As any kimchi-lover can tell you, the best Korean food in Washington, DC isn't in DC. It's in Annandale, a city a mere 13 miles from metro DC but, culinarily, a world away. Like Falls Church, Annandale's excellent food is a natural consequence of its dense Korean population. Restaurants here aren't chasing any trends; they're making Korean food for Koreans. They don't cook well for the Yelp reviews or Instagram shots, but rather because if they don't, the city's discerning population won't bother coming through their doors.
Despite an almost complete absence of marketing, there's always a handful of shops that attain a certain level of notoriety with outsiders. Mention Annandale to a DC resident and you'll instantly conjure images of vaunted Honey Pig and Bon Chon Chicken. Both are great spots in their own right, but only represent a tiny sliver of the wide, wide array of excellent Korean cooking you'll find in the area.
Like many immigrant enclaves, Annandale doesn't offer you much help if you don't speak the language. And while some menus may be vast, most restaurants tend to specialize in one or two standout dishes. So if you're looking to branch out from the aforementioned hot spots and eat Korean food the way Koreans do, here's a full-day itinerary to take you through a sampling of what Annandale has to offer. Hardcore Korean food fans will note that I've passed over more adventurous items such as Seoul Soondae's blood sausage or Bang Ga Nae's black goat. But after this introductory tour, you'll want to come right back.
Korean 'Brunch': Jang Won
Korea's proximity to China means there's some invariable culinary crossover, and such fusion cooking is Jangwon's specialty. This is one of the best places to order jajangmyun, a hearty, comforting dish of noodles popular with blue collar workers. A simple combination of hand-stretched wheat noodles and thick fermented black bean sauce loaded with pork and vegetables, it's served without broth so the sauce coats the noodles like pasta. This makes an excellent breakfast to get your appetite in gear.
In addition to the black beans, jajang sauce is made with red beans and caramelized sugar, both of which impart a rich sweetness to complement the salty pork. The noodles are of the heavy and dense variety, with a satisfying chew and earthy flavor, and cucumber and zucchini add just enough bright, snappy contrast.
A giant bowl of noodles will set you back all of $5.99 ($6.99 at dinner). That's one of the pricier options in the area, but Jangwon's noodles stand out from the pack—more lithe, flavorful, and well balanced. Jajangmyun is often eaten in combination with tang su yuk, which is a breaded and fried pork dish in a sweet and sour sauce, so make sure to order one for the table as well.
Mid-Morning Snack: Nakwon Catering
Nak Won is a specialty shop for dduk, rice cakes made of steamed rice flour with a deep, resilient chew. They're eaten for all sorts of occasions: Dduk gook, rice cake soup, is a common first meal on New Year's Day, and sweetened dduk are often eaten to celebrate birthdays and weddings. Then there's ddukbokki, a simple dish of dduk stir fried with sweet, fermented, and lightly spicy gochujang (chili-bean paste), a ubiquitous street food in Korea.
Nak Won makes all the dduk you could ever want, from the plain rice dduk to sweetened rainbow dduk to red bean-filled dduk. They're tender, appropriately chewy, and most importantly, made fresh daily (like fresh bread, they're best day-of). You can order a variety of dduk as sweet or spicy as you'd like, all worth a sampling. Just don't fill up too much: dduk can sit like rocks in your stomach, and you have more restaurants ahead.
A Lighter Lunch: To Sok Jip
To Sok Jip is a small, poorly lit shop situated in one of the many nondescript strip malls in Annandale. Despite its less than glamorous appearance, it's a favorite among locals for its superb samgyetang, a hot soup of a whole young chicken stuffed with garlic and sweet rice and boiled in a chicken broth with ginseng and ginger. Paradoxically, this hot ginseng soup is thought to be best in the summer, when its nutrients theoretically replenish any that you sweat out in the summer heat.
Regardless of when you eat it, this is one of the world's great chicken soups: tender chicken, rice completely saturated with poultry flavor, and a fragrant broth lifted by spicy ginger and deepened by licorice-tinged ginseng. The chicken itself is served whole, so your first step is to scoop some of the rice from its cavity, then break the meat apart. The broth is only mildly seasoned, letting the chicken, ginger, and licorice-tinged ginseng shine through, so feel free to adjust it with the tableside salt and pepper, and with any of the accompanying pickled banchan.
Afternoon Snack: Breeze Bakery
Korean bakeries are plentiful in Annandale, and they're all replete with sweet breads, pastries, and bubble tea. A more popular pastry shop in the area is arguably Shilla Bakery, but Breeze gets points for its quality sweets and modern flair: it's an almost exact replica of the glitzy pastry and coffee shops you'll find everywhere in Seoul these days.
The go-to dessert in Annandale is pat bing soo: a massive pile of shaved ice with condensed milk, mochi, fruit, and red bean paste. Refreshing and not too sweet, Breeze's version is just the thing for an afternoon pick-me-up. It starts with fine shaved ice, then a fat cake of red bean, and a good balance of sweet condensed milk and tart fruit. Cereal flakes add a final touch of crunch.
Korean Groceries: H Mart
Like any good immigrant enclave, Annandale has a number of fully stocked grocery stores where you can buy all the ingredients you need to cook some Korean of your own. With whole aisles devoted to nothing but soy sauce and noodles, H Mart is a must, and it's fully stocked with less-available items like seaweed and ginseng as well.
H Mart also carries a full line of prepared banchan, the small cold dishes that begin many a Korean meal. You'll have notice small plates of seasoned bean sprouts, myeolchi (salted, fermented anchovies), and pickled radishes, plus of course kimchi in every degree of heat and sourness.
Picking a single barbecue restaurant can be an impossible task; even non-barbecue restaurants in the area often serve some form of it on a tabletop grill. Usually there's a tradeoff of quality vs. quantity: all-you-can-eat (see: Il Mee Buffet and Oegadjib) or top-grade pork and beef (try Sorak Garden).
Then there's Kogiya, where you don't have to choose.
The restaurant is cosmetically very similar to the famous Honey Pig—a plethora of stainless steel and TVs looping K-pop music videos—both the meat itself and the marinades are more flavorful: cleaner-tasting with creamy fat. The kicker is Kogiya's all-you-can-eat option with said meat: for only $23, diners can stuff themselves full of chadolbaegi (thinly sliced beef brisket) and samkyupsal (pork belly) all night long.
The samkyupsal comes a few ways: plain, a spicy marinade, and a soy marinade, and those marinades capture a rich depth of flavor other barbecue shops can't compete with. Add on $6 and you'll get intestine and tripe thrown into your never-ending meat parade. Overkill after a day of eating? Perhaps, but worth every bite. Just wear an elastic waistband.