Can’t get to Pyeongchang? Los Angeles may not have snow, but we have Koreatown, a vibrant neighborhood of incredible restaurants, bars, markets, spas, bookstores and more. Exploring it is a sport all its own.
If you have been watching the Pyeongchang Olympics, hoping to catch a glimpse of the area’s famous buckwheat noodles, or wish that the coverage reached to the local trout farms as well as the biathlon and the luge, you aren’t alone. Korea is one of the most fascinating food countries in the world, with regional dishes that seem to change from block to block, a mind-wrenching array of fermentations, and spicy foods hardwired to jolt the pleasure center of your brain.
Los Angeles, of course, is lucky enough to have the largest Korean community outside the motherland and a concentration of restaurants that pick up trends sometimes just months after they have hit Seoul. Koreatown isn’t just a Korean neighborhood — with its markets, nightclubs, towers, billiard parlors and food-obsessive mini-malls, it sometimes seems as if it is a distant prefecture of Seoul that just happens to be extra-rich in Salvadorans and Oaxacans; a place that honors not just the emigrés who started arriving in California in the late 1970s but also their children — Chloe Kim! — who have invented a brand new way to be American.
Sometimes I think A-Won should be better-regarded for its seafood tangs — boiling, frothing, chile-smacked soups served in red-hot communal pots. Al tang, thick with mushrooms, herbs and chewy sacs of cod roe, is especially good. But it is hard to get out of there without ordering al bap, a hearty Korean equivalent of Japanese chirashi: a bowl of seasoned rice striped with different kinds of roe, a bit of omelet, and even a bit of barbecued eel. The Korean sashimi isn’t bad, either — it’s bigger than the Japanese kind, and you can dose it with bean paste and raw garlic if you want. But the restaurant’s famous specialty is hwe dup bap, slivers of raw fish that you toss at the table with greens, vegetables, pickles and hot rice, tinting it as red as you dare with chile paste that you squirt out of a repurposed ketchup bottle.
If you asked a CGI guy to reinvent tofu, it would probably look a lot like soondubu, a heaving mass that spits like a lake of volcanic lava and broadcasts a fine, gory mist of chile and broth. The soondubu cult has spread pretty far in the Los Angeles area, and if you look hard enough you can probably find a cauldron of the seething bean curd within a few minutes of your home. But the local soondubu masters have been preparing the dish at Beverly Soon Tofu for something like 32 years, and the barely gelled blocks of pure, subtle tofu, which you can order spicy or nonspicy, are still unsurpassed. I like the version with clams.
Koreatown has rarely been noted for its serenity, but on the right afternoon, when you’re slumped into the kind of low padded chairs that resemble artifacts from a bank lobby circa 1983, Bon Juk, the local outlet of a popular Seoul-based porridge specialist, can seem soothingly bland. The walls are dominated by huge photographs of the various kinds of porridge on offer, along with descriptions of their nutritive virtues — the porridge with smoked salmon comes off almost as a Korean version of a Scottish kedgeree, and the deluxe jeonbokjuk is spiked with an impressive quantity of chewy abalone shards. The pumpkin porridge with glutinous rice dumplings is sweet, gentle and utterly calming. Are you going to get the spicy porridge with octopus and kimchi instead? I don’t blame you.
It is not difficult to find samgyetang in Koreatown restaurants. The brothy, whole game hen, stuffed with sticky rice, jujubes and gnarled fingers of fresh ginseng, is one of the most restorative dishes in a culture dedicated to restorative cuisine — it’s like delicatessen chicken soup times 10. But the best samgyetang in Koreatown is probably at this cramped mini-mall specialist. When you sprinkle a bit of gray sea salt into the bland soup, the flavors bloom as if by magic: pockets of pureed garlic infusing the rice, plumes of sweetness trickling from the dried fruit, and a lovely chickeny aroma erupting from the bird’s soft flesh. For an extra couple of bucks, you can substitute shaved deer antler for the ginseng, but I’ve never felt the need.
Budae jjigae can seem a bit like an urban legend when you first hear about it, a spicy Korean soup thick with hot dogs, Spam and packaged ramen noodles, ingredients originally cadged from American military bases around Seoul. It is sometimes called military stew, sometimes Johnson tang, in honor of President Johnson. I should probably emphasize that Chunju Han-il Kwan is a nice place, with an elegant array of banchan, small plates, served before the meal, a large repertory of traditional soups and stews, tons of seafood and crisp, lacy potato pancakes. It serves proper Korean food. But what draws the crowds on weekends is undoubtedly the level-10 budae jjigae, kimchi, rice cakes and fresh chrysanthemum leaves crowding the processed meats — and what you eat is both delicious and unmistakably Korean, another example of the culture’s genius at finding the beauty in unpromising ingredients.
