South Alexandria has its Hispanic food. Falls Church has its Vietnamese. And for Korean food, the National Capital Area heads to its unofficial “Koreatown,” Annandale. In fact, the DC region has the nation’s third largest concentration of Korean Americans and Annandale is its epicenter.
Depending on how much you know about Korean food, your mind may wander to kimchi, the fermented, spicy, pickled cabbage condiment Koreans eat with every meal. Or maybe you’ve enjoyed bulgogi before, Korean barbequed beef. Or perhaps you’ve heard of bibimbap, a pretty rice and vegetable dish often topped with a fried egg or bulgogi.
Fact is, Korean food emulates a lot of what the American palate considers comfort food or even soul food. From mandu (similar to Chinese dumplings) to jap chae (stir-fried noodles and vegetables), Korean food is influenced by other Asian flavors and offers a safe and somewhat familiar start to having a more adventurous palate. Best of all, if you can’t do spicy foods, most Korean staples are short on heat.
So let’s head out to Annandale for a tour through some delicious flavors.
You simply MUST try the chicken.
Chances are you’ve heard of KFC. Your mouth is probably watering at the mere mention. But the OTHER KFC—Korean fried chicken—is what people crave in Annandale. Korean fried chicken is fried twice for extra crunchiness. Then it is brushed with a sauce (get the soy garlic) that caramelizes on its flaky, fried skin, creating a mouth-watering moment between you and the chicken that will transform your thinking about the humble bird and, frankly, life in general.
Which leads me to admit that I still savor that first time, even a decade later. And when something makes an impression like that, it becomes your baseline for all other fried wings in the future. So I will readily suggest you try Bonchon and ChiMc first. That said, you’ll find “KFC” in nearly every Korean restaurant in town; many have their own twist, though most only offer wings, legs and tenders. Choongman Chicken has a variety of flavors, including their unique Snow Onion Chicken. And Noori Chicken has both “KFC” and traditional American flavored wings.
Everything else on the menu is good, too.
Before you travel all the way to Annandale, I’ll give you a head’s up. Don’t be fooled by many of these restaurants’ unassuming and inconspicuous facades – remember, you didn’t come here for the trendy rooftop gardens or sleek glass architecture. You came for the food, the flavors, and the vibrant energy that Korean culture brings. Let’s just say that if you’ve never heard K-pop music before, buckle in, because you’re about to.
That said, OMG, the food. Most of these restaurants serve all the basics—from Korean (soy sauce based) BBQ to bibimbap and all the noodle dishes and stews in between. When it comes to BBQ, aka bulgogi, some are local favorites, like Honey Pig. Some, like Kogiya Korean BBQ (a Washingtonian Best Restaurant) have all-you-can-eat meat fests at tables featuring open flame grills. Some are open 24 hours, like Tosokchon. And Yechon is open 24 hours and does it all with a Japanese fusion flair. You can’t miss with any of these.
For an all-in-one Asian-inspired experience, definitely make a stop at The Block Foodhall & Bar on John Marr Drive. This beloved spot features five different concepts in one space, from the handmade dumplings and noodles at Bold Dumpling to the shaved snow at Snocream and the Asian comfort food at Balo Kitchen.
Don’t forget the baked goods.
Korean food is not all meat, noodles and kimchi. Sometimes it’s mango poundcake. Red bean cream bread. Sweet potato cake. Or a tasty roll cake washed down with a boba tea. Flavors like that are what make Shilla Bakery one of Annandale’s most beloved spots. (So beloved that they have three other locations in the DMV!) And the authentic Korean bakery goodness doesn’t stop there. For more irresistible and unusual sweets, try Manoa Bakery Café and Breeze Bakery Cafe. While you’re making your bakery rounds, be sure to cool off with some bing soo, a traditional Korean shaved ice treat with sweetened condensed milk and fruit. For a dose of caffeine, stop into locally owned coffee roasters Beanetics for some freshly ground beans.
What to do between meals.
Of course, one thing you can do between meals in Annandale is to shop for more Korean foodstuffs. You’ll find lots of authentic Korean (and other Asian) ingredients at H Mart and Lotte Plaza. In fact, you’ll also find some of the best produce aisles you’ve ever seen, too. So be sure to find time for one of these mega grocery stores. Or if you time it right, pick up locally sourced goods from the Annandale Farmers Market.
There are a couple of nice parks to visit, too. Green Spring Gardens is a gem of a park with demonstration gardens throughout and an on-site horticultural center. Set within Annandale Community Park, you’ll find Hidden Oaks Nature Center with woodland trails, gardens and educational exhibits. There is also an art shop in the park, The Craft Gallery of Artisan’s United. During the summer months, Mason District Park has a full schedule of family-friendly concerts and performances through the Fairfax County Park Authority. And for skateboarders, Wakefield Skate Park offers a prime destination to try out some new tricks.
To end your visit on a high note, head to Bowlero. This retro-inspired nightspot and bowling lanes features craft cocktails, black light bowling, and interactive arcade games.
If you’re looking for sleek sophistication, visit Reston or the Mosaic district. If you want plenty of attractions, Southern Fairfax County fits the bill. And if you want a scenic roadway tour, go to Great Falls. But here in Annandale, food is the main attraction. Plan a visit soon for some of the best, most authentic Korean food you’ll find in the Mid-Atlantic, dare we say United States, along with a family-run vibe and great service. And don’t forget to try that crunchy, delicious chicken!