Washington DC

Why This Unassuming DC Suburb Is a Destination for Korean Food and Culture

From old-school bakeries to trendy food halls, Annandale, Virginia is worth the visit.

PHOTOS BY BRIAN OH; DESIGN BY GRACE HAN FOR THRILLIST
PHOTOS BY BRIAN OH; DESIGN BY GRACE HAN FOR THRILLIST
PHOTOS BY BRIAN OH; DESIGN BY GRACE HAN FOR THRILLIST

For Richard Yu, the son of Shilla Bakery owners Song and Ji Yu, his family’s Annandale bakery¬†has long been the backbone of the Korean community in Northern Virginia. But when it first opened in 1999, the family merely intended to find a means to an end, rather than create a community anchor or cultural touchstone.

“Up until a few years ago, our first-generation immigrant parents were still focusing on the businesses and doing what they needed to survive,” Yu says. “I used to think this type of product was just for Korean people, but that’s not what it is anymore. Now we’ve bridged the language and culture gap and we’re just getting better and better.”

The story of Yu’s family’s success and how Annandale came to be Washington DC’s proverbial “Koreatown” is one familiar to immigrant communities across America. Today, Annandale’s Fairfax County is home to nearly 40,000 Koreans and is seen by many Washingtonians as a destination for karaoke, BBQ, and bingsu-but it’s really the manifestation over several decades of a community’s desire to recreate the comforts of home.

Photo by Brian Oh
Photo by Brian Oh
Photo by Brian Oh

Just a 20-minute drive southwest of DC, Annandale sits right inside the beltway and most of its main attractions can be found along Little River Turnpike. Surrounded on both sides with shopping centres, the main drag shows signs of age and development with vacant big box stores like K-Mart juxtaposed against glossy, high-concept food halls. As much as the suburb is undergoing change, Annandale’s undeniable connection to the Korean community has remained-including the county’s approximately 60 Korean-owned businesses and placards displaying names only in Korean.

The Immigration Act of 1965 removed restrictions on Asian immigration to the United States and the Korean population ballooned, particularly in the DC metro area-which still has the country’s third-largest Korean community after New York City and Los Angeles. The influx of Korean immigrants to Northern Virginia, specifically, can be traced to the ease of commute into DC for federal employees, the quality of its schools, and even the establishment of special trade relations with Korea through opening an office of its Economic Development Authority in Seoul.

Photo by Brian Oh
Photo by Brian Oh
Photo by Brian Oh

But for Korean immigrants in the 1990s, there were few sources of authentic cooking in Northern Virginia and the only way to serve that need was to offer it themselves. Gradually, Koreans in the area opened restaurants, bakeries, and other businesses, with a centre of gravity forming in Annandale. One of the original cornerstones of the community is Shilla Bakery, opening at a time when Annandale looked nothing like it does today. Yu describes Annandale in the late ’90s as “very, very different.”

“Almost all of the Korean-owned businesses weren’t around then and there were only maybe one or two general Korean restaurants,” he says. Yu said his parents never set out to build a business community, they simply wanted to have access to Korean breads and pastries they missed from home, like rice doughnuts, streusel-like soboro pastries, and bingsu (shaved ice with toppings and fruit).

When Shilla first opened in a small basement shop, the response was immediate. “I was in elementary school then and I hardly saw them,” Yu says of his parents. “The demand was so explosive they spent most of their time at the bakery.” Customers were mostly recent Korean immigrants that were overjoyed that an authentic bakery opened in the region. “It reminded them of Korea and you have to understand the environment back then-you couldn’t find this.”

This idea spurred many other Korean-owned businesses. Linda Chung, manager of long-standing Annandale restaurant Han Gang, described the snowballing effect of “Hanryu” (literally “Korean wave,” or the increase in global popularity of Korean culture driven by Korean dramas and pop music) as a contributing factor to the influx of Koreans in Annandale in the early 2000s. In fact, from 2001 to 2011, the Fairfax County Korean population increased by 13,000, or almost 50%.