If you spend a lot of time watching old Asian movies, Dan Sung Sa may be the kind of place you thought had disappeared half a century ago — dim, wooden and loud, lined with walled, graffiti-splattered booths, centered on cooks who crouch over guttering flames. It wasn’t until the owners built a website that most non-Koreans learned that the restaurant was an interpretation of a pojangmacha, the orange-tented street pubs quickly disappearing from Seoul, designed to resemble an old Korean movie theater. You hadn’t needed a menu to realize that the restaurant was built around the cheerful consumption of soju; grilled skewers holding meat, seafood or the seaweed-laminated dough-vermicelli constructions everyone called “dumbbells”; and bar food like sauteed octopus, kimchi pancakes and barbecued pork ribs. The cabbage soup, which comes with your first drink, is served in a metal bowl so battered you might wonder whether somebody worked it over with a baseball bat.
Dong Il Jang is pretty old-school even for Koreatown, a vestige of the time before the scene was dominated by barbecue restaurants — the dark interior may remind you of old steakhouses like Taylor’s. And while there is plenty of barbecue to go around here, almost everybody orders the roast gui instead — beautiful sliced rib-eye seared in butter on a huge tabletop pan. Snatch a piece from the hot iron before the juices cook out, season it with a bit of sesame oil and salt, and chase it with an icy shot of soju: perfect. Dong Il Jang’s version of the Korean steak tartare called yuk hwe, slivered raw beef tossed with sesame oil and slivers of Asian pear, is often considered the best in K-town.
Has Eight stopped advertising grilled pork belly as health food? If so, I don’t really want to know. Because it always put a little jump in my step, imagining that the set menu of eight seasoned pork belly slabs was toning my body in eight different ways, the ginseng pork belly toning metabolism before the garlic pork belly got around to the cholesterol, the curry-flavored pork belly preventing Alzheimer’s before the bright-green herbed pork belly went to work easing depression. It’s like statins, beta-blockers and Prozac all in one, administered in the form of tabletop-grilled pork belly. Could you ask for more persuasive evidence of a loving God?
Soondae, blood sausage, is one of the most popular Korean dishes in Los Angeles as well as in Seoul — thin casings stuffed with oxblood and transparent threads of rice vermicelli, then boiled in an organ-rich soup, fried crisp or sauteed with vegetables and heaps of spicy bean paste. It’s oddly genteel stuff, soondae, neither as funky nor as goopy as you might fear. And at the lovely Eighth Street Soondae, one of the oldest of Koreatown’s many soondae parlors, it is the stuff of shirtsleeve business lunches. The house combination plate includes crunchy fried soondae, sliced pig’s ear and a heap of boiled pork intestines, evoking the Korean equivalent of a Lyonnaise bouchon.
The only American branch of a small Seoul-based chain uses only prime beef. It charges prices not much less than what you might expect to pay in a splashy American steakhouse. And it is devoted to the cult of bulgogi, which has a reputation as the poor relation of Korean barbecue world, the one dish nobody is happy to see on the table at a cheap all-you-can-eat KBBQ joint. Yet the crisp kimchi pancakes are served on an arrangement of fresh ggaenip leaves, the pungent herb at the heart of Korean cuisine. The yuk hwe is luxuriant and soft. The barbecued skirt steak, rib steak and the kkot sal, richly marbled “flower beef,” are tasty. And the Gangnam-style bulgogi is splendid: big, garlicky sheets of beef that crumple and soften on the tabletop grill, scented with smoke, sesame and pear, dissolving like ice cream on your tongue.
Is Ham Hung a North Korean restaurant? Sort of, I guess, in that it’s named after North Korea’s second largest city. And its best dish is also of North Korean origin — bibim naengmyeon, chewy cold buckwheat noodles tossed with spicy gochujang, slivered vegetables and extra-chewy bits of raw skate, whose slightly weird taste is just right. In its former location, Ham Hung was one of the grand restaurants of Koreatown. In its current strip mall location, it’s a noodle shop with attitude. You wouldn’t be wrong if you decided to get a plate of sweet grilled short ribs on the side.
Some people think that Ham Ji Park's spicy gamjatang, brick-red pork neck and potato soup, may be the single-best hangover cure in an area dense in hangover cures. The chowder-thick brew certainly feels soothing. There are a lot of other gamjatang specialists in Koreatown, but the density, the soft meat and the piney snap of the version at the original Pico Boulevard Ham Ji Park always strikes me as the most pleasant — ranking even a tick or so above the soup at the restaurant's 6th Street branch. The restaurant’s other great dish is pork ribs — beautifully caramelized and not too sweet, a massive pile to be snipped into edible mouthfuls at the table with a pair of scissors. An order of each, supplemented with beer and soju, is more than enough food for four or five.
Sullungtang is a peculiar specialty for a restaurant, basically beef bones boiled for days until the liquid turns pearly gray and the aroma is more of minerals than meat. It’s bone broth in its most intense form, yet as soothing as a glass of milk. It may take on presence only after you stir in green onion tops and a smidge more salt than you may think it needs. A lot of places in Los Angeles do sullungtang. At Han Bat, it is the only thing on the menu, ready to be supplemented with flank, brisket or a variety pack of cattle organs. Some people consider it vulgar to flavor the soup with the house chile paste, but we promise not to tell.
