Adventures in Korean Dining
For a truly authentic experience, head to Annandale.
If you’ve got a hankering for Korean food and you’re looking to expand your culinary horizons, Annandale is the place. Sandwiched between West Falls Church, Fairfax and Springfield, this little pocket’s rise to fame as greater D.C.’s “Koreatown” began in the late ’50 and ’60s, when the first wave of Koreans began immigrating to the area, many of them students, embassy staff or the wives of U.S. soldiers.
By the late ’80s, Annandale had become a veritable hub of Korean-owned businesses, which continue to line this gritty 1.5-mile stretch of strip malls and surface parking along Little River Turnpike. Today, more than 41,000 Koreans call Fairfax County home, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, with Annandale and Centreville being primary cultural nodes of activity.
“When I moved here, Honey Pig [Korean BBQ] was the only place young people went for barbecue,” says Kyoo Eom, the executive chef at Dirty Habit in Penn Quarter in the District. Born in Korea, Eom moved to the D.C. area in 2008 and previously worked as chef de cuisine at 2941 in Falls Church. Now, he says, the offerings have proliferated and the secret’s out. “I see more American people” flocking to Annandale in search of new food frontiers, he says.
Eom acknowledges that some of Annandale’s restaurants can still feel intimidating to non-Koreans—particularly the ones whose menus are only in the Korean alphabet of Hangul, with no English translations—but he says those who shy away for fear of a language barrier are missing out. He always offers to order for the American friends who join him.
Food photographer Rey Lopez, who lives with his Korean wife, Sonya Choung, in Falls Church, sees Annandale’s growing popularity as a natural evolution as American diners expand their palates and seek out new foods to try. “I’m Dominican but I’m from New York, so I grew up eating from so many different cultures,” says Lopez. He routinely hops over to Annandale with his family a couple times a week, he says, “when we don’t want to cook.”
But where is a newbie to begin?
Arguably one of the restaurants that put Annandale on the dining map, Honey Pig Korean BBQ opened a decade ago and has since expanded with additional locations in Centreville and Maryland. The menu is easy to follow (it has pictures) and the vibe feels a bit like an underground garage, where industrial furnishings and K-pop music videos blend with the tantalizing aroma of marinated meats.
Choose from various cuts of thinly-sliced pork (including pork belly) and beef (brisket and boneless ribs are crowd-pleasures, though the choices also include tripe, tongue and intestine) plus other options such as octopus, shrimp and duck. Proteins, which can be ordered in combos, are cooked in the center of your table on cast iron grills and served with banchan, an assortment of little side dishes ranging from kimchi to tofu to green salad. You’ll also find favorites like udon and buckwheat noodle soups, and sizzling pots of bibimbap on the menu. The place is packed most every night, so expect a wait.
For those whose tastes lean more pescatarian, To Sok Jip , which emphasizes fish dishes, is worth a visit. The service can seem hurried, but the food quickly makes up for it. “These are things non-Koreans order,” my dining companion—a friend who has spent time in South Korea—says as she points to the only terms I recognize on the menu: bibimbap, bulgogi, kimchi and seafood pancake (which, however predictable, is a solid and carb-comforting pick).
As in most Korean restaurants, every meal here starts with banchan. Here, the small bowls are filled with bean sprouts, pickled radishes, spicy peppers and multiple variations of kimchi. Though it looks like cubes of white Jell-O, don’t avoid the mung bean paste. Its rich umami flavor will quickly erase any initial aversion you may have to the texture or appearance. For mains, try the broiled mackerel or any of the grilled fish. All are served with rice and a choice of soup (go for the soybean paste).
Feeling especially carnivorous? Black goat is the signature at Bang Ga Nae Korean Restaurant, where this specialty meat is served as a jeongol (stew) or a traditional soo yook (sweet and sour) dish to “promote health.” Meanwhile, blood sausage soup is the signature go-to at Seoul Soondae (which takes its name from a use-everything soup) and To Soc Chon. The Korean version of blood sausage is far more flavorful than the British kind. Lopez also recommends the clam noodle soup at To Sok Chon.
If you’re looking for a dining room that’s less bare-bones with a more elevated sense of style, Kogiya Korean BBQ offers an opportunity to watch your meat cook in a more modern, industrial setting. (A small beef or pork combo feeds three people; a large is best for four or five.) The family-owned business recently opened a second, even larger location in Centreville.
The well-reviewed Lighthouse Tofu, which specializes in galbi (marinated short ribs) and tofu soups, regularly runs deals on Groupon to lure new diners. Lopez is partial to its spicy kimchi stew; Eom suggests the “combination tofu soup” or the “noodles stir-fried calamari.”
For a menu that’s as accessible as it is authentic, head over to Yechon Korean Restaurant, where the choices include everything from bulgogi, dumplings and lettuce wraps to non-Korean fare like sushi. If you’re specifically on a mission for barbecue, just be sure to tell the hostess who seats you, as not every table in the restaurant is equipped with the necessary tabletop grills.
Servers wear traditional attire at Yechon and are happy to help you navigate the lengthy menu. Bonus: the place is open 24 hours a day. One cautionary note, though: It’s easy to order too much. The half-dozen small bowls of banchan can be a filling starter, and one seafood pancake is the diameter of a medium-sized pizza. So bring a crowd, or look forward to taking home leftovers.
Next door to Yechon, Breeze Bakery is a coffee-shop-style hangout offering an almost overwhelming array of sweets—many of them traditional Korean baked goods—with descriptions for the uninitiated. Try the “steamed white soft cake,” which contains flour, sugar, egg and, unexpectedly, is topped with small green beans. (Don’t knock it ’til you try it.)
The same is true at Shilla Bakery where the patbingsu, a popular Korean shaved-ice dessert, is a must. Toppings for the dish, which literally translates as “red beans shaved ice” range from chopped fruit and condensed milk to red beans.
With samples offered throughout the bakery, it will be hard to remember what, if anything, you don’t like about Korean cuisine by the time you check out.
One last hot spot in Annandale we would be remiss not to mention is The Block, an Asian food hall tucked inside a nondescript strip mall warehouse, where various food counters (including a fully-stocked bar with TVs) are assembled around a central open space with high-tops and metal picnic tables. The offerings here aren’t Korean, but they’re nevertheless popular with the locals. Choices include everything from Hawaiian poke (served in the form of rice bowls or burritos), Thai street food and Taiwanese shaved ice. This newcomer is definitely generating buzz and is only increasing Annandale’s appeal as a dining destination.
Still hungry? Eom and Lopez suggest these additional eateries and dishes:
Sorak Garden – Galbi (marinated and grilled beef short rib)
NakWon Restaurant – Sam Gyeop Sal (fresh pork belly)
Jang Won Korean Chinese Restaurant – Jajang Myun (noodles with vegetables and pork in black bean sauce) or Tang Su Yuk (deep-fried, breaded pork, steak, chicken or shrimp in sweet-and-sour sauce)
Soju Sarang Restaurant – Sashimi combo or other fresh seafood
Choong Hwa Won – Jajang Myun (noodles with vegetables and pork in black bean sauce), Jjam-bbong (seafood broth soup), fried chicken
Mandu Rang – potato dumpling soup, gang doenjang (soybean paste) bibimbap