The mile-long section of Garden Grove Boulevard in Garden Grove known as Little Seoul is the fourth-largest Korean shopping district in the United States. With an estimated 400 Korean-owned stores, services and restaurants between Magnolia and Brookhurst streets, the area attracts customers from all over Southern California, but most of the shoppers are Asian.
Nevertheless, Westerners as well as Asians may find delight in wandering through the shops in exotic search of Little Seoul staples: beef barbecue, herbs, cans of broiled sea eel, sweet rice cakes as well as handcrafts. If you go, keep this mind: Most of the signs are printed in Korean, many of the shop owners do not speak English and some of the plazas are run-down and in dire need of a scrub brush.
On the plus side are the area's many good barbecue restaurants, several enticing gift and art stores and a slew of herb and acupuncture clinics, should you be in need of a cure for something.
And you'd better hurry--the Korean section may be on the brink of major changes. The city is studying a consultant's $2-million plan to improve the boulevard by redesigning buildings, and changing the landscaping and traffic patterns. City officials say the plan does not call for transforming the strip into a Korean tourist attraction but rather lists ways to attract non-Korean shoppers to the area and to eliminate the section's haphazard appearance.
But for now, the strip is a slightly scruffy stretch of bowling alleys and billiard halls, inexpensive and tasty restaurants, herb and health food stores and Korean food markets. Gift stores, children's clothing stores, furniture shops and two large thrift stores are part of the scene.
Two stores alone are worth a visit to Little Seoul. Assi Bang Hand Craft is tucked into a strip mall about halfway between Brookhurst and Magnolia on Garden Grove Boulevard. Offering Asian imports and a few articles of clothing, Assi Bang specializes in Oriental cabinets, rosewood jewelry boxes, lacquered cases with inlaid mother-of-pearl, handmade ceramics and lacquered trays. The store also carries lovely pillows, tapestries and wall-hangings.
Another good bet is the Kid's Mart at the Plaza Medical Center, which carries beautiful Asian and European clothes. The distinctive styles of Agabang, Fino Fino and Chico are in abundance. The store also carries imported shoes and Baby Guess clothes and is now having a storewide sale, including a sidewalk rack with everything going for $5.
Next to Assi Bang is an herb shop named Natural Health Center that has "something for every symptom," according to the salesclerk. For "nerves," he suggests Niu Huang Ching Hsin Wan (cow bezoar pills), a Chinese concoction made of rhino and antelope horns, among other ingredients. Price: $16 a box.
The DoReMi Market has a large meat, fish and produce department and also sells canned cuttlefish, red bean bread and dried garlic stems. An entire aisle is devoted to noodles, both fresh and dried.
Not all the Korean shops sell exotic merchandise. A few doors down from DoReMi is Santa's Kiddy-Mart, which sells Hello Kitty toys, Oshkosh clothes and Baby Guess articles.
Behind the Plaza Medical Center is a vast strip mall, dominated by two thrift stores and the Paris Bakery. Both the Thrift Village and Salvation Army Thrift Store carry items including shoes, furniture, record albums, books, lamps, clothes and jewelry. Thrift Village has a wide selection of gaudy hats, gloves and shoes that can be used for children's costumes; and a selection of slightly worn Bass leather shoes and Zips sneakers for under $6.
Haejin Seo just opened a shop called Hyun's Interiors that has a diverse inventory, with many articles hailing from Africa, Asia and Mexico. Some of the best items are the wooden bowls and carved figures from Africa, small wood and ceramic figures from Korea and the hand-colored and framed woodblocks ($79) from Japan.
The Korean signs of Little Seoul have become a sore subject in Garden Grove and a bone of contention among some residents who feel the signs should be printed in English rather than Korean. Tom Kim, founder of the Korean Chamber of Commerce, says merchants are trying to change their signs to satisfy shoppers and residents.
"The residents have been complaining about the signs because they are not always in English, so (the shop owners) are making changes and adding both languages," he says. "A lot of Caucasians are now coming into the area to eat and visit the pharmacies and they are also coming to buy clothes."
Most of the signs are printed in large Korean letters with small English translations underneath, although many still have no English at all.
LITTLE SEOUL AT A GLANCE
Location: Garden Grove Boulevard, Garden Grove, between Brookhurst and Magnolia streets.
Shops, restaurants, services: An estimated 400 Korean-owned businesses, including about a dozen Korean restaurants. Chinese restaurants are also in abundance.
Best place to browse: Assi Bang Hand Craft has lovely Oriental cabinets, rosewood cases and in-laid mother of pearl lacquered boxes, along with handmade ceramics, tapestries, pillows and bowls. Lacquered trays and jewelry boxes are also a specialty. Hours vary; phone ahead: (714) 530-5363.
Quick bites: one of the best reasons to venture to the Korean section is the barbecue houses dotting the boulevard. A good one to hit is the Best Place Restaurant, where for $4.99 you can slip into a Naugahyde cq booth and chow down on a sizzling platter of barbecue beef (seasoned with sesame oil, sugar, sesame seeds, green onions, soy sauce, garlic and ginger). The meal is accompanied by 10 side dishes, including the traditional kimchicq made of spicy cabbage, seaweed soup, rice and a variety of pickled and stewed tubers. A word of warning: most of the side dishes are hot and unfamiliar.