The longest lines in the restaurant strip mall on 6th at Alexandria are for Dan Sung Sa — its spicy galbijjim is a pure adrenaline rush. But the second longest are for the thick, hand-cut noodles at Hangari. At noon and in the early evening, the waits for both places are about the same, which can lead to 45 minutes of pure FOMO, flitting back and forth between the sign-in sheets, unwilling to commit to one pleasure or another. And then your name is called at Hangari, and you settle into an enormous bowl of those noodles in anchovy-scented broth, lavishly paved with tiny manila clams, spiked with well-aged kimchi (if you’ve asked for it), a long-simmered umami bomb. I’m still not sure why a tiny bowl of dressed, cooked barley is brought out before the noodles — an extra dose of starch? — but the chewy grains are nutty and delicious.
The sedate tearoom may be the only calm bit of real estate in Koreatown on a busy afternoon, a place to sit at low tables, listen to traditional Korean music and linger over an aged green tea. The menu of sweets is limited but includes Koreatown’s definitive pat bing su, a restrained dessert of shaved ice and sweet beans that somehow evolved elsewhere into monstrous concoctions containing canned fruit cocktail, whipped cream and showers of Fruity Pebbles. Hwa Sun Ji’s idea of crazy fun is su jung hwa, a cold, sweet punch flavored with cinnamon and dried persimmon, garnished with a single pine nut.
Dinner at a shellfish grill is one of the most enduring rituals in Koreatown. A waitress scatters clams on a wire grill; you pluck them the moment they pop open. Tiny scallops on the half-shell seethe in butter. Surf clam shells sizzle. Huge oysters steam in their shells. Prawns blacken. Snails simmer in vessels fashioned from aluminum foil. Sweet potatoes roast in the embers. You dip everything in gochujang, melted butter or both. If you pay a little extra, hagfish, an ancient precursor to the eel, will be set to writhing on the grill too. It’s as easy as specifying an A, B or C dinner. Jae Bu Do is open until 2 a.m., which can be handy if you’re looking for somewhere to have supper after a show.
When you visit the city of Jeonju, you will probably notice that many of the streets are lined with restaurants serving tossed rice salad, the region’s great gift to cuisine. So it is no surprise that the Koreatown restaurant Jeon Ju serves practically nothing but bibimbap — a minimalist concoction of rice, mountain vegetables, an egg and oddly delicious bean sprouts (plus meat if you want it) tossed with a big spoonful of the fermented chile-bean paste gochujang. Jeon Ju’s bibimbap is as deep and complex as a dram of old Scotch. Try the dolsot version made in a superheated stone vessel. There will be a subtly smoky flavor and a delicious, crunchy crust, like Korean tahdig, to nibble on toward the end of the meal.
The old Jun Won felt a little like a private club, a secret, hidden dining room with some of L.A.’s best home-style cooking. In its new location, tucked next to a Uygher barbecue in a crowded strip mall, it is merely obscure, although that doesn’t seem to stop the crowds piling in at dinnertime for the pan-fried mackerel, marinated raw crab or spicy sauteed octopus, served with some of the most varied and freshest banchan in town. The bossam, a platter of sliced boiled pork belly served with fermented tiny fish and leaves and pickles to wrap it in, is perhaps a bit less elaborate than what you find at Kobawoo or Jang Teo, but is worth trying anyway — get it with fresh oysters to tuck in with the pork. And it would be a crime to visit without an order of chefly black cod steamed with thick slices of radish, which is one of the best dishes in Koreatown.
There are those who might dismiss Baekjeong as a chain restaurant owned by a celebrity. And they are right, at least inasmuch as the place is owned by a Korean wrestler-turned-reality show star, a life-size cutout wobbles outside the front door, and it is hard to avoid the idea that it is expanding too rapidly. (I’m not crazy about the branches in Temple City or Buena Park.) But even given the two-hour wait for a table on weekends, Baekjeong is still one of the better Korean barbecue places in Koreatown: set menus of short ribs and bulgogi and beef tongue and pork belly are nicely seared off on big tabletop charcoal grills. The grills are surrounded by built-in wells in which scrambled eggs and corn cheese will cook in the course of your meal. And you should also probably get an order of shaken dosirak, a Korean lunchbox that you whang around until the contents rearrange into a crude bibimbap. It may be the only standard restaurant dish anywhere in the world whose origin points to a bored 6-year-old on a playground.
When I first started going to Kobawoo House back in the first Bush administration, I assumed that the house specialty was Korean pancakes: seafood pancakes ballasted with scallions, fluffy potato pancakes and lovely, crisp mung bean pancakes, bindaeduk, studded with bright pink bits of pork. Later, I decided it was the place to go for samgyetang, a whole, ginseng-stuffed game hen served in a pot with some of the city’s best chicken soup. It took a while, but I finally figured out what everybody was waiting in line for was the bossam, sliced pork belly that you wrap into cabbage leaf tacos with turnip kimchi, sliced chiles, fermented tiny fish — and cloves of raw garlic, if that’s the way you roll. You are going to want soju with that, a bottle of cold beer, and maybe a nap in the Uber on the way home.
