Won of a Kind
Sitting down at a great lower Charles Village Korean spot
Open now for two years, Nak Won (12 W. 20th St.,  244-5501) is the newest of the Korean restaurants in the lower 20s along the Charles Street corridor. God, it's good. And, as does Nam Kang, it keeps itself open until 4 a.m. every day but Monday, which makes life feel marvelous.
Nak Won comprises two bright and clean rooms. Ten years from now, when the Korean posters have buckled and curled on the wall, it might be grim; today, it's just a featureless and neutral space, like heaven must be. And there's nothing to divert your attention away from your friends and the food, which comes hurtling to your table within minutes of your arrival-namely, those panchan, the little monkey dishes full of savory appetizers, here which focus on bright, green vegetables-and might never stop, because time has ceased to matter.
Early on, while senses still function, there's the inspiring spectacle of Nak Won's version of the pajon, or savory pancake ($12.95). Elsewhere greasy and sodden, Nak Won's is beautiful, light, and crispy, apparently held together without cornstarch, with long strips of green scallion, carrots, and tender squid. It's an instance of something being the perfect instance of itself, and it gives you the green light to order a little adventurously. Something like the bubbling beef and octopus casserole ($28.95, serves everyone, never runs out), for which a whole octopus is dismantled at tableside before being plunked into a savory, spicy noodle-filled broth. The menu lists four group-serving casseroles and 16 or so similarly constructed single-person hotpots, mild and spicy, filled with short ribs, tofu, cod, beef, dumplings, kimchi, and potatoes. The one that could nourish us all winter long, the mandu-guk ($8.95), throws together beef short ribs, dumplings stuffed with pork and kimchi, shirred eggs, and vegetables.
Nak Won's other tool for obliterating care of the outside world is the tabletop banquet, the cooking over a inserted burner of raw beef and seafood, marinated or not. The seng galbi ($19.95, serves two, really more), braised short ribs, is the thing to get. They get filleted at the table by an uncommonly sweet and efficient server, who then heats them and leaves them in a glistening pile on a plate for wrapping up with bean sauce and peppers in translucent kimchi pancakes. Order this, or marinated beef, sliced into fine slivers ($16), pork belly ($16), or pork in a hot chile pepper sauce ($16).
The menu rounds itself out with several variations of bimbibap, the stone-bowl assemblage of marinated meat or seafood and vegetables over steamed rice, sometimes topped with a fried egg; and a handful of cooling cold noodle dishes, the best of which places beef, pickled vegetables, and nashi pear over buckwheat noodles ($12.95)-it's an ideal accompaniment, as the menu promises, to the fiery barbecue dishes.
Beer and refined rice wine are nearly essential at the table. A great evening at Nak Won passes by in a fever of eating and drinking, and individual ingredients, or the particulars of a preparation, can get lost in a miasma of heat, spice, and pure sensation. On the whole, it's best to eat at Nak Won with a great eater rather than a great friend. Don't show up with the unadventurous. ★