Welcome to L.A. Week on First We Feast. As part of our continuing initiative to devote more coverage to Los Angeles, we’ll be running special features all week to explore the city’s ever-evolving food scene—from its most vaunted chefs, to its gritty underbelly.
Back in 2007, I took my college boyfriend to get dinner at El Cholo, the historic 90-year-old Mexican restaurant at 11th and Western. He looked at the establishment’s story printed on the back of the menu—which included the tale of how Carmen Rocha introduced nachos to Angelenos in 1959—and joked, “How about the part where Koreatown sprang up all around it?”
Koreatown has existed my whole life, and though I’ve never actually lived there (I hail from Encino and live in Los Feliz), I’ve always thought of it as the center of my Los Angeles—a vibrant symbol of my hyphenated American experience. As a Korean-American, I take a measure of pride in our massive ethnic neighborhood, which is the most densely populated district in L.A. County (and therefore of almost every county). K-Town dwarfs every Chinatown in America; it makes New York’s Korea Way look like a diorama constructed by a grade-schooler. But while it’s impossible to talk about Koreatown without some reference to Koreans, the neighborhood is far too complex and storied to belong to any one group. And, like any living thing, it’s constantly expanding, changing in ways both visible and viscerally palpable.
Before the ‘60s, there were no Koreans in the area now known as K-Town. The Brown Derby Plaza—home to a Boiling Crab and a rotating roster of questionable bars that smell like soju—once held the original iconic Brown Derby restaurant, a product of the Golden Age of Hollywood. The Gaylord apartment complex still houses the HMS Bounty bar, where Winston Churchill is rumored to have stopped in for dinner. (More recently, I’ve found that the Bounty is a good place to kill time while waiting for a table at Korean barbecue hot spot Kang Hodong Baekjeong.)
Eventually, Koreans filled the streets with hangul—gaining particular momentum in the ’80s—until the Koreatown designation became inevitable. Since then, it’s been the place where my grandma rents videos at grocery stores; where my mother shops for scallions and sunglasses; and where I’ve the same bowl of Han Bat sullungtang has carried me through childhood colds and adult hangovers.
That’s all still there, and yet K-Town’s image is shifting noticeably, shedding its reputation as a community closed-off to outsiders and morphing into an important nerve center for all of Los Angeles. Twitter-literate residents soak up beers at pubs like DwitGolMok, or sip cocktails at Roy Choi’s new rooftop Commissary; emerging restaurants like Saint Martha don’t require grilling meats over an open flame; hipsters are spotted in every barbecue joint, lawyers in every apartment building; new condos sprout, and old hotels like the Normandie receive shiny new makeovers.
To fully understand the various forces at play, I talked to four Angelenos who live and breathe the kimchi- and charcoal-filled air of Koreatown about the neighborhood’s changing identity.
- Jonathan Gold is the Pulitzer-winning food critic for the Los Angeles Times, and our city’s uncontested eater laureate. He lives in Pasadena, but lived in Koreatown from 1981 to 1993, on New Hampshire just north of 3rd. He still comes to K-Town once or twice a week.
- Keum-Rin Baik owns Kobawoo, one of the oldest existing Korean restaurants in the area, opened in 1983. He lived at 9th and Serrano when he came to L.A. in ’76, and now lives further west, in Miracle Mile.
- Roy Choi is, per the title of his memoir, an “L.A. Son.” He runs several restaurants around L.A., including POT and Commissary in the new, impossibly cool Line Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard.
- Bricia Lopez brings Oaxaca to L.A. through Guelaguetza, owned and operated by her family since 1994. She recently moved to Montecito Heights, by Highland Park, but spent much of her adult life in Koreatown.
Brace yourself for a history lesson, and plenty good eats.
These interviews have been edited and condensed. All photos by Liz Barclay (@liz_barclay).
On Koreatown past: I moved here from Korea when I was two years old. I’m from Olympic and Westmoreland. Pops had a store on Vermont and James Woods. We moved a lot since then, but I’ve been living in and out of K-Town my whole life. My first impressions were as a child: I remember buses, my pops’ liquor store, palm trees, sidewalks, stairs, family, and my tricycle.
On Koreatown present: I’m in K-Town almost every day in some way or another. Work, life, errands, meals, dentist appointments, you name it. K-Town has changed and stayed the same. It’s gotten bigger, but is still full of Latinos and Koreans grinding and eating and drinking. Now it’s the kids of the OG’S though. I miss the old club life, but other than that I’m good with all the new changes. Fuck, I’m a part of that change, but also part of its roots. Feel me?
On eating like a new-school K-Town boss: I like our place to be honest because I get to be with all the staff—they are my family. POT and Line Hotel. Otherwise, I go to Olympic Chunggeukjang, Sno LA, Brew//Well (relocating), Beverly Tofu House, Chosen Galbi, Mapo, Okuromng, Anko, Seungbukdong, on and on.
On Koreatown past: Back when I moved to L.A. in ’94, there were a lot of Latino gangs in K-Town. Before my dad started Guelaguetza, he was a street vendor and he used to pay the cholos for protection.
My first impressions were just gang-related. I didn’t realize it was Koreatown until we moved to [the current restaurant] space in 2000. I thought it was just a Latino area for the first years I lived around here. I definitely noticed Caucasians and Latinos, but I came from a little town in Mexico and didn’t realize I was around people from Korea.
From the moment we opened, our customers were mainly Oaxacan families, celebrating birthdays or coming after church. My dad wanted to maintain an authentic menu. Back then nobody even really knew a lot about Mexican food. The Guelaguetza space used to be a Korean buffet—one of the first that started in K-town. Up until maybe five years ago, we’d still get old Korean people who’d sit down, look around, ask for the Korean buffet, and get up and leave.
