By David Hochman
Photography by Joe Schmelzer
A sense of culture shock
takes hold where Olympic Boulevard meets Vermont Avenue
in East Hollywood: Taco stands
and fro-yo shops give way to dumpling houses, private karaoke lounges, and cook-your-own-barbecue joints. With nearly every sign lettered in hangul (the Korean alphabet), you might as well be in Seoul. For the uninitiated, Koreatown, and particularly the neighborhood’s authentic and varied food options, can be as perplexing as the Michael Jackson-style glove Jae Bu Do’s servers hand out with orders of table-grilled clams (they don’t want customers burning themselves). Quietly observe and you’ll catch on.
Once an enclave for L.A.’s tight-knit Korean population, K-Town today is a booming destination for daring eaters of all stripes. Korean grandmas, expense accounters, hungover hipsters, tourists on tasting safari – they all want the inside beat on which raw crab, pork belly, or sizzling bowl of bibimbap is best. Whether you’re investigating a new hot spot or a classic dive, err on the side of adventure and bring a robust appetite.
1. Park’s BBQ
Fire in the Belly
: The wall of autographed photos near the entryway tells the story: Satisfied customers include chef Thomas Keller and Psy, the artist who gave us “Gangnam Style.” L.A.’s ultimate power spot for grilled ggot sal (Wagyu beef), marinated kalbi (prime shortrib), and other premium cuts, Park’s is the K-Town place to visit if you’ve only got time for one. It doesn’t look like much outside (very few Koreatown spots do), but there’s barbecue glory under the stainless steel hoods above each tabletop grill.
The Young Gun
: The newest and most audacious venture yet by “Korean taco” food truck pioneer Roy Choi, Pot is less a Korean restaurant than a trippy gateway to the wave of Korean cultural cool that’s sweeping L.A. at the moment. Traditional it ain’t: A dish called “Beep Beep” comes sizzling to the table with sea urchin roe and crisped rice.
“Fisherman’s Wharf” is a pot full of rock cod, crab, sardines, clams, mussels, and fish roe. The flavors are intense, the vibe is youthful and loud, and, guaranteed, it’s the best time you’ll ever have over grilled jalapeño squid with rice cakes.
3. Jeon Ju
If a Korean dish is worth tasting, there’s a K-Town restaurant that elevates the form to its Platonic ideal. Bibimbap, the piping-hot stone bowl of rice, veggies, and meat topped with a fried egg, finds its purest expression at Jeon Ju, a humble strip-mall hideaway where the mushrooms pop, the greens and bean sprouts gleam, and the beef’s heat is matched only by the lava fire of chili paste. Prepare to sweat. 2716 W. Olympic Boulevard; 213/386-5678.
Found in Translation:
Ask a waiter to translate Soban’s daily specials, written on the wall in Korean. You can’t go wrong with the spicy braised cod or squid salad, but the dish to savor is ganjang gaejang, raw blue crab marinated in soy sauce and cracked open for the full bloom of flavor. If that sounds too ambitious, have the braised short rib, which L.A.’s Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold deems “as weightless and as caramelized as an effort by a Michelin-starred chef.”
5. Kobawoo House
The Real Deal: “This place is freaking delicious!!” is the typical social media rave for the always-crowded strip-mall wonder that’s as authentic as a Korean fan dance. Established in 1985, Kobawoo has its homey signatures down: The seafood pancake is massive, salty, and crisp; the soybean stew called chungookjang is a pungent delight. But what brings out armies of ardent diners is the bossam, a heaping platter of steamed pork belly served alongside raw oysters and spicy kimchi. Expect a wait, and don’t plan on running any marathons (or moving much at all) after this very filling meal. 698 S. Vermont Avenue, No. 109; 213/389-7300.
6. MaDang 621:
Temple of Taste: Imagine a Koreatown restaurant conceived by Cecil B. DeMille, and you’ll begin to picture the soaring palace of beef and noodles known as MaDang 621. Its food needs to be good to measure up to the double-high ceilings, modernist pillars, and dramatic open kitchen. Fortunately, flavor trumps aesthetics. Grilled barbecue is the go-to here, but there’s joy in every plate of grilled whole fish and spicy sautéed baby octopus served with a crown of egg noodles. Insiders order yook hwe, the raw beef salad that’s K-Town’s answer to steak tartare.
Originally appeared in Virtuoso Life magazine, January 2015.
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