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Get out of the Car: Koreatown’s Greatness Reveals Itself to Those Who Walk

11:47 AM PST on December 13, 2019

[dropcap size=big]Y[/dropcap]ou earn your L.A. stripes by eating your way through Koreatown; you find your place by walking through it. Sure, there’s Hae Jang Chon’s barbecue and 3 AM abalone porridge bowls at Mountain, but the most authentic thing you could do is suspend your belief in food reviews and claim your own favorite brisket spot, dumpling house, or taqueria. 

There are hundreds of places waiting to be enjoyed that are not granted to anyone who is simply cruising through Ktown. No robust Yelp search will tell you that California Market’s quiet kimbap stand offers five different protein options, or that the brothiest jjamppong can be found simmering inside Koreatown Plaza’s Mandarin House. 

The hidden favorites reveal themselves to those who walk. 

Amon Elise lives north of Western Avenue and 6th Street, the bustling intersection she refers to as the “downtown” of Koreatown. Her analogy of Koreatown as a city feels right analogously, for it resembles a metropolis within a city during rush hour. Though she isn’t from here, Elise traverses Koreatown the way one should.

“[My favorite spots] are not all that close to each other...it takes a walk and a stop and a whole lot of moves to get there. But walking is how I get my map. I’ll find a lot of places, especially the very Korean spots with the signs in Korean, by poking my head around and being like, ‘Am I allowed here? If so, cool.’”

Koreatown started to take shape in the ‘60s by way of newly immigrated families with entrepreneurial endeavors. As the neighborhood stretched outwards, more small businesses popped up at new intersections. The one supermall in town then turned into five, all of which have the following: a large grocery store on the first floor, a store that sells CDs and music merchandise, an eclectic home shopping center, a no-fuss hair salon or spa, a bustling bakery, and a dank food court teeming with hot plates, spicy noodles, and fried dishes. These malls are vital identity-affirming hubs for residents who are walking to do their errands. They can get everything they need in one stop.

New Angelenos come with cars and skim-the-surface knowledge of the neighborhood’s “best bars” for smeary soju-soaked nights, trawled from the first page of Google search results. Businesses thus stay open late because it is profitable. However, there are service workers who stay long afterward to clean up then retreat to their homes nearby. The 24-hour food spots and late-night karaoke are stalwarts for bacchanal relief, but Koreatown isn’t an escape for all.

It’s not surprising to see similar-looking eateries and shops in different pockets of Koreatown. It makes the neighborhood more walkable. This was a source of relief for longtime resident Jeanne Heo when she moved a few major streets down from Hobart Boulevard; her bearings changed, but not her needs. She still depended on fresh produce and hot soondubu soups. As she acquainted herself with a new route, Hannam Chain became her new market—replacing the Plaza Market—and Beverly Soon Tofu replaced BCD Tofu House. Heo’s routine remained intact, no matter where she moved in Koreatown.

Koreatown Was Built for Families—Not Parking

It’s difficult to have sympathy for those who complain about lack of parking because Koreatown wasn’t built for those just passing by. It’s home to thousands of families who band together in decades-old apartment buildings.

Enter new Angelenos, the ones who move here for new jobs or the promise of sunny days. They find affordable rent in Koreatown then drive to and from their jobs or gigs in more expensive or out-there neighborhoods. Others cruise through for late-night romps; rideshare vehicles come pumping in and out of Ktown on weekends.

Koreatown Plaza

Joseph Kim, born and raised in Koreatown, can recite the reactions from his coworkers when he reveals his whereabouts. “A lot of my coworkers are young,” he explained, pointing out that a few of them live in Santa Monica. “The first few things they say are, ‘You’re Korean, Joe? Where’s the best place to eat Korean barbecue?’ or ‘I love that neighborhood. I had so much fun drinking and karaoke-ing.’”

Older generations of business owners can feel the cracks at their foundation. For several decades, word-of-mouth and pedestrian traffic worked swimmingly for their stores. Today’s rapid swell of technological innovations like social media and the “convenience economy” push them to keep up or close shop.