Photo by Brian Oh
Photo by Brian Oh
Photo by Brian Oh

Drive down Little River Turnpike today and you’ll see multiple generations of restaurants, including Chung’s Han Gang. The restaurant centres around BBQ, but not in the style of modern, hip spots like Kogiya featuring stainless steel and TVs with K-Pop videos on repeat. “The older generation still prefers traditional Korean cooking to the newer restaurants catering to fusions and more diverse ethnic tastes,” Chung says through translation. “Even though more Korean restaurants and stores are opening in Annandale, we’ll continue to stick to what’s traditional.”

This sentiment is shared by many of the businesses of this early generation. Along with Han Gang, other shops that have opened without compromising to appease non-Korean locals. Take Choong Hwa Won and Jangwon, two Chinese-Korean restaurants across the street from one another serving mirrored limited menus including jjajangmyeon (fermented black bean noodles), tangsuyuk (fried sweet and sour pork), and jjamppong (spicy seafood soup), with dining rooms that look the same as the day they opened. One of Annandale’s most conventionally underrated restaurants, To Sok Jip, is little more than the backroom of a strip mall serving Korean comfort dishes that thrives almost entirely by word of mouth.

Photo by Brian Oh
Photo by Brian Oh
Photo by Brian Oh

But times do change. With more interest in Korean cuisine and consumers travelling from DC to Annandale, newer generations of business have been opening and attracting a broader demographic of customers. “Up until 10 years ago, we’d only see Asian people,” Yu says. “But four to five years ago, interest really ramped up.”

Whereas the first wave of restaurants was often family businesses, the new generation includes large chains like Iron Age and trendier concepts like food hall The Block, which has multiple outposts in the region. “These businesses have a much more systematic approach,” Yu remarks. “I think it’s a net positive-it helps the city serve the changing market better.”

While Annandale retains some of its time capsule qualities from the early 2000s, many businesses are looking ahead. Even the staple Shilla Bakery is exploring franchising for the first time in an upcoming Chantilly location and looking into potential expansion into DC, which could make it one of the first Korean bakeries in the District. Regardless of where the future takes the bakery, Yu believes the foundation his family built in Annandale will continue to thrive. “As long as Korean people keep craving Korean food,” he says, “we’ll do well.”

Brian Oh is a DC-based international development professional, freelance photographer, and writer that dedicates every spare minute not saving the world to stuffing his face. Follow him on Instagram.

Washington DC

15 Totally Free Things to Do in DC

A full itinerary, completely free of charge.

Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery
Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery
Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery

Washington DC is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, and for those of us who call the District home, it’s easy to see why. With dozens of world-class museums, murals that transform streets into galleries, and sites brimming with history, DC offers a full agenda-completely free of charge. Whether you want to try a new farmer’s market, explore a new hike, or polish off your roller skating or canoeing skills, here are some of our favourite free things to do in the District.

Flickr/gawnesco
Flickr/gawnesco
Flickr/gawnesco

Hike, bike, or stroll along the C&O Canal

The historic Chesapeake and Ohio Canal is one of the most accessible nature escapes from the District. Thanks to a multi-year restoration project, the first mile of the canal is an idyllic walk that’s easy to access in Georgetown. Stick to a short stroll there, or grab a bike or lace up your hiking shoes for a longer adventure along the 184.5-mile canal.

Jump on the pickleball craze

Pickleball is working its way up the ladder past kickball and softball as one of America’s favourite games. Jump on the craze and practice your paddling at one of the District’s pickleball courts in Takoma Park, the Palisades, and more. Plus, Washington DC Pickleball invites guests to drop in to beginner sessions to try their hand at the sport before signing up for a $30 annual membership.

Flickr/mcfeelion
Flickr/mcfeelion
Flickr/mcfeelion

Bike the Mount Vernon Trail

DC is incredibly bike-friendly, and luckily that applies to the land immediately outside of the city as well. Start in the city and bike along the Mount Vernon Trail, a scenic route that hugs the water and cuts through the woods. It’s about a 10-mile trip from DC to Mount Vernon, but you can cut the trip slightly short and end at the Old Town Alexandria waterfront-just make sure to factor in time for ice cream before pedalling home.

Explore a sculpture park

While not located in the District proper, Glenstone, an expansive sculpture park in Maryland, is worth the 45-minute drive. Tickets to the park are free (just be sure to reserve several weeks in advance), and the 300-acre space offers stunning art, architecture, and open land. In addition to its indoor gallery spaces, you can spend hours walking on paths that wind through sculptures, meadows, and forests.

