SAMGYETANG, a soup made with a whole small chicken stuffed with sticky rice, jujubes, slices of ginseng, whole cloves of garlic and pine nuts -- this is my breakfast at Mountain Cafe, an always-open restaurant in my Koreatown neighborhood. It’s a little after 6 a.m. on a Saturday, and the soup is delicious -- the chicken so tender it’s falling off the bone and the broth subtly herbal. It’s also purported to promote stamina, which I’m going to need because for the next 24 hours I’m going to soak up everything Koreatown has to offer.
Which is a lot. According to the Korean American Restaurant Assn., there are 660 restaurants in the neighborhood, up more than 40% from five years ago. That means a high concentration of some of the best food in the city, in an area that increasingly is appealing to Koreans and non-Koreans alike.
When the wind is blowing in the right direction and the Korean barbecue restaurant on the next street is doing brisk business in bulgogi, I can smell the grilled garlicky-sweet beef as I walk out my door. If I happen to crave barbecued pork belly at midnight or soon dubu -- soft super-fresh tofu in a spicy broth -- at 3 in the morning, I have only to walk down the block or around the corner.
Signs for “grand openings,” “grand new openings” or even “re-grand openings” seem to mark the speed at which the culinary scene evolves. Expansive supermarkets, tucked-away kimchi boutiques and modern bakeries rub shoulders with tea houses, late-night cafes, bars, clubs, karaoke suites and “room salons,” or hostess bars. The eating and drinking can -- and does -- go all day and all night. (Maybe even longer, as one flier boasts 25-hour delivery service.) All-nighters are so common that an oft-repeated metaphor is used to describe them: A night in Koreatown is a train, and each train car is a cafe, a restaurant, a bar, a nightclub....
So breakfast at Mountain Cafe is my locomotive. Halfway through, the tiny place is packed. In the open kitchen, one cook stuffs chickens and another minds the stove, where she ladles steaming chonbok juk, a creamy risotto-like rice porridge with abalone, into shallow oval dishes. It’s what most everyone else seems to be eating -- either that or the chat juk, rice porridge with pine nuts. I finish my fabulous samgyetang, and I’m ready to hit the streets.
Until you drop
SATURDAY is shopping day, and I crisscross the neighborhood scouring the uniquely Koreatown places that offer delicate rice cakes or specialty cuts of beef or freshly made kimchi.
By the time the June-gloomy clouds burn off, the doors are already open at Wien Konditorei und Cafe, a Vienna-meets-Koreatown bakery on Olympic Boulevard, where I stop for a loaf of green tea bread and a cup of white pear tea. Down the street at Kae Sung Market, where owner Sook Jae Cho has been in the business of making kimchi for more than 33 years, I pick up one of her most popular banchan, or side dishes -- mu mal lang yi, smoky-sweet dried radish.
Next I make my way over to Choice Meat Market, a small, pristine butcher on Western Avenue. It’s before 10 a.m., and customers are lined up for slabs of brisket, fresh oxtail and ready-to-cook bulgogi. A glass case is filled with tantalizingly packaged specialty cuts. Owner Rebecah Park recommends the sliced pork jowls. “You only get a very small amount -- I think 200 grams -- from each pig,” she says. “They’re so tasty with a little sesame oil, salt, pepper.”
I leave with nearly a pound of pig cheeks packed up with a bag of ice and hustle over to Si Roo Dang, which makes dduk, traditional Korean rice cakes. By 11 a.m. Moon Lee already has put in an almost eight-hour day. He arrives at the store around 3 a.m. to prepare the equipment and start soaking and grinding rice before his wife, Hyung, joins him to make dduk. Her kyung dan are tender rice cakes made with sweet rice flour, filled with red beans and rolled in cake-like crumbs, best eaten fresh and warm -- so I have a couple right there in the store.
With all that shopping I’ve worked up an appetite -- good thing, because I’m double-booked for lunch. First barbecue beef at one restaurant and then naengmyon, cold noodles, at another -- a classic combination, though usually enjoyed at a single table.
I meet a friend at Sonamu on Wilshire Boulevard -- one of the neighborhood’s newer barbecue spots, airy and bright and modern, complete with waterfall. A platter of beef to be grilled at the table is shockingly beautiful, with well-marbled slices of prime outside skirt, a popular cut of meat in Koreatown. Unlike bulgogi, it’s not marinated, but served with a small dish of sesame oil, salt and black sesame seeds.
Nicolas Cage and his wife, Alice Kim, have a 1 p.m. lunch reservation, according to owner David Lee. I’d love to stick around and star-gaze, but I’m already running late for my second lunch date, just down the street. On my way out I grab a coffee from the Coffee Tree, a red vending machine about the size of a small refrigerator found at the entrance of restaurants all over Koreatown. For 50 cents, it dispenses your choice of milk coffee, cappuccino or Korean tea. It’s not a bad cup of coffee.
