Known by many as Siroo — and only Siroo — this Annandale shop takes its name from the earthenware pot used to steam rice flour into a loose dough, which in turn is machined and manipulated into a wide variety of Korean rice cakes called tteok. It should come as no surprise, then, that Siroo is known for its dizzying array of tteok, including baram tteok, these hollow half-moons of dough filled with sweetened red bean paste, a thick and waxy treat that suggests chewiness is a pleasure all its own.
But Siroo is not just a Korean bakery. It also has an alter ego borrowed from the home country: Owners Sung Lee and Serena Kim are franchisees of Juk Story, a multinational chain that specializes in the Korean porridge known as juk. Lee and Kim are, at present, the only franchisees in the United States.
Often thought of as baby food or a digestible gruel for the infirm, juk has become, like Chinese congee, a meal in itself, available any time of day. The options at Juk Story in Annandale — the couple also has locations in Centreville, Va., and Ellicott City, Md. — run the gamut from plain rice to spicy bulgogi octopus, each served in bowls large enough to double as conical rice hats. As such, you really need to be committed to your choice of juk; otherwise, it can be a long slog to the bottom of the bowl.
All the juk recipes here come straight from the mother ship back in Korea, which suggests at least two things: First, the bowls have passed countless taste tests, proving their worth not only across Korea but also across borders into other Asian countries. Second, the kitchen at Juk Story in Annandale has no pride of ownership over the dishes. The cooks, therefore, have little motivation, other than personal pride, to simmer the juk down to the necessary consistency, a process that can consume a lot of time during a busy shift. Nor do they have the juk developers watching over their every move to make sure the recipes are followed exactly as written.
The latter scenario might explain a bowl that I shared with restaurateur Danny Lee (Mandu and ChiKo) and his wife, Natalie Park, during a recent visit to Juk Story, one of their favorite haunts in Annandale. It was a juk prepared with pine nuts, one of the few bowls that doesn’t include a drop of stock. Instead, this juk relies on a blended mixture of water, rice and those pricey little pine nuts. The porridge boasted a beautiful ephemeral nuttiness, almost buttery on the palate, but it also betrayed its watery base: The bowl was more liquid than solid.
Together, the three of us ordered five bowls that day, and each one leaned more soup than porridge. “Everything seems a little bit too watery,” Lee told me. Korean juk, he added, tends to be thicker than congee, its Chinese cousin. Consistency may have been an issue, but flavor was not. The abalone juk, its grains tinted ivory, was a faint echo of the sea, as mesmerizing as the ocean breezes captured inside a found shell.
Fortunately, this visit proved the aberration, not the blueprint for the porridge at Juk Story. Other bowls conformed to a general rule followed by juk junkies: A pair of chopsticks, when poked into the porridge, should stand up straight. My spicy bulgogi octopus juk was a fulsome bowl, thick and combustible, its flavors complex enough to hold my attention all the way until the end. The chicken cheese juk, by contrast, was a hearty mixture of shredded breast meat, broccoli and cheese, but it had all the refinement of a jalapeño popper. I couldn’t finish it.
Siroo and Juk Story is a complex organism, not easy to explain in the context of a short review. It’s a counter-service shop where you can order anything off the electronic menus overhead, regardless of the concept, or purchase rice cakes, kimchi or any other item available on the shelves and tables that divide the space into an indoor maze.
But the operation also has a split personality. Its juk bowls are conceived far, far away. Yet its rice-cake snacks are made in-house, under the direction of Serena Kim, who developed the recipes. Its cupcakes and macarons — playful specimens that frequently push the boundary of sweetness — are the creations of pastry chef Hyun Ok Han. Its bingsoo, the popular Korean shaved-ice dessert, rely on a machine that grates the blocks of milk, water and sugar into the kind of fine powder that Colorado ski resorts would kill for.
In short, it’s not easy to decide which way to turn at Siroo and Juk Story. You get the feeling you could spend a lifetime exploring the flavors inside these walls.
But I can tell you this much: Whenever I visited the strip-center shop, I always spotted couples, or a pack of teenage girls, huddled over one of Siroo’s gorgeous handmade tables (they’re like glass-covered shadow boxes filled with dried flowers or ornamental hand fans), sharing a mountainous portion of shaved ice. Some treated the dessert as a shared intimacy. Others treated it as a colorful monument to indulgence, the perfect object to generate desire and jealousy on Instagram. Personally, I couldn’t get over the powdery texture of the green-tea bingsoo, a treat that melts to something more watery than creamy.
Some of my favorite dishes had nothing to do with rice cakes or juk. The khaki-green seaweed kalguksu, or noodle soup, punched above its weight, its broth as briny and sweet as Prince Edward Island mussels. I was also delighted with the banchan serving of kimchi that accompanied every order of juk: It pulled no punches, putting the fire and funk right in your face.
But the dish that I hanker for, above all, is Siroo’s tteokbokki, a generous plate of rice-cake tubes slathered in a housemade sauce that uses gochujang, the incendiary Korean chili paste, as its base. These tiny cylinders are chewy. They’re spicy. They’re even a little sweet. They’re further evidence of Siroo’s genius with rice cakes.
4231 Markham St., Annandale, Va. 703-354-5488. siroousa.com.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: $6.99 to $19.99 for juk, specials and shaved-ice desserts.