The Korean fried chicken wars have come and gone. The next strip mall opening is much more likely to involve science-y desserts or beef soup than it is yet another alt-KFC. And the brine-steam-fry recipe in David Chang’s Momofuku cookbook turns out to be pretty easy to make. But while the heat may have come down a bit on KyoChon since it was the white-hot center of the fried chicken universe, the shattering, thin-skinned snap of its basic, garlic-saturated bird is still worth keeping in mind. And it comes with all the marinated turnip cubes you can eat.
Gook soo, the thickish hand-cut tagliatelle at the heart of the Korean noodle kitchen, may be the ultimate Korean comfort food, served in a stock based on dried anchovies, and topped with kimchi, seaweed or meat. Ma Dang Gook Soo is probably the classic Koreatown noodle shop, and it is hard to imagine a summer without its kong gook soo, those same noodles in cold soy milk flavored with a few drops of sesame.
To go out for dak galbi is to submit to its ritual, to spend 90 minutes floating through the cosmos on dak galbi time. You sit around a table with a pit in its center and a ventilation duct humming overhead. You will be asked what to eat, but the question is a formality — you will be eating chicken from a communal iron pan. The waiter dumps a big bowl of marinated chicken onto the iron pan, then rice noodles, then sweet potatoes, then chopped cabbage. Just at the point when you wonder whether it is all going to burn, somebody comes by to stir in what looks like an armload of pungent ggaenip leaves and you pounce onto the sweet-hot mountain of chicken. When the food is mostly eaten and the chile sauce boils down to a thick, glossy puddle, the remnants are transformed into another mountain of fried rice. The crunchy, half-burnt bits at the bottom are widely considered the best part. And they are.
Masan, another Koreatown landmark as far back as anyone can remember, is famous for its monkfish stew, the specialty of the southern city from which the restaurant takes its name. And that stew, agujjim, is pretty spectacular, stuffed with bean sprouts, briny sea squirts and as much chile as you can stand, transforming into what may remind you of seagoing pork. Masan also does a lively trade in the ephemera of the Korean live-seafood restaurant, including uni, halibut sashimi and san-nakji, the infamous octopus dish in which the tentacles of the recently dispatched cephalopod are still writhing on the plate. You may recognize the dish from the suffocation-by-octopus subplots not uncommon in Korean dramas.
When things begin to go south in the mean hours after last call, Mountain is one of the first places Koreatown regulars will drag you, a gleaming yet morose 24-hour café recently relocated to the mall that holds Sun Nong Dan and Hangari. There is a permanent, if appropriate funk of kimchi and boiled animal — the short menu is more or less limited to soups: a decent samgyetang; the mandoo gook studded with dumplings and rice cakes; and a decent kimchi jjigae. As at many soup restaurants, the banchan include jangjorim, cold simmered beef with sliced chiles. And in the morning, almost everybody in the restaurant is eating jeonbokjuk, abalone porridge, decorated with a raw egg yolk that shines from the oblong bowl like the sun of a new day. I once hinted that the dose of actual abalone in the porridge was homeopathic — and while the description was not inaccurate, it has never stopped me from ordering the dish
I have never quite gotten over the short life of Chungsil Hongsil, a shop owned by the relatives of a K-pop idol that served what were by far the best Korean dumplings in town. But the dumplings at Myung In, in the requisite cramped mini-mall storefront, are really pretty good, especially the wang mandoo — snowy-white buns blown up to the size of small grapefruit, stuffed with loosely packed fistfuls of ground meat and aromatics. They’re slightly refined versions of the mandoo you might pick up near a subway station in Seoul, and slightly irresistible in spite of their size.
The last time I dropped into OB Bear, a loud, ramshackle pub across the street from the campus of Southwestern Law School, my wife decided not to get the chicken wings. And while there is nothing wrong with the sauteed octopus, fried tteokbokki noodles or ggaenip pancakes at the tavern, those spicy, salty blazing-red fried wings have ruined more shirts than any other in Koreatown, and are the perfect accompaniment to way too much beer. Did the whole fried game hen make up for the lack of wings? For the sake of my marriage, I will admit it: yes. That greasy, juicy game hen, about 90% crunch, is awfully good.
Cheonggukjang is more or less the Korean equivalent of Japanese natto, or Taiwanese smelly tofu, a deeply fermented soy product enjoyed mostly by people who have been eating it since birth. The waiters here may warn you off the soup made from it if you are not Korean. It is deep culture. Yet there it is, roiling in a superheated bowl, the occasional mephitic bubble breaking the surface; slippery whole beans bobbing alongside herbs and cubes of tofu; crimson, smoking and alive. After a few bites, the soup takes over your body like an animist spirit. It is good to be alive.
Park’s may no longer be the only top-end Korean barbecue place in town, and some of its fans may have gravitated to the nearby specialty houses concentrating on pork, intestines or bulgogi. But the beyond-prime short ribs, beef tongue and rare-breed pork belly at Park’s are of the highest possible standard, the banchan are inventive and fresh, and the cold noodles called naengmyon, the traditional finish to a barbecue meal, are tart and springy. Even things like stone-pot octopus, braised black cod and a simple kimchi jjigae have depths of flavor you may not expect. It is probably beyond argument that Jenee Kim’s modernist restaurant is still the best place in Koreatown to eat Korean barbecue.
