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.

The staff at Han Gang
The staff at Han Gang | PHOTOS BY BRIAN OH; DESIGN BY GRACE HAN FOR THRILLIST
The staff at Han Gang | 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.

Han Gang spread
Han Gang spread | 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 centers, 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. 

Desserts at Shilla Bakery
Desserts at Shilla Bakery | 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 center 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 donuts, 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%.

Korean BBQ at Han Gang
Korean BBQ at Han Gang | 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 centers 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.

Chinese-Korean cuisine at Choong Hwa Won
Chinese-Korean cuisine at Choong Hwa Won | Photo by Brian Oh

But times do change. With more interest in Korean cuisine and consumers traveling 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.” 

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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.

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