Welcome to K-Town

High Life, Dec 2013

Bang in the center of Los Angeles, it’s not the prettiest of neighborhoods and its gems are often hidden away. But if you know where to look, you’ll find Koreatown has a scene like no other. And it’s getting bigger by the day.

welcome-to-k-town-0 welcome-to-k-town-1

Photography by Noah Webb

Also at High Life

At first glance, Third and Vermont looks like just another congested intersection in the unpretty part of Los Angeles – a cacophony of traffic and cheap signs for a pharmacy, a superstore, a locksmith, a gas station… nothing of note.

But on Friday nights, a line forms outside that locksmith – a dressy crowd too. It turns out that it’s not a locksmith at all but one of the hottest new bars in LA – a gorgeous Gatsby-style speakeasy, beautifully styled, with exceptional cocktails.

“I wanted to hide it,” says the owner Cyrus Batchan, an attorney from Riverside, east of LA. Lock & Key is his first bar. “It makes the whole experience a discovery for our customers. The last thing you’d expect. People love surprises!”

That’s the joy of Koreatown in Los Angeles – its full of these surprises, these hidden gems, either deliberately disguised or discreetly tucked away like a secret. It’s not the prettiest part of town by a long shot – largely flat and concrete, with precious little green space, where even the trees have been uprooted in favor of blaring Korean neon. But equally, it’s the most dynamic and exciting part of town these days, the part of LA that’s undergoing the most rapid change.

“K-town is where the action is right now,” says Batchan. “In all of LA, this is the melting pot – the best place for bars, eating out, karaoke. All the students from USC (University of Southern California) and Southwestern Law School go out here. The rent’s cheap. And you’ve got more liquor licenses concentrated here than anywhere in California!”

To the uninitiated, Koreatown, Los Angeles might sound like Chinatown, San Francisco, or Little Italy, New York – a condensed immigrant enclave which makes up for its diminutive size with a heavy concentration of ethnically specific shops and restaurants, to the exclusion of practically anything else.

But Koreatown’s different. Far from small or self-contained, it’s one of the biggest districts in LA, situated more or less near the centre. With a population of a million (more than Seattle or Washington DC, incidentally), it comprises the single largest population of Koreans outside Korea – a third of all Korean Americans live here, many of whom have managed to get by for decades without learning a lick of English. And K-town isn’t even exclusively Korean – a huge Hispanic population is marbled in here too. So while it typifies that surreal LA experience of travelling just a few blocks and finding yourself in another country entirely, it’s not a country you’ve seen before. Rather, it’s a strange hybrid of Seoul and El Salvador, Oaxaca and Southern California – a place that could only exist in Los Angeles.

There’s a buzz about K-town right now, thanks in part to a broader wave of interest in all things Korean. While Psy taught the world to dance gangnam style last year – even persuading the UN Secretary General to have a go – attention was already turning towards this strangely foreign patch of LA. Famous foodies were raving about the restaurants – people like Anthony Bourdain and the Pulitzer-prize winning critic Jonathan Gold. The artist David Choe who hit the news for painting the offices of Facebook in exchange for stock (that turned out to be worth $200 million)   – he has a studio in K-town. A reality show was set here, last year. And all this attention has led non-Koreans to explore the area, while investment from Seoul keeps pouring in, leading to new establishments and apartment complexes popping up all over the place. As big as K-town is now, it’s getting bigger by the day.

For years K-town made no attempt to attract non-Koreans. Jonathan Gold said of its restaurants: “in New York, they’re cooking for us. Here, they’re cooking for themselves.” And this has had its pros and cons. On the one hand, K-town is an utterly authentic experience – an exotic new world of driving ranges and cheap 24 hour spas, high tech karaoke bars and exotic markets with a hundred kinds of kimchi. In typical Korean style, the restaurants are low on frills and service culture, but high on cuisine – the lights are bright and the waiters won’t bore you with today’s specials, they’ll just deliver the food. But the meals are unlike any other in LA – the bubbling tofu soup at Beverly Soontofu for instance, or the double fried chicken at The Prince, the steamed pork wrap at Kobawoo, just can’t be found elsewhere. And since it’s LA, the finest establishments are often located in drab concrete strip malls – every one feels like a discovery.

