the sweeter side with a kick of a non-traditional spice. I frequently order the dolsot bibimbap (돌솥 비빔밥) — a traditional Korean rice bowl, mixed with vegetables such as soybean sprouts and carrots, a choice of a sweet marinated beef or chicken and an optional spicy red pepper paste — and the soondubu jjigae (순두부찌개) — a peppery, tofu soup served with a choice of a seafood, beef or chicken. Both give a mix of sweet and refreshing with a spicy kick in a taste palette that is unique to MARU — and hard to forget.
Found on Main Street, Doma is located a little past the Corner and Kung Fu Tea, where you could get your boba tea fix after finishing your meal. Doma is about a 10-minute walk from the hustle of the ever-crowded Corner, but the CAT route seven bus or the trolley can drop you off right at its doorstep. Doma is wheelchair-accessible, and prices range from $11 to $30 per person, including tip and a drink.
Doma’s interior is a bold concept that pops with color, with its trendy factory-turned-restaurant layout — perfect for those foodie-worthy Instagram pictures. The food is an added bonus for this beautifully decorated restaurant. Bright red walls cover the inside, setting it apart from the other Korean restaurants in Charlottesville. With contrasting wood and industrial black steel, Doma is worth checking out even if you may not be craving that hot Korean meal and just want to eat a matcha dessert with a friend.
Sharing similarities with MARU, Doma builds its flavor palette with a much sweeter base, but unlike MARU, sticks to the more traditional, red-hot spice as opposed to MARU’s refreshing one. The Doma bokum udon (도마 볶음우동) — a thick noodle stir fry with a sweet sauce — and the tteokkochi (떡꼬치) — rice cakes covered in a spicy red pepper sauce (고추장) — are my personal go-to orders and a must the next time you go.
Last but certainly not least is Kuma — nestled in a nook on the Corner, past Take It Away and across from the Biltmore. The most accessible to students and those living near Grounds, walking or taking any UTS bus that stops at the chapel or outside of Lemongrass on 14th Street can put you just five minutes away from this hidden gem. With a ramp that allows wheelchair accessibility and a price that ranges from $11 to $30, including drink and tip, Kuma is open to all foodies.
Kuma’s decor differs from the wooden and Instagrammable interiors of MARU and Doma, but it still gives you the experience of what an authentic matjip (맛집), or delicious place, in Korea would look like. This Japanese-Korean fusion restaurant embodies a popular notion among Koreans — the older the restaurant looks, the better it tastes!
Its food highlights a Korean homemade-style and bases its flavor around a more salted, traditional red-hot spice that has grown on me, pulling me back in for its menu at least once a month. My personal favorite choices have been its spicy seafood udon (짬뽕우동) — a dish with thick noodles submerged in a broth of spicy pepper paste and mollusks — and its crunchy tonkatsu (돈까스) — pork covered in breadcrumbs and fried. Both dishes have what has made Kuma my personal favorite Korean restaurant in Charlottesville — a flavor that resembles my mom’s homemade Korean food.
Sometimes it’s hard to choose where to have your first experience with Korean food or where to find a restaurant that suits the particular taste preferences from your childhood. With these three Korean restaurants providing their own unique combinations of taste, spice and decor, I hope you’ll be able to find the perfect salty — or sweet — bibimbap for you.