Perhaps you are one of those people searching for one of the few decent Mexican restaurants that also happen to serve margaritas. Or more to the point, you may yearn for a good Korean restaurant whose selection of alcohol extends past beer, soju and sweet raspberry wine, and where cheese dip might show up with the kimchi. Quarters, like its distant relation Kang-Ho Dong Baekjong across Chapman Plaza, serves richly marbled galbi and rib-eye, pork collar and pig jowl of surprisingly high quality — the place feels a little like an airport lounge — but in tiny quarter-pound portions that basically serve as snacks to go with a Slammin’ Strawberry Rita. If the idea of Korean nachos sounds exciting, you’re in the right place.
Everybody will tell you to go to Seongbukdong for the galbi jjim, and they are absolutely correct. The long-braised short ribs, cooked with housemade soy sauce and a kitchen’s worth of aromatics, have the sweet breath and soft, slightly fibrous chew that speak of comfort, tradition and long afternoons at grandmother’s house. The braised mackerel with chile is among the best bites of seafood in Koreatown, cooked in a way that accentuates its fishiness instead of quieting it. Even the bean-paste soup, a standard on almost every Korean menu, is extraordinary here, with a deep, salty note of fermentation that cuts through its richness like a bassoon.
When somebody asks me to name the best dish in Koreatown, I invariably tell them to try Soban’s ganjang gaejang, an ultrafresh raw crab briefly marinated in housemade soy sauce — a glorious, gelatinous, sea-briny mess. The crabs are expensive and never as large as you wish they would be. If Soban weren’t so genteel, you can almost imagine yourself wrestling for the leg, scooping up rogue lumps of roe, or turning the shell over to scrape out whatever fragments of tomalley might have adhered to the inside. Before the crab, there will have been Soban’s famous presentation of 18 or so banchan, the tiny side dishes that form Act 1 of a Korean meal. The spicy galbi jjim, the ubiquitous braised short-rib preparation, is just stunning here, as weightless and as caramelized as an effort by a Michelin-starred chef. And it would be a mistake to leave without trying the eundaegu jorim, a gorgeous, spicy casserole starring braised black cod.
No one, I think, has ever claimed that Soot Bull Jeep was the best Korean barbecue restaurant in Los Angeles. Even in its earliest days there were always places that were fancier or used better cuts of meat. But Soot Bull Jeep, which is still the only restaurant in Koreatown to rely solely on live coals, has always been a lot of people’s favorite KBBQ — not just soju and platters of marinated raw meat, but smoke, fire and showers of small cinders that can leave your shirt looking like one of the Three Stooges after an encounter with an exploding cigar.
Korean barbecue, yes. But more to the point, Korean duck barbecue: sliced duck breast cooked on heavy iron grills in a room thick with the miasma of vaporized fat. You snatch the slices from the grill as they cook and incorporate them into a kind of endless duck salad. The non-breast parts of the duck cook slowly, rendering into cracklings if you can bear to wait that long. And the best part, as always, is the fried rice at the end made with the collected duck fat and scraps of kimchi from the table; sweet and spicy and crisp.
The restaurant is named after an archaic term for sullungtang, a gentle bone broth famous for its effectiveness as a morning-after tonic. But the swelling crowd outside the tiny Koreatown storefront is there for the short-rib stew, galbi jjim, which is pretty much everything about Korean cooking cranked up to 10 — a violent red lagoon of meat and broth, hissing and bubbling, enveloped in a small universe of steam. If you have ordered it with cheese — you have to order it with cheese — a waiter scoops a big handful of white stuff over the top and blasts it with a torch until the mass breaks down into oozing, char-flecked rivulets that stretch from your chopsticks like pizza goo.
Korean chefs are fond of riffing on sashimi, ramen, Westernized yoshuko dishes and other staples of Japanese cuisine, although it could be argued that Korean cooking has had a far greater influence on the kitchens of Japan. So the idea of donkasu, the Korean take on the Japanese take on Portuguese fried pork, was almost inevitable. And the donkasu at Wako is wonderful — perfectly crunchy cutlets of pork or chicken, about the size of deep-fried Zagat guides, served with cabbage salad and a bowl of miso soup, and a tiny ridged bowl into which you’ve ground toasted sesame seeds with a pestle, then topped off with a perfumed dipping sauce.
How cold is Yu Chun's mool chic naengmyun? So cold that it gives you an ice cream headache. So cold that the tangy beef broth builds up in soft drifts in the middle of the bowl. So cold that the customary beverage is peppery beef broth served in metal mugs, warmed to stave off the frosty chill. There are any number of restaurants in Koreatown well known for their cold noodles, including the Corner Place, whose sugary dongchimi gook soo recipe is better guarded than state secrets seem to be at the moment. But when the temperature leans toward three digits and the asphalt begins to soften, even the thought of Yu Chun's stretchy black noodles can be enough to cool you down.
