By Paul Schlienz
Sam Jo has two passions: Korean cuisine and White Center.
His year-old Korean-inspired Anju Bar and Eatery is a welcome addition in White Center, a neighborhood that straddles the southwestern border of Seattle. White Center has struggled much in the past, but it is on the upswing today as more people discover its unique cultural mix and unpretentious atmosphere.
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“‘Anju’ means ‘food eaten with alcohol’ in Korean,” said Jo. “The whole anju culture among Koreans is a very cool and unique bar culture that not very many Americans know about unless they’ve lived in Korea or places like Los Angeles that have big Korean communities. Koreans drink a lot. They’re very social people that want to spend time with their friends and family. I just wanted to bring a little piece of it to Seattle.”
Among the treats you’ll find at Anju are pan-fried rice with kimchi and spam, japchae (meat, veggies, sautéed with sweet potato noodles), Korean fried chicken, kimchi quesadilla with meat and cheese and kimchi jun (savory Korean style pancake with kimchi). Of course, the bar offerings include soju, which is sometimes called the “Korean vodka.” And attention dog lovers: Anju’s outdoor patio is a canine-friendly space.
“I want people to be engaged in conversation and social activity centered around food and drink,” Jo said. “That’s why I wanted a bar centered around Korean bar food and alcohol. Just like there are many different types of cuisines, there are many different types of bars and drinking establishments. To my knowledge, I am the only true Korean-style bar in Seattle.”
Choosing to open Anju in White Center was no accident for Jo. Aside from lower rents than many parts of the Seattle area, he liked the neighborhood’s atmosphere.
Gritty and unpretentious with an ethnic mix including many Hispanics and Vietnamese, White Center suffered for many years from a bad reputation stemming back at least as far as World War II, when, according to the Seattle Times, the area was designated a Restricted Alcohol Territory, where the military forbade its service members to go.
Derisively called “Rat City,” White Center also suffered from gang-related crime in more recent decades, but with housing costs reaching stratospheric levels, both people and businesses are discovering and moving into this overlooked area.
Today it is a much safer, more prosperous place than it was 30 years ago, but it still retains much of its working-class character. And “Rat City” is now a name worn with pride in the neighborhood.
“I really do love White Center,” said Jo. “If anyone who doesn’t know anything about White Center or had preconceived notions about it came here for a day and hopped around and saw all the different establishments in the business district, their opinions of White Center would be completely changed. It’s such a cool community.”
Jo and Anju are, indeed, very active in the White Center community. Helping local elementary schools by donating gift cards to their auctions, providing donuts at the White Center Community Food Bank and participating in the area’s Jubilee festival are just a few of the ways Anju is involved.
“Sam is committed to the community,” said Sheryl Clinton, president of the White Center Chamber of Commerce. “In talking with him before he opened, he mentioned he could have opened Anju anywhere. But he loves the White Center community and wanted to open here to be a part of it. I know Sam is only an email or conversation away if I need help and he is always interested in participating however he can in chamber-related events.”
Clinton also says that businesses like Anju are a big part of the reason that White Center is overcoming its reputation.
“White Center has had a rough reputation for many years,” Clinton said. “I think businesses like Anju are helping because we have a big influx of business owners who are all invested in getting to know each other, pitching in and helping put on events or clean up the community. It is changing the attitude that what happens outside is none of my concern into a community of people who care about each other and our customers to make sure we are safe and having a good time in White Center.”
Additionally, Clinton says Anju’s Korean cuisine and culture are welcome additions to the community.
“Not only are Anju and Sam great additions to the area – his food is really good, but he also brings something unique to White Center,” Clinton said. “We already had pizza, burgers, Mexican and bars, so bringing the Korean-themed Anju has filled a hole in a very diverse community.”
Jo said he sees a bright future for Anju. Expansions of the existing restaurant and the menu or even an additional location are all possibilities in its future.
“What I would love to do is to get Anju to a place where we’re a staple of the community,” Jo said. “I want us to be a place people immediately think of going to whether they’re in West Seattle or White Center.”