In this week’s Washington City Paper cover story, Mike Paarlberg profiles Ma Young-Ae, a former North Korean spy who runs Pyongyang Soondae, a restaurant on Little River Turnpike that offers a more northern approach to Korean food. The story of Ma’s defection and anti-Pyongyang activism is worth a read—be sure to pick read it in our newly redesigned print edition!—but Paarlberg also tried some of the more unusual food items on the menu:
As a hapa Korean American from Fairfax, I grew up on Korean food, and thought I’d tried every combination of kimchi, barbecue, and red pepper paste possible.
However, I hadn’t tried roasted chicken rectum before. The dish (called ddak ddong jib, or “chicken shit house” in the wonderfully literal Korean language) is not uniquely North Korean—they have it in the South as well, just not at your typical restaurant. The dish is late-night drunk food, a Korean version of jumbo slice: spicy, heavy, and designed to soak up the soju after a hard night out.
I had it stone-cold sober and in the middle of the day, and it was pretty tasty. The rectums are chewy, with a texture similar to gluten-based meat substitutes. And you get your money’s worth: eight to ten of them on a bed of onions and peppers is $10.
The sausage is quite good, though not so much a meal in itself—better ordered as a side dish for a soup or larger plate. A nice option is the soondae regular meal, which pairs a sampling of sausage with a fermented fish dish or plate of pheasant dumplings.
Because of her activism against the North Korean regime, Ma says she has received death threats, something most D.C. restaurateurs don’t face:
Ma tells of the dire threats to her life in a matter-of-fact tone, as though they are the normal hazards of a 48-year-old woman running a sausage restaurant. Maybe it’s paranoia. But as a North Korean defector and ex-spy, she has more reasons than most to be paranoid.
Still, Ma does not seem the least bit agitated. Rather, she appears wearily resigned to whatever fate God has in store for her. For the moment, at least, it involves serving buckwheat noodle soup and dumplings to a steady stream of customers.
In an area full of fascinating restaurateurs, Ma is one of the most fascinating.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery