Hidden culture: Finding Korea in northern Virginia



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Feature photo: etrepum / All other photos by author

There’s a reason my hometown of Annandale is nicknamed Koreatown.

NOT UNTIL I started studying Korean in college did I learn that. East Asian culture permeates many areas of Northern Virginia and is easily accessible for Washingtonians eager to experience it. Here are some good places to start:

Lighthouse Tofu

Location: Annandale
Yelp review: http://www.yelp.com/biz/lighthouse-tofu-annandale

This understated restaurant serves a variety of soondubu — soft tofu soup. The interior décor may seem reserved, but it’s reminiscent of traditional restaurants found in Korea. Servers greet patrons with ice-cold barley water and the usual panchan (starter dishes).

After deciding which soondubu to order, you’ll also need to specify the desired level of spiciness; the restaurant offers five levels of heat for a customizable dish. Remember to crack the raw egg provided over the soup before digging in.

Honey Pig (Gooldaegee)

Location: Annandale
Yelp review: http://www.yelp.com/biz/honey-pig-gooldaegee-korean-grill-annandale

I find weekends best here as the place is more about the crowd and atmosphere than its food. Each table is equipped with a BBQ grill and covered with panchan. The loud modern American and Korean pop hits and soju (Korean vodka) make it one of the most enjoyable places to be on a Friday night as far as I’m concerned.

Two warnings for non-Koreans: communicating with the staff without a translator can be awkward, and the imported soju costs $10 a bottle.

Shilla Bakery

Location: Annandale
Yelp review: http://www.yelp.com/biz/shilla-bakery-annandale

Shilla Bakery has a great supply of unique Korean breads and goodies. Nothing’s too expensive, which makes for good sampling potential. Highlights for me are the yogurt bread, sugar donuts, tangy frozen yogurt, cakes, and bubble tea.

In line with Korean tastes, the bakery offers various red bean desserts as well, including one called red bean bingsoo (“Chinese ice cream”), which is a mixture of shaved ice, red beans, rice cakes, ice cream, and syrup.

Ara

Location: Annandale
Website: http://www.ararestaurant.com/

When I was new to the Korean scene, I was excited to dance the night away to my favorite K-pop songs at this much talked-about club. Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen, the Koreans at Ara aren’t the dancing type.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. It’s lively on both weekends and week nights, and the overwhelmingly Korean crowd is enough to make one feel as if they’ve landed in downtown Seoul. The restaurant/club also has private karaoke rooms — best to book in advance.


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