Who would have guessed, 10 years ago, that the community of Annandale in northeastern Fairfax County, would become a Korean dining destination?
Consider what a decade can do. In 1988 there was one small Korean restaurant named Kaboja on Columbia Pike. Along came Jin Sung Garden in 1992. Four years later there were nine. Today there are 22 Korean restaurants on or just off a three-mile stretch of Little River Turnpike. The overwhelming majority of the customers are of Asian descent.
A sushi platter by chef Sung Kim at Sorak Garden.
(Lois Raimondo - The Washington Post)
Why so many Korean restaurants in one place?
"We've made a Korean village, like a Chinatown," says Louis Kay, owner of Jin Sung Garden, a busy barbecue restaurant and sushi bar in a former Pizza Hut.
In fact, Koreans now refer to the area not as Annandale but as Koreatown. Whatever you call it, this community has a vibrant, ethno-Asian personality and the village continues to grow.
"I'm opening here because Koreatown is the best place to be," says Eun Joo Choo. She hopes to have her casual cafe featuring Japanese-style bento box meals and Korean noodle dishes up and running by Oct. 1. It's called Jun.
As of July, there were 98,000 people of Korean descent living in the Washington area, according to the Korean American Association of Washington. More than half live in Northern Virginia. On weekends chartered buses bring Korean shoppers from Baltimore and Richmond to Annandale.
"This group saw a good geographic location," says Ron Kuley, president of the Annandale Chamber of Commerce, whose family owned Andy's Homemade Pizza on Little River Turnpike in Annandale from 1968 to 1997. "For Koreans, this is their Tysons Corner."
Take a drive and see the sights and signs, some translated, some not, of Annandale's more than 330 Korean businesses. They identify mortgage companies, doctors' offices, herbal shops and florists. There are bookstores, video stores, bridal shops and lots of hair salons.
For those who long to belt out Korean ballads there are at least six karaoke cafes. Four bakeries produce traditional bean paste-filled buns. Restaurants feature foods from both the north and south of Korea.
Many of the restaurants serve a signature dish that sets their menu apart from the rest. At Sun-Dal Chung, it's beef-blood broth. Pojangmacha serves live sea urchin. Searching for a North Korean-style dumpling casserole? Go to Man Po Myun Oak.
"Competition is driving people to be more creative. It's not enough to just have hardy food and good service anymore. You have to have something new," says Loren Park, owner of two-year-old Sorak Garden, the largest and most comfortably appointed Korean restaurant in Annandale. Park's talented sushi chef, Sung Kim, turns rice and raw fish into fantasy.
Anyone familiar with Korean food knows the basics. That would be bulgogi, thinly sliced strips of beef, marinated in rice wine, garlic and sesame oil and grilled at the table and the side dish kimchi--spicy pickled cabbage that Koreans eat at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
A meal can be made of the assorted side dishes called panchan, which accompany an entree--little bowls of seasoned sprouts or fermented soybeans or dried shrimp--and add texture, color and flavor. "It's those side dishes that distinguish us from other Asian cultures," says Park, who moved from South Korea to Northern Virginia 16 years ago.