Yukdaejang, the first American outpost of a largish Korea-based chain, specializes in yukgaejang, a spicy, ruddy beef soup shot through with slippery cellophane noodles. The menu is small. There are those yukgaejang, a version made with thick, hand-cut noodles; and a pretty straight-ahead sullongtang, the long-simmered bone broth with which all the soups are made, which is delicious, with a pronounced roast-meat flavor usually missing in bone broth. And the marinated garlic leeks that appear with the banchan are sharp and lovely. If you need a starter (you won’t), the delicate steamed mandoo have a finesse rarely seen in Koreatown dumplings.
These bars are for those who want a certain kind of night out in K-town: one fueled by repeated bottles of soju and hot skillets of corn cheese.
Located on the bottom floor of a shopping center, Go Pocha is sandwiched between a smoke shop and a clothing store, and you will probably think you’re in the wrong place. Inside, the dining room sparkles with twinkling lights wrapped around a tree in the center of the room. Hundreds of what seem to be real $100 bills are stapled to the trunk and along the branches. (You’ll invariably inspect one closely before the night is through.) The dining room looks like the bottom of a game of Tetris, with semi-private tables sectioned off so that your rowdy party feels like the most important one in the room. Each table receives a free skillet of scrambled eggs, cooked at the table — their version of a complimentary bread and butter service. Order a bottle of fizzy soju (called sparkling soju) and you’ll get a shimmy or two from the waiter as he swirls the bottle and pours everyone a shot. Soju, cheese corn, kimchi pancake, an inspection of the $100 bills: Repeat until those twinkling lights start to fade.
If you’re looking for a place to cheer on the U.S. (or Korean) Olympic teams, this is the place. Mok Maru Jong Sul Jip is a large bar outfitted with multiple TVs that surround the room, so you’re never far from the bobsledding action. The bar is connected by a narrow hallway to the restaurant Pipers next door. If you order food — you should order cheese corn and some tteobokki (spicy rice cakes) to soak up the soju — it will come from the Pipers kitchen. Most Friday nights the crowd is a mix of Korean businessmen in suits double-fisting soju shots and twentysomethings there for the happy hour discount. The bar serves Chamisul soju and Chamisul fresh — the fresh version is just a tad sweeter than the original and has a slightly lower ABV. For those who may tire of the soju and cheese corn combo, there’s a full bar and carne asada fries and burgers on the menu. The decor, like many bars in Koreatown, leans toward a repurposed pirate ship look, with lots of dark wood and empty barrels. But in this ship, there’s a makeshift Dodgers shrine with newspaper clippings of the recent World Series run (sorry) and player bobbleheads.
Yes, this is actually a prison-themed bar. No, the name is not a typo. Located just outside of Koreatown proper, in a busy shopping center on 8th Street, Prizon Bar is a place for people who actually like the Alcatraz tour and maybe watched “The Rock” a few too many times. It’s dark inside, and the dining room is sectioned off into cells by fake bars and a chain-link fence. You sit on white chairs or black and white striped benches that will make you think of George Clooney in that Coen brothers movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” And the menu is just as odd as the decor. The complimentary pre-drink snack is a bowl of tortilla chips and chunky, spicy salsa. You can order pasta, French fries and quesadillas along with pork cutlets and the traditional tteobokki. Although the food menu experiences a sort of identity crisis, the drink menu is straightforward with its selection of Chamisul soju and beer. And the drinks are 50% off during happy hour, which happens every day.
It wouldn’t be a proper Koreatown drinking list without at least one karaoke bar. Soop Sok, which has been around since 1986, is one of the originals. And it’s just as good a place as any to pick up a microphone and belt out your version of “Bette Davis Eyes.” It’s easy to reserve a room if you call ahead, and they have a decent selection in the songbooks. Most of the rooms have disco lights or some sort of lighting that will make you feel like you’re in a ’70s dance club. The smallest bottle of soju easily serves three; let this be a little insight into the type of evening you’ll have. And there are plenty of snacks to munch on while you sing: spicy chicken wings; spicy seafood soup and kimchi fried rice. They charge for the rooms by the hour, so plan accordingly.
Make sure this is the last stop on your Koreatown crawl, not the first. The bowl of complimentary, stale, cracked tortillas chips delivered to your table when you arrive can be a godsend — but likely only at the end of the evening. The menus are a tad sticky, and as you look up to admire one of the many hanging lanterns, you realize the decor in here once again reminds you of a pirate ship, with both tables and chairs made out of wide, misshapen wooden planks. But you are here for perhaps the last round of soju of the night. The bar serves Chamisul as well as Chum Churum soju (which is a little harsher going down), and a selection of flavored soju (unless you like bad-flavored vodka, probably skip these). Crazy fries anyone? Whatever you’re imagining, this is crazier: a heap of fries peering up from a blanket of cheese sauce that tastes like mayonnaise mixed with honey mustard but that the server insists is actually cheese sauce, and a sprinkling of crushed Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
The name alone might intrigue you, or encourage you to run the other direction. Most people refer to Toe Bang as that place you grab a drink at while you wait for your table at Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong or Quarters Korean BBQ in Chapman Plaza. The bar is located behind the valet for those two Korean barbecue restaurants and offers a view of the crowds at both, which might require a few more drinks. Toe Bang, specializes in drinking food: heaps of crisp fried chicken gizzards; brutally spiced chicken wings; plates of fried Spam; skillets of cheese corn; and bubbling cauldrons of budae jjigae, the spicy “army” stew that consists of Spam, noodles, kimchi and beans. And then there’s the soju. Toe Bang has a decent selection, including original, the fizzy stuff, plenty of flavors and yogurt soju cocktails made with soju, yogurt and something bubbly (usually soda or sparkling water). You may want to skip the Korean barbecue all together.
