It is Friday night and The Block has the noise level of a day care classroom before pickup. It is loud, in other words, with chatter from young ones in crop tops, ink and blinding-white sneakers, with buckets of beer in front of them or purple-flavored (thanks to ube) ice cream with a tower of rainbow-hued garnishes.
It is Friday night and this food hall with fried chicken sandwiches, poke and garlic noodles is hosting an 11:30 p.m. hip-hop show. There might not be a hotter scene in the suburbs than what’s going on next to an abandoned Kmart.
But this is not about The Block itself. It’s what follows The Block, how it lured new restaurants to this once-dilapidated strip mall.
Next door is Pelicana Chicken, a Korean import of fried chicken, owned locally by Sung Eun.
At one time, Bonchon’s shattering-glass skin was synonymous with the country’s successes from the fry basket. But there’s room for more.
Pelicana, whose only Virginia location is in Annandale, sells a different version: chunky, crispy, thick-crusted fried chicken, more in the vein of Popeyes, or so says the person taking orders. He’s right, but it’s better. For the “Ugly Fried” chicken sandwich (get it crispy) find a soft, squishy bun featuring a thick, juicy chunk of dark meat, with the craggily batter jutting out in jagged peaks. It comes unadorned save for a pinky-orange sauce that’s like a spicy Thousand Island. Fries almost feel sandpapered: crispy outside, cushy inside. Order them.
Kimen Ramen & Izakaya is at the end of the strip, a less than 30-seat spot, long and narrow, decorated in a custom mural with Japanese anime characters from the shows Dragon Ball Z and Naruto slurping noodles.
Kimen is also owned by Eun. Her brother Min Kim, a Japanese-trained chef, runs the kitchen and Mark Chang, the manager of both locations,and also a chef, makes sure Kimen’s dishes translate to American tastes. Though he’s quick to point out “Annandale is an Asian town.”
Chang says Eun chose this location for her restaurants because of the overflowing crowds at The Block. “The Block always gets overwhelmed,” Chang says, and so Eun hopes those who can’t find seats there “funnel over to her restaurants.”
The ramen at Kimen is good, starting with a broth simmering for up to 10 hours. It’s even better saturated with a chili paste, where fiery orange beads float on the surface, leaving an earthy richness to the broth. The egg is jammy, the squiggly noodles just a little chewy.
To start, karaage wears a light, soft coating and inside is juicy, dark chicken meat. A spicy mayo kicks it up. Inside steamed buns is a thick slice of pork belly, the same cut found floating in ramen. Kurobuta comes as four 2-inch wieners, the casing cracked in spots giving some snap to this Japanese hot dog. Again, dip in the spicy mayo.
Chang hopes to introduce new, fun items to the menu, while also keeping the minimalist Tokyo-style ramen as is. “America likes more diversity,” says Chang, explaining what that means: “more meat.” He envisions ramen with unusual flavors: smoked brisket, Asian-style ribs, snow crab and lemon.
At the far end of the strip is the vacant Kmart, which, according to developer SJM Partners’ website, will turn 125,000 square feet into an Asian shopping center with restaurants, a grocery store, retail and a spa, plus residential units.
And it all started with a block.
The young and hip who don’t want to wait in lines at The Block can find Korean and Japanese food in cool, trendy settings next door.
Pelicana: Ugly Fried chicken sandwich and fries; Kimen: spicy ramen