You know you’re doing Koreatown right if there are never fewer than three bottles of booze on your table at any given moment. You’re doing even better if a shot from one of those three bottles is downed every two minutes. And you’ve won the night if a plate of pork spare ribs and a pile of spicy noodles accompanies all those shots. In Koreatown, more is certainly more.
In any other neighborhood, in any other city, the time-honored pairing of cocktail hour and dinner would be considered the makings of a complete evening. But going out in LA’s most densely populated neighborhood requires an itinerary and a fixer—preferably someone who knows Korean and the trick to decapitating a lemon with a soju cap.
My fixer, Nancy Kwon-Lane, grew up in Los Angeles after emigrating from Korea in 1986. She grew up eating in Koreatown when it only ran from Western to Vermont, and Beverly to Olympic. “Back then it was just strip malls and little mom-and-pop stores,” she says. “Today, Koreatown has gotten so big, that you can’t find a Korean restaurant with just Koreans in it anymore. It’s definitely become more mainstream.”
Still, she’s got a few hidden gems in her repertoire. And she knows the lemon trick. “I learned it from my brother,” she says as she swiftly arranges the glasses around the table at OB Bear. First comes a pour of Hite beer from a 20-ounce bottle into a tumbler. Then comes a series of shallow bowls filled with makoli, a creamy rice wine that’s been mixed with a Korean fermentation starter called nuruk. And then the soju is poured, after which Kwon-Lane digs its metal cap into the top of a lemon and twists. A neat little cylinder drops onto the table and she squeezes the hollowed-out citrus over each shot of soju. “Every Korean knows how to do this,” she says and tosses one back. We devour a plate of pa jun (green onion pancakes) and a whole roasted chicken whose brown skin crackles like an over-tanned Beverly Hills Housewife.
Then it’s onto the next one.
LA’s decentralization makes pedestrian barhopping difficult in most neighborhoods, but parts of Koreatown are surprisingly walkable—and beautiful. Leftover from a time when Mid-Wilshire was a celebrity haunt, decaying art deco facades line the streets alongside Tokyo-style L.E.D. tickers and gaudy fluorescent signs announcing massage parlors, barbershops, dry cleaners and take-out sushi. This mix of old, eerie Hollywood and shiny, new development is exactly what makes Koreatown the most interesting place in the Greater Los Angeles Area right now.
Amidst the Korean barbecue joints and Oaxacan taco stands (Koreatown is, ironically, predominantly Latino), LA’s young, ambitious restaurateurs and bar owners have staked their own claims and layered the neighborhood with a mellow California cool-kid energy that fits in rather well with the established 24-hour ethos.
Fronting the movement is The Line Hotel a chic complex peering over Wilshire Boulevard. It’s stuffed with kitschy diversions including chef Roy Choi’s POT and Commissary restaurants and the recently opened Break Room ’86, a 1980s-themed karaoke bar from the nightlife imperialists, the Houston Brothers. Just around the block from the Line is The Normandie Club, a moody cocktail bar from 213 Hospitality and Proprietors LLC whose front lounge will soon give way to a hidden Japanese-style bar, The Walker Inn, and a handful of hotel rooms above. And a stone’s throw from these bars are, quite literally, hundreds of places to eat fried chicken wings, go for a 4 a.m. spa steam, sear ribeye over a charcoal grill, sing karaoke or drink a Guinness tallboy over a game of backgammon. It’s all just a matter of devising the right itinerary.
The Normandie Club | 3612 W. 6th St.
Go For: A pre-dinner cocktail, and an on-tap spritz while you review the evening’s schedule.
Dan Sung Sa | 3317 W. 6th St.
Go For: Beers, soju, chicken wings (beware of the spicy version and ask for a pot of cold tea before you take the plunge) and noodles while you wait for a table at Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong.
Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong | 3465 W. 6th St.
Go For: Korean barbecue from a Seoul-based chain whose former-wrestler owner is a Korean celebrity. Tip: Put your name in early in the evening as the waits get long, quick.
HMS Bounty | 3357 Wilshire Blvd.
Go For: A feel for old-school Koreatown including all of its elderly patrons. Stick to beer or whiskey and watch the regulars play backgammon.
Break Room ’86 | 3515 Wilshire Blvd. (2nd floor)
Go For: Watching lots of twentysomethings drink Rocket Pop cocktails and wrestle with each for a private karaoke room.
OB Bear | 3002 W. 7th St.
Go For: Soaking up all the wine coolers post-karaoke with chicken wings, green onion pancakes and a couple of whole fried chickens.
Wi Spa | 2700 Wilshire Blvd.
Go For: Sweating out the evening’s spice, soju and grilled meat intake. It’s open 24 hours, so get thee to the steam room come closing time.