After all that eating and drinking, the vast network of Koreatown spas can soothe what ails you. Read more »
The Century Day & Night Spa offers a range of one-stop opportunities, with a produce stand in the parking lot, golf driving range next door, swimming pool in the basement and jimjilbang (co-ed baths and saunas) with a community-center feel.
The gateway to the Crystal Spa is through an Aveda shop, which may be why it smells of jasmine and citrus instead of chlorine and towels. Crystal offers a salt room and a woman who nimbly walks across your back.
Looking to make your own Korean dishes at home? These markets stock everything from kimchi to marinated meats, prepared banchan and cooking supplies.
If you’ve been to a Korean wedding or large party, chances are the food was catered by Banchan a la Carte. Named for the side dishes generally served with a Korean meal, the business focuses primarily on catering and event planning for a variety of celebrations and formal functions. But the location itself, tucked into the back of a narrow parking lot, also features a deli, market and cafe. In addition to kimchi and a variety of homemade banchan, the market features a wide selection of salads, stocks and soups, pastas and other prepared meal items for reheating at home. If you’re in the area during lunch hours, enjoy a meal outside in the small patio area.
Located on the bottom floor of a shopping center, the inside of Choice Meat Market is a meat lover’s paradise, the small space defined by a sprawling meat counter filled with a wide range of cuts at competitive prices. Whether you’re looking for beef shabu-shabu, thinly-sliced rib-eye or pork collar bulgogi, the market carries a great selection of kobe-style, prime and choice meat, primarily beef and pork, including pre-marinated options. Choice Meats, which has been open for 24 years, also makes gift sets if you’re looking for that something special for you or the meat lover in your life. The market also carries a limited selection of banchan.
Perhaps the best sesame oil (cham gileum) you’ll find in Los Angeles comes from an unassuming little storefront hidden in that awkward triangular intersection on 8th Street, between Oxford and Western Avenues. There is no English sign out front, but you might know you’ve arrived if you catch a whiff of fresh sesame oil coming out of the front door. Mr. Chong (he doesn’t like to share his first name and refuses any sort of publicity), presses the oil himself in the back of the store and offers two varieties: a nutty, caramel brown toasted sesame oil and a slightly darker toasted black sesame oil. According to Chong, the regular sesame oil is the most popular with customers. Chong also offers freshly-pressed perilla oil and a small selection of bulk seeds, grains, nuts and spices. The store accepts cash only.
Opened in the basement of a sprawling upscale shopping center in 2014, the Los Angeles H-Mart is one of a national chain of Korean-focused supermarkets, which first opened on the East Coast in 1987. H Mart is a one-stop shop for all your grocery needs. The supermarket has a massive produce section which includes a wide array of herbs, roots and Asian fruit and produce. There are extensive selections of meat, poultry and seafood, as well as packaged and frozen foods. And you’ll also find aisles of spices, oils and sauces, dry goods, snacks and a variety of goods, Korean and otherwise. And don’t forget to stock up on kitchen supplies: The store carries a vast assortment of inexpensive cooking equipment and kitchen tools.
Perhaps you’ve seen the jars of Kae Sung kimchi sold in local stores and supermarkets. The brand may be the most popular kimchi in Los Angeles. The dish, a staple of Korean cuisine, is made by fermenting a variety of seasonal vegetables including cabbage, cucumbers and radishes. Sook Jae Cho, the matriarch of Kae Sung, has been making kimchi for almost five decades. For years, you could find her and her family at the market, selling a variety of kimchi flavors at a fraction of the price you might find elsewhere , touting the fresh, crisp flavors made without any MSG or artificial ingredients. Kae Sung Market is still open, though it recently changed hands and is now owned by Gui Yong Yang. Yang promises to keep the recipes — and all those funky, delicious flavors — the same.
Pour-overs, flat whites and Gibraltars: Here’s where to get caffeinated in Koreatown.
In the same strip mall as bossam specialist Kobawoo House is the nominally industrial Alchemist Coffee Project. Its location will be familiar to you if you’ve followed the specialty coffee scene over the last few years: Before it transitioned to Alchemist in 2016, the shop was called Bourbon Street Cafe. If you liked Bourbon Street’s take on New Orleans-style coffee, with cold brew, milk and a touch of chicory, you’ll be happy to know that you can still find it here on Alchemist’s menu. In addition, the crew makes terrific pour-over coffee and espresso drinks with beans from roasters such as Heart Coffee Roasters from Portland, Ore., and 49th Parallel Coffee Roasters from Vancouver, Canada. The shop has plenty of seats, though it does tend to get busy: Southwestern Law School is right around the corner, so it’s just as likely you’ll be sitting next to someone reading Paulo Coelho as someone studying for their torts final.
