By Amy McKeever
Updated June 21, 2022. Honey Pig is packed.
At the restaurant on Columbia Pike, it’s too easy to watch cuts of marinated pork belly, galbi (short ribs) and even spirals of intestine cook at tables inlaid with grill tops until a server pulls the meat off the grill piece by piece to serve plate by plate around the table.
Korean barbecue embodies everything good about barbecue: It’s experiential, adventurously diverse and best enjoyed in groups. And Annandale is the undisputed destination for Korean barbecue in Northern Virginia.
In 2000, The Washington Post chronicled its rise: Korean businesses first came to Annandale in the late 1980s. In 1988 there was one Korean restaurant, named Kaboja, on Columbia Pike. By 2000, there were more than 20—and the dining scene continues to grow. Annandale storefronts are now overwhelmingly occupied by Korean bakeries, formal restaurants and Korean barbecue restaurants, about 50 in total, says Sojung Lim, president of the Korean American Association of the Washington Metropolitan Area. Though only about 12 focus on barbecue, it remains the vital genre of the community’s culinary reputation.
Korean barbecue has become particularly popular in Northern Virginia, and elsewhere in America, because it is so accessible. It is similar to American Southern barbecue in that it is an unpretentious way of cooking your own marinated or seasoned slabs of meat. While the meat in Southern barbecue is typically smoked outdoors, with seasonings varying from vinegar to spice rubs, Korean barbecue mostly involves soy sauce-based marinades with the meat cooked quickly at the table in front of the diner. It’s like Benihana without the knife show.
Diners select seafood or meat—pork belly, galbi, and a thinly sliced beef called bulgogi are most common—and servers bring it from the kitchen to cook at the table.
As with Southern backyard barbecue, this style of dining translates easily to big groups. And according to Steve Lee, president of the Korean American Chamber of Commerce of Virginia, Korean barbecue is what lures people from all over Northern Virginia and beyond for meals. A Korean cultural appreciation meet-up group often gathers at Annandale’s Korean barbecue restaurants, and Korean expatriate businessmen from all across the region host business dinners at barbecue restaurants, Lee says.
Cuts of meat and preparation styles are largely the same, though, Lee says, some prepare meat in a saltier, more traditional marinade, while others cater to American palates with a milder taste. Some are formal, others raucous. Here’s a look at the major players.
With its 24-hour service and Korean pop music on blast, Honey Pig is probably the most well-known Korean barbecue restaurant in Annandale. But while Honey Pig’s late-night hours and wilder atmosphere are particularly popular among the younger crowd, Lim says that its casual atmosphere also appeals to their parents. The menu offers a wide range of meats and seafood, including duck, tripe, squid, and octopus, cooked according to traditional styles—meaning watch out for the salt. 7221 Columbia Pike, Annandale
All Day, All Night
Out on Hummer Road lies another one of Annandale’s 24-hour Korean barbecue restaurants, Yechon. In contrast to the scene at Honey Pig, YeChon’s dining room is a bit more sedate and offers a wider menu beyond barbecue, including sushi, noodles, stews, and beloved dishes like sundubu, a tofu casserole. Because Yechon is located right by the entrance to I-495, its early morning hours make it convenient for travelers bound for the airport and long-distance hauls to Korea, Lee says. 4121 Hummer Rd., Annandale
Like Yechon, Han Gang keeps a wide range of Korean dishes on its menu—noodles, rice, hot pot, and set-course menus — but is well-known for its high-quality barbecued meats. Lee says Han Gang tones down its cooking for a milder, less salty take, making it friendlier for those unaccustomed to Korean cooking. 7243 Little River Tpk., Annandale
In recent years, Annandale’s Korean barbecue restaurants increasingly embraced a trend long popular in Los Angeles’ Koreatown: all you can eat. Chief among these is Kogiya, a family-run restaurant Lim says is a particularly good option for those looking for a little variety. Different packages include fatty brisket, spicy chicken, beef tripe, small and large intestines, and three different kinds of pork belly.
With the all-you-can-eat trend in full swing, Lee says Annandale can expect to see even more buffet-style places crop up in the coming years. Some other popular all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue restaurants from other parts of Northern Virginia, are rumored to expand in Annandale.
And as the Korean barbecue restaurant scene in Annandale continues to grow, Lee hopes it will bring with it a greater appreciation for all of Korea’s food.
Perhaps barbecue, the great democratic style of cooking, will serve as a gateway to more aspects of the cuisine. Lim agrees, though she says a first experience with Korean barbecue can sometimes be a bit overwhelming because no matter where you go, there’s a lot of food on the table. But once you get over that, she says, “you fall in love with it, and then you start craving it.” 4220-A Annandale Rd., Annandale
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