Flickr/Geoff Livingston
Flickr/Geoff Livingston
Flickr/Geoff Livingston

See the monuments at night

When the sun goes down-and the summer humidity somewhat dissipates-head to the National Mall for the rare chance to see the monuments without busloads of tourists. Moonlight will give you a different perspective as you traverse the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial or gaze up at the Washington Monument set aglow with lights.

Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery
Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery
Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery

Museum hop the day away

One of DC’s greatest strengths is its world-class Smithsonian museums that are open to the public free of charge. There is no shortage of options, from the intimate Renwick Gallery, to the sprawling National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonians offer something for everyone. Pro tip: Some of the museums are open late in the evenings, making for an ideal date night.

muralsdc
muralsdc
muralsdc

Explore the city’s murals

Washington is home to hundreds of murals that are becoming as much a part of the city’s landscape as the monuments on the National Mall. Take a self-guided tour of these colourful creations no matter which neighbourhood you happen to be in. MuralsDC, the organization behind 150 of the District’s public artworks, is a great resource for mapping out a route to explore the city’s street art.

Hotel Washington
Hotel Washington
Hotel Washington

Take in a birds-eye view of the city

Washington looks pretty stunning from up high, and there are few spots within the city that make for phenomenal vantage points. Rooftop bars and restaurants offer epic views for the price of a drink or two, but there’s no more iconic sight than seeing the city from the top of the Washington Monument, which is completely free. Book a ticket ahead of time and ride an elevator all the way to the top of the monument and step out on the 500-foot observation deck.

Flickr/Nicolas Raymond
Flickr/Nicolas Raymond
Flickr/Nicolas Raymond

Wander through a garden

DC is home to some of the most beautiful urban gardens in the country, and many of them are open to the public for free. There is nothing like an afternoon spent strolling through, or picnicking, at the expansive 446-acre United States Arboretum or wandering through the Botanic Garden on the edge of the Mall. For something a bit smaller, explore the grounds at Tudor Place or Dumbarton Oaks (free in the winter), both of which are in Georgetown.

Flickr/ehpien
Flickr/ehpien
Flickr/ehpien

Hike the Billy Goat Trail

You can catch one of the District’s most popular hiking trails, the Billy Goat Trail, from the C&O canal. The full trail is 4.7 miles and ranges from easy to strenuous, so hike a section in and back or make the full loop for the variety.

Pay your respect at Arlington National Cemetery

Just across the Potomac from DC, Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 400,000 veterans. The cemetery is an expanse of 639 hallowed acres and the ANC Explorer allows visitors to locate graves, notable sites, and take self-guided walking tours to spots including the tomb of the Unknown Soldier as well as the final resting place of President John F. Kennedy.

Lace up your roller skates

When was the last time you went roller skating? Chances are it’s been too long. So get back into this nostalgic activity at the Anacostia Park roller skating pavilion. You can rent skates for free, just show proof of a government-issued ID, and the skating pavilion is open from 9 to 5 every day.

Help clean up the Anacostia River

We all know there’s a lot of work to be done to keep our waterways clean. Do your part, and have some fun, by participating in the city’s Green Boat initiative. On select weekends, DCers can join a two-hour guided paddle along the Anacostia River to collect trash and monitor the river’s progress.

Eastern Market
Eastern Market
Eastern Market

Stroll your local farmer’s market

DC’s close proximity to the farms of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and beyond mean that the city’s farmers’ markets always have something to offer. Check out the year-round markets like Eastern Market in Capitol Hill and the Sunday market in Dupont Circle or head to seasonal markets like the pop-up in front of the White House that draws vendors like Cucina al Volo and Call Your Mother Deli.

The Library of Congress
The Library of Congress
The Library of Congress

Play tourist all around the city

It’s easy to forget that all those traditionally touristy activities can be fun for locals too. If you haven’t been on a tour of the White House, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, or the Capitol, this is your sign. All are free with advanced reservations. Plus, tucked in the northern quadrant of NW, the Washington National Cathedral is free and open to all. Tour the cathedral’s impressive architecture, 215 stained glass windows, 112 Gothically-inspired gargoyles, and enormous pipe organ. See if you can spot the sculpture of Darth Vader.

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Madeline Weinfield is a Thrillist contributor.

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