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?