The bag of ice that has been keeping my pork jowls chilled has melted, so I rush to drop them off at home before lunch Part Two. Then I hotfoot it over to Chil Bo Myun Ok, the Los Angeles branch of a Seoul-based barbecue chain, to meet a couple of other friends for naengmyon, the refreshing noodle soup sometimes eaten after a meal of grilled meat and especially good in the summer when it’s hot out. We order mul naengmyon in a cold beef broth with slices of brisket, strips of radish, cucumber, Asian pear and hard-boiled egg, and bibim naengmyon in a spicy sauce. It’s my favorite naengmyon spot, where the fine, elastic noodles are made to order from a mixture of sweet potato and buckwheat flour in a machine in the kitchen.
Now I need a break, so I stop by the newest neighborhood teahouse -- Haroo Tea House -- to check it out. I have all of about three minutes to relax with a cup of rose petal tea in the tranquil, lovely spot before heading out for my 3:30 appointment at Olympic Spa, the place to go to get not-so-gently scrubbed, buffed or kneaded. If I’m going out all night, I’m getting a massage.
On the way to the spa a long black limousine parked in front of Sonamu catches my eye -- Nicolas Cage?
A little relaxation
ON a typically busy Saturday afternoon, Olympic Spa is packed with women of all ages, sizes and ethnicities. I ask the woman who’s giving me my shiatsu massage to take it easy on me -- my sister said she cried for two weeks after her last massage here. Mine is fantastic. Afterward I sit at a table in the spa’s tiny cafe and sip herbal tonic tea, next to two young women in their robes who are eating spa cuisine -- seaweed soup and kimbap, rice and vegetables rolled in seaweed. Exhausted? No -- I’m good to go!
When the sun goes down and Koreatown is aglow with neon, that’s when the fun begins.
It’s not yet 7 p.m. at Dan Sung Sa, just early enough for friends and me to snag a table at this almost-always-crowded Koreatown tavern. With its dark, wood-paneled booths and graffitied walls, it’s nicknamed “the bunker.”
After a couple of cold OB beers, we move on to dinner and to what I’ve been looking forward to all day -- pork belly. Lately it seems like there’s a new pork belly barbecue place popping up on every corner, with customers lining up at spots such as Honey Pig and Yang San Bak.
We head to Yissi HwaRo to check out the latest addition to the Chapman Plaza, which was built in 1929 as a drive-in shopping center and is now a complex of Korean restaurants, cafes and bars whose courtyard parking lot is perpetually filled with Porsches and BMWs.
At Yissi HwaRo, you can get spicy pork belly, wine-marinated pork belly, smoked pork belly, bean-paste pork belly or beer-marinated pork belly, brought to the table in bamboo cradles by a team of young waiters with perfectly spiked hair. It’s hard to decide what to order, but we get slabs of wine-marinated pork belly and bean-paste (miso-marinated) pork belly. They start to sizzle as soon as they hit the grill on our table, and we wrap up pieces of cooked meat bo sam-style in disks of thinly sliced radish tinged with wasabi mixed with a little vinegar.
Nine-thirty, and the pace of Koreatown is picking up. Parking lots and restaurants are jammed. More friends join us at a norae bang, literally “song room,” for some pre-club karaoke. At Live City 4001, we’re led down a hall to our own private room, past the New York room, past the San Diego room and straight into Beverly Hills. A waiter brings us soju and a fruit platter with thick mayonnaise (which is surprisingly, weirdly good), and we stay long enough to belt out a little Mariah Carey, David Bowie, even a moving rendition of James Taylor’s “Handyman.”
The night is young, and we’re late to the Velvet Room. By 11 p.m., the tables are filled.
At Koreatown’s exclusive clubs, reservations with a waiter or waitress are required for entry. I’d been passed along the cellphone number of a waitress named Kiwi and had arranged for a table, but because we’re late she instead leads us to the bar behind the DJ booth. She sets us up with a bottle of Crown Royal (Koreatown’s favorite whiskey), Cokes, the ubiquitous fruit platter and the latest experiments from the kitchen -- including skewered, grilled jumbo prawns on a bed of crispy taro and sweet potato chips. The place has just undergone a $1.5-million renovation, and the management says it wants to focus more on the food. Booths are lined with plush gray velvet; swaths of white curtains line the walls. Young women in short shorts and high heels and guys in untucked button-down shirts dance to the Euro-house beats of Benny Benassi or the Korean hip-hop hit, “Run to You,” their bodies moving to the refrain: “Bounce with me/Bounce with me/Bounce with me/Bounce.” In the tradition known as “booking,” waiters pull us from our spot at the bar to introduce us to men at other tables -- an opportunity to drink more Crown, have a few laughs and eat more fruit.