The flipside of all this authenticity, however, is K-town’s unfortunate reputation for not always being welcoming to outsiders. When establishments feature no English in their menus or signs, and offer no attempt to translate for non-Koreans, the message is plain.

“It’s true, Koreans are an insular people,” says Jimmy Lee, former managing editor for KoreAm Magazine. “We’ve been persecuted for centuries by their neighbors. The Japanese and the Chinese kind of took turns taking Korea over. So there’s an inward looking mentality – we even have words to express these national neuroses, like ‘Han’, which is a sort of suffering.”

But Lee insists that this is changing, as an Americanized younger generation takes over from its elders. Few areas of LA are quite so defined by their young people as K-town, and that’s only fitting, since K-town itself is so young – a young section of a famously young city. It’s little wonder that K-town’s story mirrors that of LA.

Koreans only started arriving in numbers after 1965, thanks to a change in immigration policy. And it wasn’t until the mid 70s and early 80s that they would cluster in what was then known as Wilshire Center, where property prices were conducive. The classic immigrant arc of hard graft, small business, and the pursuit of the American dream, was ruptured by the riots of 1992, a defining trauma in which whole blocks of K-town burned. But from those ashes sprung one of the most resilient and flourishing areas of LA – a hub for nightlife especially. This is K-town’s enduring reputation, as LA’s party district.

For years the classic K-town night out involved plenty of barbecue, soju and bottles of Hite – at a classic joint like Parks, or Soot Bull Jeep – followed by karaoke into the early hours at any number of spots, from the knockabout Brass Monkey where Seth MacFarlane is a regular, to the high tech Palm Tree LA. Then to heal up the next morning, some abalone porridge at Bon Juk, or a soothing bowl of milky beef broth at Sullung Tang. (Korean hangover remedies are a class apart). And if time permits, perhaps a rub-down at one of the incredibly affordable spas, following by a bag of balls at the driving range.

It’s what the city needs, to be fair. For all its charms, LA has never been much of a party town – it doesn’t stay up late, it watches its calories. But Koreans throw caution to the wind, in stark contrast to the Asian stereotype of conservatism and studious ambition – they’ll hit two or three bars after work, to eat great slabs of scissor cut galbi steak, the most exquisite fried chicken in the city and then drink whisky, Crown Royal especially, by the bottle.

“Western style is by the glass,” says Chris Heo, the owner of the Prince, a sumptuous eighty year old old bar on 7th Street, where they’ve shot scenes for Chinatown and Mad Men. “But Koreans buy the bottle. We like to pour for our friends. Bring all the food and drink together on the table, all at the same time, and share – that’s Korean style!”

Furthermore there’s a kind of illicit thrill to K-town. In the most Korean of bars, it’s not uncommon to see people smoking openly indoors, something that’s been illegal in California for nearly 20 years. The nightclubs have what’s known as a booking club culture, in which waiters will bring girls to drink with men who have opted to reserve tables and order a fruit plate (only in K-town does fruit symbolize such decadence). Many karaoke clubs go a step further and let businessmen order girls to come and party with them.

“We want to try and change that reputation though,” says Kev Shim, of the hit group Far East Movement, a K-town group that has, by any standard, blown up both here and especially in the East. Having just returned from playing some dates in Malaysia, he’s relaxing with the band at one of their mainstays, Dwit Gol Mok (which means “back alley bar”). It’s midnight on a Monday, but this is K-town, so it’s crowded.

“There’s a lot more to K-town than just the after hours bars and karaoke spots where girls are paid to drink with you. When we were coming up, K-town had a real club culture – I mean real hip hop and home grown DJs. But our generation got tired of just living in this Korean bubble, so we started exploring other scenes in Hollywood and Downtown, and the nightlife faded. Now it’s time to bring it back.”

So Far East Movement is planning a series of club nights with a Korean-American DJ called Tokimonsta and a fellow rapper called Dumbfoundead. They’re recording their next album in K-town, to paint a different picture of the area. The youth, yet again are reshaping Koreatown.

But until then, more pressing matters await. “It’s only 1am. More soju!”