Java perks up Koreatown

Times Staff Writer

The way Jack Shin sees it, he’s selling the city’s cheapest vacation.

Spend $4.95 for a cup of drip coffee and drink it in his 100-foot-long model of the Titanic, which he built on a busy stretch of Western Avenue, and Shin guarantees you’ll come away refreshed.

“Everyone is working and making money to pay bills and they’re very tight. One coffee here and they feel like they’ve been on a cruise and they’re relaxed,” Shin said.


The claim may seem as over-the-top as Leonardo DiCaprio yelling “I’m king of the world!” in James Cameron’s film, but it’s a winning formula in Koreatown, the city’s unlikely capital of late-night coffee shops.

The businesses have become the area’s de facto country clubs by bringing a whiff of gentility to Koreatown’s alcohol-fueled night scene. The shops are almost exclusively patronized by Koreans who will pay high prices not just for the java but for an atmosphere in which they can do business during the day and meet friends at night.

“The tables are better, the service is better. Everything is better than Starbucks. . . . It’s like Seoul,” said Seoul native Kevin Pak, 48, who comes to Shin’s Cafe Jack three or four times a week.

Cafe Jack looks like a teenage girl’s dream bedroom circa 1997. There’s a wall of DiCaprio and Kate Winslet photos adorned with red twinkling lights as if it’s a shrine. The wood furniture looks like it belongs on a cruise ship. A staircase leads to the second floor, where you can lean out over the bow and imagine the street’s really the Atlantic Ocean. The only thing that disturbs the vision is the Korean pop music in the background instead of “My Heart Will Go On.”

Shin said he’s seen “Titanic” more than 100 times. “I really like this sad, lovely story. It was my dream to build something like this in Koreatown,” he said.

Shin said he’d seen themed cafes in Korea and wanted to build one here. There are currently about a dozen high-end coffee shops in Koreatown.

Even though joe only became popular in Korea within the last 20 years, coffeehouses have quickly become part of the culture. There are now almost 150 Starbucks in Seoul, where one branch is four stories to accommodate the crowds.

Because apartments in Seoul are generally smaller than their U.S. equivalents, many Koreans spend hours socializing and doing business in cafes.

But making the dream a reality wasn’t easy. It took Shin, 46, a year to build the 5,000-square-foot structure. Shin, who owns an interior design company and has done construction work, only employed a crew of two men.

On his opening night, five customers showed up.

“I thought, ‘What have I done?’ ” said Shin, anxiously tugging the sleeve of his green hoodie at the memory.

But he quickly developed a loyal following. Pak recently spent several hours on Cafe Jack’s smoking patio, where he had two coffees and four Parliament Lights while talking with a friend.

Pak said he especially likes the customer service. Each table is equipped with a small button hidden behind the sugar that summons waiters almost instantaneously.

“It’s a place you can bring a business colleague or a girlfriend,” said Pak, who almost never goes to Starbucks. “They make you feel important.”

Not every Cafe Jack customer is as anti-Starbucks as Pak. Jin Kim stops at one near her Pasadena home almost every day. “But that’s a morning thing, when I’m in a hurry. At night, it’s easier to come here,” she said.

Kim comes to Cafe Jack once a week to visit with her friend Dami Song, who drives down from the Santa Clarita area. The two catch up and then plug their laptops in and study until the wee hours of the morning -- Cafe Jack is open until 2 a.m.

“Nobody cares how long you stay, and it just feels homier,” Kim said.

Shin said he wants to attract a variety of clients but estimates that about 60% of his customers are Korean.

They’re probably one of the few area groups that can afford the high prices. A cup of regular coffee costs about $5 in most shops, more than double Starbucks’ prices. A recent survey conducted by a Koreatown nonprofit worker’s advocacy group found that three-fourths of the area’s residents earn less than $35,000 a year.

Koreans are the sixth-largest temporary worker group in the country and the number is growing. In 2006, about 950,000 Koreans entered the country on a non-immigrant basis, up from about 830,000 two years earlier, according to the federal government.

The temporary workers have the option of returning to Korea and don’t necessarily feel the need to assimilate or mix with the general population.

“Who in their right mind would walk into a Korean American business and order a $5 cup of coffee at two in the morning except a Korean?” asked John Park, a professor of Asian American studies at UC Santa Barbara. “To pay that much for something . . . shows a self-conscious exclusivity.”

Even though the shops are open late, some Koreatown leaders prefer them to nightclubs. The area has one of the city’s highest concentration of liquor licenses and alcohol is blamed for late-night crime.

“At least they’re not bars. We have enough of those,” said Johng Ho Song, executive director of the Koreatown Youth & Community Center.

Other, less-kitschy coffee shops have began popping up throughout the area.

The most opulent might be the Coffee House Heyri on Hobart Avenue, which took two years and more than $1 million to renovate.

The formerly run-down structure now looks like a modern Buddhist temple, all dark wood and sleek metal meeting in clean angles. Seventeen palm trees ring the front parking lot and there’s a fountain big enough for a starlet to take a drunken dip in the back patio.

Water comes in hip, teardrop shaped glasses and there’s regular drip coffee as well as a “Korean” brew, an ultra-sweet mixture of instant coffee and cream.

On a recent night, a few smokers gathered on the outside patio, stubbing their cigarettes out in ashtrays filled with fresh espresso grounds. A group of hipsters gathered around a table, nursing their espressos and nibbling lemon cake. The women chatted in Korean while the men kept their eyes on the flat screen TV, which was showing SportsCenter.

“You can actually sit and talk. You’re not crowded in,” said Simon Kim, an architect who lived in Korea for 24 years.

Heyri looks like a perfect place for a bar, and it’s open until 4 a.m., but owner Jae Ahn said he never entertained the idea. Getting a liquor license can be a lengthy process. And even though bars are potentially more lucrative, less can go wrong with a coffee shop, Ahn figured.

“Liquor’s too much trouble,” he said.

Ahn said Koreans are his target audience, but others are beginning to find their way to Heyri. Peter Marx, 44, recently came with his wife and two friends after dinner because they were intrigued by the decor. The friends lounged on an upstairs couch for about an hour before ringing the bell for a waiter.

“It’s very civilized. We’d love to come back,” Marx said.