San Ji's Balcony Coffee and Tea is located in a strip mall on the northern edge of Koreatown, a cozy, homey place that has been supplying this part of the neighborhood with coffee for almost two years. When you walk in, you’ll find various figurines (Astro Boy, Spider-Man) posed around the shop, plus the Korean edition of the “Hunger Games” trilogy on the shelves alongside a rather impressive collection of John Grisham’s greatest hits. There’s also an old issue of GQ with Brad Pitt on the cover; not uncoincidentally, the most popular drink here is called the Brad Pitt, a sweetened iced latte topped with a cloud of soft, lovely foam. It’s made, as all drinks are here, with coffee from Stumptown Coffee Roasters. There’s a lovely patio too, lush and serene with greenery. If you’d rather something other than the Brad Pitt for your moment of peace, the cortados, matcha lattes and other drinks on the menu are solid options as well.
Beau Bar probably is one of the most Instagrammable coffee spots in Koreatown since it began pulling espressos off its La Marzocco early last year, a place where it’s not uncommon to catch someone taking a selfie with her Corgi outside and where the most coveted seat for both photographing and sitting is the wicker chair hanging from the ceiling toward the back of the shop. Photo shoots aside, you can well imagine taking Philip Pullman’s latest and enjoying it here with a cappuccino, honey latte or any other of Beau Bar's coffee drinks, made with the shop's own roasted beans. There is also a house horchata; a thick, mixed-grain milkshake made with misugaru; smoothies; and sparkling iced fruit concoctions. Like so much of the neighborhood, Beau Bar is open late — until 11 p.m. every day, meaning you can drop in for a coffee (and a photo) before finishing the night at Dan Sung Sa across the street.
Lavender and rose lattes are popular throughout Koreatown, but there are few places that combine those floral flavors with coffee and tea as well as Bia Coffee. Which isn’t a surprise given who’s behind the bar: Silbia Lee was once a florist in Korea and worked in various coffee shops in the United States before partnering with Moses Choi to open Bia Coffee last year. The flower syrups — all all-natural — are used judiciously; thus even if you think you wouldn’t be partial to lattes or teas perfumed with rose, lavender or vanilla, you might be pleasantly surprised by the ones here. These also happen to make for pretty pictures, but don’t let that distract you from actually enjoying your latte (lest you forget, a sign reminds you to stir your iced drink after photographing it). Should you nonetheless prefer your drink sans flowers, there are coffees, teas and sodas offered without. The coffee is locally roasted by Klatch Coffee.
Artists Sojung Kwon and Byoungok Koh opened Document Coffee Bar in 2014, turning a space that once housed an art gallery into one of the best coffee shops in the city. Certainly, it’s one of the most unique: A file folder serves as the shop’s logo, 5-gallon buckets double as light fixtures, and you’ll be sitting in the sort of chairs you probably haven’t sat in since elementary school. As for the coffee, the shop stocks beans from roasters you often don’t see elsewhere — recently, for instance, beans from Oakland-based AKA Coffee and Arkansas roaster Onyx Coffee Lab were on the shelves — and the baristas consistently make excellent espresso drinks, including macchiatos, Gibraltars and flat whites. If you’re a fan of cold brew, you will probably very much like the Document Cold, the shop’s cold brew mixed with a bit of chicory and maple syrup. Should you prefer tea instead, your choices include mulberry leaf and other Korean teas. After you’re done working or studying here, stick around: Document often hosts events like art exhibits and poetry readings. And latte art contests too. Of course.
Comics, schoolbooks and bestsellers in English and Korean can be found in K-town’s bookstores.
The hottest trend in skincare right now? K-beauty. Sure, you could order online or find an avalanche of products at any well-stocked drugstore. But you’ll have a lot more fun if you spend a few hours perusing the beauty supply stores in L.A.’s Koreatown.
Cosmetic World is a high-end store in the Koreatown Galleria with plenty of European and American brands, including Dior, Clinique and Bobbi Brown, but it also offers a moderate selection of K-beauty items and unobtrusive salespeople happy to demonstrate product after product.
The brand is just 9 years old, but Nature Republic already has numerous outlets in Southern California, including this Koreatown shop, full of music, fragrance and salesclerks worthy of a "Blade Runner" tribute film. Bestsellers include a vast collection of face masks, lotions, toners, mists and gels with aloe vera.
Younger and hipper than most mall stores, the Face Shop has salespeople eager to answer your questions, regardless of your age. Bonus point: The store shares its space with the Chocolate Chair, a sweet shop with specialities such as liquid nitrogen ice cream and the exotic "Dragon Breath"—fruity cereal puffs soaked in liquid nitrogen.
Credits: Written by Jeanette Marantos, Jonathan Gold (restaurants), Jenn Harris (bars), Amy Scattergood (spas), Noelle Carter (markets), Tien Nguyen (coffee shops), Agatha French (bookstores) and Alice Short (beauty supplies). Web design and development by Sean Greene.