I ordered the bibimbap. The smooth aroma of coconut oil mingled with the crunchiness of cashews and water chestnuts, the fiery tang of kimchi, and umami of shiitake mushrooms, not to mention the luxuriant addition of an oozing egg yolk.
Did I mention that I'm in a gas station?
Oddly enough, one of the best Korean restaurants in the Washington, DC metropolitan area operates out of a corner of a convenience store. Seoul Food's decor—colorful pop art, prayer flags, a gramophone—is an intimation of its food, where eclectic elements appear to have been thrown together without thought. But then, almost unexpectedly, they integrate impeccably well.
Anna and Jon Goree met in 2009 while working at a Whole Foods location in Fair Lakes, VA. Originally from Wisconsin, Jon had been a meat cutter for 20 years. Anna, who's from South Korea, grew up in an apartment on top of a restaurant run by her mother. When Anna was in graduate school, her mother decided to open a rice cake bakery, which is where Anna apprenticed.
"At that time, I didn't appreciate the experience at all, because I didn't think I belonged to that world," she tells me. "It was only much later, after I had kids, that I realized how calm the experience of baking made me feel." She enrolled in L'Academie de Cuisine and became a pastry chef at Whole Foods.
In 2011, Anna and Jon decided to strike out on their own. The plan was to operate a food truck in DC. However, as luck would have it, they ended up with a truck that was a foot too long according to DC's strict regulations. Fortunately, Arlington had less stringent rules, so that's where they set up shop.
Their bet paid off almost immediately. On the very first day, more than a hundred people queued outside their truck, eager to try their Seoul Food.
Anna tells me that her first reaction was "Why are there so many people lining up for our food?" But once the shock died down, she realized what a blessing the opportunity was. She would also learn that dealing with crowds could be simple if she only concentrated on the person placing the order, ignoring the gaggle of people waiting behind.
"Also, unlike [sit-down restaurants], people waiting to order food from a food truck tend to joke and chat with their fellow food truck aficionados," Jon says.
"And they usually tell us the food was well worth the wait," adds Anna.
The food truck proved to be more popular than they could have hoped for, and they quickly developed a regular clientele. It was pretty much smooth sailing for the next two years.
Then, one day, they got a call from one of Anna's fellow college alumni. He owned a gas station in Wheaton, MD and didn't know what to do with some extra space he had. He considered adding an auto repair shop, but then had heard about Seoul Food's truck in Arlington and saw how popular it was. So he made them an offer: Would they like to move to a brick-and-mortar location?
Just about every food truck owner wants to transition to a restaurant, and Anna and Jon were no exceptions. (Food trucks have a few drawbacks, weather being one of them.) Plus the gas station was located in an area full of potential. The Metro is nearby, and the street is dotted with diverse restaurants with all kinds of ethnic food: Caribbean, Ethiopian, Bolivian, Vietnamese, Israeli. Plus, the neighborhood is laid-back, with young, open-minded people. They would also discover that nearby restaurant owners were supportive and friendly.
While it took longer for them to establish a regular clientele at this location—given that in addition to their quirky setting, they don't advertise at all, and get most visitors from word-of-mouth—their business has been steadily expanding.
Anna attributes the success of her food to her palate: "My mom was a great cook. About 90 percent of my cooking is influenced by the food I grew up with, and 10 percent was culturally developed by tasting all kinds of food in the United States: Mexican, Italian, Thai."
She is not fond of the label "fusion cuisine." Her food is an organic reflection of her taste, not a result of deliberately combining different kinds of cuisines together.
She illustrates her point by explaining how she came up with one popular dish. She once made a veggie burger, which was well-received. But since some of the customers were vegan, she began to think about how she could modify the patty. What she came up with was a vegan croquette, after substituting the eggs with applesauce. It seemed like a bit hit.
Up until this point, she had been serving a dish called Bibimsoba, with buckwheat noodles and acorn jelly seasoned with kimchi and spices. Now, she decided to replace the kimchi with the vegan croquette, and to balance the dish she added some pickled cabbage and daikon. And voila: the feedback she received from regulars was that the soba noodles went really well with the vegan croquette.
"I've started to trust my instincts," Anna says, with a laugh. If she likes something, more often than not, others do too.
One aspect they are very particular about is working with "honest" ingredients. For instance, for the butternut squash curry, Anna roasts fresh butternut squash and sweetens it with grated Fuji apples, then tops it with a spicy red sauce she makes from scratch.
"I'm the mother of three kids," she explains. "So with each bowl, I'm trying to achieve texture, color, flavor, and nutrition."
And the patrons are happy with her results.
As for the future, Jon says a slightly bigger place in the same neighborhood would be great, where they can offer a house wine and perhaps also beer.
But they don't appear to be in a rush. They are enjoying what they have. Gas station and all.
This first appeared on MUNCHIES in May 2015.