The late-late show
AT 2:30 a.m., the Alexandria Plaza strip mall on 6th Street is bustling as cars squeeze into parking spaces and the post-club crowd files into Albenei for big bowls of jampong, a popular Korean version of Chinese seafood noodle soup. It’s deep red, searingly hot and chock-full of octopus, shrimp, crab and mussels. Despite the late hour, the scene is raucous, as tables share food and groups of people hang out on the sidewalk.
After refueling, we swing by late-night coffeehouse Cafe Mak for some caffeine, but despite the sign that says 24 hours, it’s closed. Where’s a Coffee Tree when you need one?
No problem, though; we still have enough energy left for one final round of songs at a norae bang. Cafeoke Ding Dong Dang is above the 24-hour restaurant Hodori, still crowded in the wee hours. From a room down the hall someone is belting out New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle.”
We grab canned crushed pear juice from the fridge near the cash register (no table service here), and I manage to eek out Def Leppard’s “Photograph.”
When we stagger out at 4:30 a.m., there are still a handful of cars left in the parking lot. A black Infiniti coupe with big chrome wheels pulls out of the lot, and a group of several guys hovers around a Mercedes talking loud to the passengers inside. There’s still one large table of diners left in Hodori, chatting and laughing, while one of the waitresses with a T-shirt that reads “Anti-Stress Kit: Bang Head Here” sweeps around them.
I’m the last one standing among my group, and I make my way to Umma Jip, or Mom’s Restaurant, a 24-hour spot that will be the caboose on my night train. Here the $2.99 breakfast special is sullongtang -- beef soup with slices of brisket, its broth milky from long-simmered bones, to which you add coarse salt and plenty of green onions. It also comes with rice, which I add to my soup, a few banchan and barley tea. It’s wonderfully comforting at this hour.
There are several others in the restaurant, all eating the same thing. Nobody can pass up this good a bargain. When I walk out of the restaurant, the sun is just starting to come up. Koreatown is starting its day all over again.
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Food, frolicking into the wee hours
Mountain Cafe (San), 3064 W. 8th St. (213) 487-7615. A 24-hour spot specializing in rice porridge and samgyetang chicken soup.
Wien Konditorei und Cafe, 3035 W. Olympic Blvd. (213) 427-0404. A Euro-Korean bakery with a wide variety of pastries such as red bean doughnuts.
Kae Sung Market, 1010 S. St. Andrews Place. (323) 737-6565. North Korean-style kimchi, banchan side dishes and dumplings made at the store.
Choice Meat Market, 301 S. Western Ave. #109. (213) 251-9988. A butcher with specialty cuts such as sliced short ribs, pork belly and marinated bulgogi.
Si Roo Dang, 3470 W. 6th St. #9. (213) 386-7423. A traditional Korean bakery that makes dduk, sweet, chewy rice cakes.
Sonamu, 3600 Wilshire Blvd. (213) 380-3600. A modern Korean barbecue restaurant serving up prime meat such as Wagyu beef.
Chil Bo Myun Ok, 3680 W. 6th St. (213) 387-9292. The L.A. branch of a Korean barbecue chain, also serving naengmyon cold noodles.
Haroo Tea House, 600 S. Harvard Blvd. #108. (213) 385-5919. A new neighborhood tea house with a wide variety of teas.
Olympic Spa, 3915 W. Olympic Blvd. (323) 857-0666. An all-women’s Korean spa for soaks, scrubs, massages, facials -- and seaweed soup.
Dan Sung Sa, 3317 W. 6th St. A popular neighborhood tavern, with a full menu of anju, or bar snacks.
Yissi HwaRo, 3465 W. 6th St. #130. (213) 365-8111. A pork belly barbecue bistro in the Chapman Plaza.
Live City 4001, 4001 W. 6th St. (323) 465-4001. A norae bang with table service: fruit platters, galbi short ribs, soju and beer.
Velvet Room, 3470 Wilshire Blvd. (213) 381-6006. A restaurant and nightclub popular with the early-20s set with full bar and dance floor.
Albenei, 3470 W. 6th St. #6. (213) 388-1105. A 24-hour spot popular with the late-night crowd for jampong seafood soup.
Cafeoke Ding Dong Dang, 1001 S. Vermont Ave. #207. (213) 388-9006. Late-night norae bang with an extensive song list in English, Korean, even Thai.
Mom’s Restaurant (Umma Jip), 3126 W. 8th St. (213) 381-7077. A 24-hour spot with breakfast specials from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. that start at $2.99.
-- Betty Hallock