New Angelenos come with cars and skim-the-surface knowledge of the neighborhood’s “best bars” for smeary soju-soaked nights, trawled from the first page of Google search results. Businesses thus stay open late because it is profitable. However, there are service workers who stay long afterward to clean up then retreat to their homes nearby. The 24-hour food spots and late-night karaoke are stalwarts for bacchanal relief, but Koreatown isn’t an escape for all.

ABC Plaza

Older generations of business owners can feel the cracks at their foundation. For several decades, word-of-mouth and pedestrian traffic worked swimmingly for their stores. Today’s rapid swell of technological innovations like social media and the “convenience economy” push them to keep up or close shop.

At the moment, much of Koreatown Plaza, the oldest mall in Koreatown, is stripped hollow of its shops; then there is ABC Plaza. Jason Hong is the manager and buyer for the 28-year-old home goods center, one of the longest-standing businesses inside the mall. Whereas 10 years ago his clientele were mainly Korean families, today Hong sees more single or younger families of Chinese and Latinx backgrounds. His trick to surviving inside the chipping Koreatown Plaza: offer the unique yet essential items that cannot be found on Amazon, a big competitor to the goods they carry.

Business owners are hopeful about the curiosity of transplants who embrace walking.

“I used to carry half Korean products and half European products,” said Hong. “[Younger customers] look for unique items and quality, so we sell high-quality Korean and Japanese products that are hard to find online. Customers have a harder time checking prices on Korean and Japanese products!” Hong is shrewd, but he is serious about stocking ABC Plaza with only the most innovative kitchenware, bedding, and personal hygiene items. Hong believes this was the downfall of other shops that vacated Koreatown Plaza; many of them were selling their goods at the manufacturer’s price when customers can easily search online for more competitive prices.

Staying Open as a Business in Koreatown

As an African-American woman born and raised in Orlando, FL, Elise wanted to move to a neighborhood that is welcoming of her background. She moved into Koreatown without a car, wanting to live and eat here the way it was intended. With its many coffee shops and eateries (her tip is to hole up at Kang Hodong Baekjong on weekday mornings for a quiet space to study while eating barbecue), she loves that the neighborhood is a haven for incubating her work as a poet, yoga teacher, and sexual healer.

“‘Support small businesses’ isn’t just a thing you say around here,” said Elise. “You actively do it. It’s embedded in the [Koreatown] culture. Here you observe, learn, respect, repeat. Join.” 

An Empty City Center mall

Business owners are hopeful about the curiosity of transplants who embrace walking. For 15 years, Olocuilta has been on its 6th Street block serving some of the only Mexican and Salvadoreño dishes along the western border of Koreatown. “Our customers are mostly Mexican, but now there are also Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese people who live in Koreatown who know us,” said Mario, who runs the front of the pupusería. “We also get people from Spain who hear about us and then call in to pick up when they are visiting.” 

“Staying in Koreatown is important to me because I have to eat kimchi daily.”

Olocuilta takes pride in being uniquely Salvadoran on a block that has old Korean haunts squeezed up against redeveloped bars and lounges; when they began, it was mostly through the grapevine of Latinx residents north of Beverly Boulevard. Now they welcome new waves of people who poke their heads in, Yelp be damned.

Koreatown offers a lot to keep its residents happy, despite its many changes and fights against redevelopment and American franchises. Much of that contentment is in the details that are not seen to anyone in their cars. Koreatown is a metropolis and home to some of the truest, bluest Angelenos. Take it from the people who’ve done all they could to stay here because it’s where their identities are seen and affirmed, whether it be through the signs or the food. 

“Staying in Koreatown is important to me because I have to eat kimchi daily,” said Heo with a laugh. “It doesn’t feel like home unless there are rice and kimchi, so having access to Korean food means I’m close to home.” There are over 115,000 people like Heo who call Koreatown home, over 62,000 of whom are Hispanic or Latinx residents and over 38,000 of whom are of Asian descent. The only way to see how they have made Koreatown their homes is to come hungry, open your hearts, and park your car culture hot takes roughly outside the borders of Beverly Boulevard, Vermont Avenue, Olympic Boulevard, and Western Avenue.

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