On Koreatown present: I would’ve never thought I’d be walking around K-Town alone. There’s a lot more places targeted toward young people— cool new cafés and boba shops on every corner that are open until 2am. You’re able to walk around at night and it’s safe. In my adult life I haven’t experienced anything negative in Koreatown. The parking sucks, but that’s just a Los Angeles thing.
I think it’s more diverse now. In my building, we had an older lady living downstairs, a Thai family, a Filipino videographer, a college student, a middle-aged woman who lived with her cats. Koreatown isn’t just Korean or Latino, it’s really a representation of Los Angeles.
On eating like a Oaxacan empress: I love Beverly Soon. I go to Kang Hodong for Korean BBQ, and Boba Time for Thai iced tea and shaved ice. Chabelitas off Western is where I tasted my first burrito.
I frequent Olympic House of Breakfast almost once a week. It’s owned by a Korean family and they’ve been there for 30 years serving all-America breakfasts with bacon, ham, hash browns, and toast. Beer Belly is always good for late-night munchies. For a girl’s night out, we usually have a nice dinner at Commissary. If I have clean hair, I’m not going to a Korean barbecue place. No way. I go to Korean spas about twice a year—you never knew how dirty you were until you visit a Korean spa.
On Koreatown past: When I moved there [in 1981], most of the people in the apartment buildings on my street were sort of elderly white people who’d lived there since the ‘30s. And gradually as they were dying out or moving away, it became very Korean. Maybe around ’83, ’84, the shift became super pronounced. My building was bought by Koreans in ’88 or ’89 I think. I remember signing the lease and going to the real-estate office in a skyscraper on Wilshire. There was a map of the area you’d call Koreatown, and there was a red pushpin on every building that was owned by Koreans. It was as pebbly as a reptile skin—almost everything in the neighborhood.
If you went in these restaurants and you weren’t Korean, they didn’t know what to do with you. With the first generation of Koreans there was this idea that non-Koreans wouldn’t like the food.
[As for the food,] there was a place on La Cienega called the Pear Gardens that I’d been to a couple times as a kid. In the building where Guelaguetza is now was a place called VIP, which was a Korean buffet my dad liked to take us to. That must’ve been the late ‘70s. There was a place called Chin Go Gae that served goat on Pico that I liked. We would go to Dong-il Jang, which was one of the super early ones.
In the first years of Koreatown it was interesting, because no matter what a restaurant served, if you went in there as a non-Korean, they would just serve you barbecue. And that was strange. I know it happened in New York, too. The restaurant critic for the New York Times did a restaurant on 32nd Street that was famous for its tofu dishes, and I don’t think she mentioned tofu in her entire review.
If you went in these restaurants and you weren’t Korean, they didn’t know what to do with you. With the first generation of Koreans there was this idea that non-Koreans wouldn’t like the food. A lot of the early restaurateurs thought that kimchi would freak out non-Koreans.
On Koreatown present: Koreatown’s always expanding. It’s becoming less like a neighborhood and more like a prefecture of Seoul. There’s a thing that’s happened with the popularity of K-Town. People in their twenties like K-Town as a place that serves really late, and there’s been this sort of linkage of the idea of Korean food with the idea of drinking to excess and having all-you-can-eat barbecue.
Now there’s less of the sense of cracking a code when you finally find out what a restaurant specializes in and order it. Yet there’s still so much to discover. You’re always finding new corners of cuisine, and more than in any other part of town, it’s just possible to stumble on something that’s totally going to rock your world. There’s always that sense of serendipity, that you’re going to walk into Chapman plaza and you might eat something or see something you’ve never come across before. There’s something great about that self-renewing aspect.
One thing I think Koreans have brought to L.A. culture: The unabashed innard love that you just couldn’t find anywhere else.
On eating like a Koreatown veteran: I always go to Kobawoo and Soban. I go to Olympic Chunggookjang. I’m always embarrassed to say it, but I go to Eight a lot. Even more embarrassingly, I like School Food, and I know Korean people are appalled by that. I know there’s better kimbap in town, but it’s like Hello Kitty kimbap. I go to Dan Sung Sa a lot. For barbecue, I go to Park’s and Baekjeong.
On Koreatown past: When I came to the U.S. in 1976, there were already a lot of Koreans living in the area. I’d see them in my building. Ten units were occupied by Koreans, and we shared food and passed around newspapers. Back then, you always said hi to other Korean people. Not anymore. It was a smaller community. All the people I used to know are all old so we don’t see each other anymore. Or we only see each other in doctors’ waiting rooms.
L.A. feels closer to Korean now. What’s in Seoul is here the next day.
On Koreatown present: Ten years ago, non-Koreans made up 10% of our customers [at Kobawoo]. Now, it’s more like 30%. It’s the hallyu—Korean culture is popular now. We’ve changed a little to accommodate new tastes. The dishes are more contemporary. We’ll serve pajeon like pizza. L.A. feels closer to Korea now. What’s in Seoul is here the next day. And Korean food is better now—L.A. has the best in the U.S.We can even produce better food than in Korea because of our access to high-quality ingredients.
On eating like an OG K-Town boss: I eat everything, not just Korean food. There was a Colombian restaurant next to the original Kobawoo location, and I was friends with the owner. We made a list of cuisines from A to Z—Arabic, Armenian, Chinese, Cuban—and ate at more than a hundred restaurants in two years to try to get through them all. My son graduated from USC Business School, then went to culinary school and then to work at Bouley. He used to insist on making his own steaks when he was in elementary school. We went to French Laundry together.