If you’re in Los Angeles and searching for a way to satiate your Korean food craving, look no further than Koreatown, the city’s unrivaled mecca for Korean cuisine. It’s an East-meets-West, bizarre-meets-opulent treasure trove of food and culture — and quite possibly the hippest neighborhood in Los Angeles.
With Koreatown’s mind-blowing plethora of culinary hotspots, quirky bars, and architectural gems, it can seem impossible to even scratch the surface of this dense, exotic labyrinth. This short guide highlights some of Koreatown’s can’t-miss spots.
Start your day off at Squaremixx, the neighborhood’s newest food court, located on the rooftop of the California Market building on 5th and Western. Here you will discover the most popular South Korean restaurants all together in one beautiful space, many being the first franchises to be opened stateside.
For a taste of classic Korean comfort food, order the stone bowl bibimbap from Grill Asia. Translating to “mixed rice,” bibimbap is a dazzling array of colors, textures, and flavors – all served sizzling in a hot stone bowl. Neatly arranged namul (sautéed vegetables) and strips of beef bulgogi garnish warm white rice, with sesame seeds and a fried egg to top it all off. The stone bowl retains heat, therefore keeping your meal hot while you mix at the table. Carrots, cucumber and bell peppers add freshness and color, while pickled daikon, shiitake mushrooms and gosari (dried fern leaves) take the dish to the next level. Adding plenty of the sweet, tangy gochujang sauce is highly recommended. Make sure to incorporate bits of the crispy rice crust at the bottom of the bowl for extra crunch and texture.
Koreatown boasts some of the best street art in the city and there is something to be found on every corner, literally. Try to spot the painted utility boxes on the corners of Wilshire and Western. Conceptualized by local artist Ann Bridges, she painted these detailed depictions of the city’s landscape in order to capture the fleeting moment and make the neighborhood’s corners more beautiful.
Next, find some respite and reflection at the Korean Pavillion Garden, nestled in a small quiet space at the intersection of Olympic and Normandie. The structure is painted in understated tones of rusty red and green, embellished with intricate floral designs, and topped with a dramatic, upsweeping roof. A rock garden, which features two volcanic rock statues from Cheju Island, surrounds the pavilion. But the neighborhood’s gateway monument is more than just aesthetics. The structure was built to commemorate the birthplace of Koreatown, standing right across the site where the first Korean grocery store opened in the late 1960s.
Koreatown is no stranger to LA’s boba craze. Make your way to White and Brown on 6th and Mariposa and try cheese tea, a boba trend that has become all the rage in Asia and has finally made its way to Los Angeles. Though cheese and tea may sound like an unlikely combination, the drink is really just a creamier, more decadent upgrade to ordinary milk tea: cheesy whipped cream dolloped on top of brewed tea. White and Brown is one of the first boba shops in Koreatown to offer the oddly delicious drinks.
Order the oolong tea with cheese foam, but instead of stirring and drinking with a straw, tilt and slowly sip the beverage to enjoy the distinct flavor profiles of both the cheese and tea. The result is a match made in creamy heaven: salty sweetness from the cheese counterbalances the floral, nutty notes of the oolong tea.
White and Brown also offers fruit infused teas and smoothies. Unlike other typical boba shops that use artificial powders and syrups, they use only fresh and organic ingredients. Their golden kiwi jasmine green tea uses real kiwi and pineapple bits and their cold brew fruit tea is infused with a fruit blend of strawberry, lemon, orange and cantaloupe steeped overnight. Add lychee jelly for tart, chewy goodness. For complete fruit indulgence, try their mango smoothie with cheese foam. Go ahead and blend – you will be in mango cheesecake ecstasy with every sip.
Though Koreatown is continually reinventing itself, evidence of its opulent past can still be seen. Art deco landmarks like the emerald-green Wiltern theater have been restored to its former grandeur. The Hotel Normandie has also gone through a recent makeover and now thrives as an upscale boutique hotel. Make sure to explore the historic Chapman Plaza — opened in 1929 as the nation’s first drive-in grocery store, it stands today as one of the city’s most impressive examples of Spanish Revival architecture. Resembling a Spanish fortress, Chapman Plaza’s ornate corner towers and sandstone-textured façade add a sense of nostalgia to the heart of Koreatown. Enter through one of its discreet archways and discover a charming open-air courtyard filled with some of the trendiest cafes, restaurants, and bars in the city.
End your night at Dan Sung Sa, a Koreatown essential for late-night hangouts. Here, drinks and quick bites are served in a divey, dim-lit atmosphere, with a retro, smoky ambiance reminiscent of an old-world pub in Seoul. Sharpied scribbles cover the walls, and recessed wooden booths create an intimate space for small groups of friends. Wooden menus offer cheap grilled eats like short rib skewers, spicy wings, and kimchi hand rolls.
Try the yogurt soju, charmingly served from a metal teapot and poured into shot glasses. The drink goes down smooth, as the soju is virtually tasteless. Enjoy the boricha, an iced barley tea served complimentary in quirky tin bowls.
Though it has partly transformed into a hip, urban playground for locals, Koreatown is so much more than neon lights and karaoke bar kitsch. It’s a stark example of the hyphenated American experience, rich and complex due to its layering of cultures over time — from its Hollywood golden age heyday through three generations of Korean and Latino immigrant influence.
Still, Koreatown looks to its past without patronizing it. Instead of tearing things down, it adapts, preserves and adds what it can to what is already there, creating something — an energy, a subculture — that is unique to Koreatown and can only exist in a city as vast and multifaceted as Los Angeles.