The New Yorker’s Guide to Vacationing in Koreatown

New York's Koreatown is an alternate universe where soju, karaoke and piña coladas are requisite and bars are hidden in high-rise office buildings. Leslie Pariseau on the odd appeal of 32nd Street.

You can hear the pulsing unce unce unce vibrating through the steel casing of an office-building elevator. As the floor numbers ding past, the thrumming gets louder. And when the doors slide apart, it’s a world backlit with pink neon, red suede banquettes, frozen piña coladas and a sea of 20-somethings swaying to the beat. It sounds a little bit like Miami and looks a lot like 2001. But it’s a Friday night in 2014 and this is New York City’s Koreatown.

Koreatown—known amongst New Yorkers as K-Town—spans a one-block stretch of the western half of 32nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, in the shade of the Empire State Building. It’s a relatively new enclave in comparison to other downtown ethnic neighborhoods like Little Italy and Chinatown. It began its development in the late 1970s and ’80s with the opening of a Korean bookstore, Koryo (which remains an understated cornerstone of the neighborhood), and a few restaurants, which soon became the cultural basecamp for businesses to come.

Today, this bit of 32nd Street is home to a vast swath of vertically stacked salons, bars, karaoke joints and knickknack shops. And while most New Yorkers in the know take the 7-train to Flushing for their fill of authentic Asian flavor, those undeterred by the karaoke bars and scrolling ticker signs know that there is much more to Koreatown than meets the eye.

K-Town’s become something of a vacation destination for New Yorkers looking for a small window of escape, and for those who appreciate a wild goose chase. Very few doorways are obvious. Like a futuristic Jenga tower, restaurants sit atop bars that sit atop massage parlors on top of teashops, karaoke dens, travel agencies and banks. These places are free of fancy trappings, concerned mostly with having a good time and drinking­—a lot.

Part of the charm in each of these places is the spectacle. Whether it’s the double-fried chicken wings or a beer fountain filled with dry ice smoke, no experience or establishment skimps on sensory overload. Koreatown is like a block-long cruise ship full of diversions and dance parties regardless of which elevator you happen into.

On a recent Saturday night, the sidewalk is abuzz. People pop in and out of unmarked doorways and we’re swept into one of them with Pierre Kim—a second-generation Korean, native New Yorker and our guide for the night—leading the charge. Up a back stairway and into a room wall-papered with album covers, we emerge into Turntable Mad for Chicken. The décor loosely nods to the jazz era-cum-mid-’90s. Noir films flicker over the bar, rusting brass instruments are pinned to the walls and a DJ booth stocked with vinyl illuminates a corner. The crowd is largely Asian except for one redheaded guy in sagging, sparkly shorts and a Bart Simpson t-shirt. He looks as if he’s stumbled upon the wrong set of hidden stairs looking on the way to a hip-hop show. But just like everyone else, he is eating chicken wings and drinking beer from a fluorescent tabletop cooler.

Earlier in the evening we’d found our way to Gaonnuri, a stunning restaurant perched above Broadway in a penthouse suite full of lacquered surfaces, classic cocktails and walls of windows peering out across the gold and black skyline. We were greeted by a lone hostess in the lobby of an office building and led up to the 39th floor, into what ended up becoming a serene counterpoint to the next few hours of fried food and crowded bars.

Part of the charm in each of these places is the spectacle. Whether it’s the double-fried chicken wings or a beer fountain filled with dry ice smoke, no experience or establishment skimps on sensory overload. Koreatown is like a block-long cruise ship full of diversions and dance parties regardless of which elevator you happen into.

Up or down the street (it’s difficult to tell after several sojus) and down a few stairs, Bangia appears. Electronic music bumps while guests eat dinner beneath a Technicolor black-light menu advertising $6 bubblegum shooters and late night delivery. We put our names in for a table and order more soju. A cocktail waitress wearing an LED name tag pops over with a “welcome gift” of shot glasses. “For you!,” she says as she bobs up and down excited to watch our reaction. We sniff them. “Don’t worry, it’s only peanut butter and jelly-flavored,” she says. They do indeed taste exactly like peanut butter and jelly. We clean plates full of calamari, fries and a large seafood pancake. And more soju.

No table is without a little bottle of the clear liquor, pouring and re-pouring into mini clay cups. It’s omnipresent in Korean culture, Pierre tells us, and requisite. No family feast, Korean barbecue or night of karaoke is complete without it.

Soju is also becoming more and more intertwined with the image of young Korean drinking culture. Just last year, pop star PSY of “Gangnam Style” fame fronted a campaign for Jinro soju, the best-selling spirit brand in the world. It outsells the next most popular brand—Smirnoff—by threefold. And, according to a marketing research study by Euromonitor International earlier this year, South Koreans outdrink Russians (the second hardest drinking country in the world) by two to one. This may have something to do with the fact that soju is lower in alcohol than vodka, but even still, the excess is rampant and Koreatown is nothing if not reflective of it.

Like Gaonnuri, we find 3rd Floor Café through a building lobby and up an elevator—except instead of jazz and hushed welcomes, this joint upon approach. The scene is kinetic. Young groups of Asian Americans are eating from fruit platters that waitresses drop off unsolicited (fruit is considered a gift in Korean hospitality). The laminated menu boasts drinks that seem as though they were plucked from a Sandals resort. We order frozen Strawberry Daiquiris and Piña Coladas. They’re whipped and creamy, full of fresh fruit and overflowing from Margarita glasses with neon-colored bendy straws—a sign that karaoke hour is both inevitable and near.

The final stop, Maru, is a blur of speed-pouring bartenders, girls drinking champagne and eating chicken fingers, rhinestone-gilded bandage dresses and a labyrinth of private karaoke booths. This late evening mess of off-key Nirvana lyrics mixed with fried food and Chum Churum Soju is the epitome of Koreatown. It’s an alternate universe, burrowed right into New York’s very center, where irony and time seem suspended. Frozen drinks, fried food, fruit platters and peanut-butter-and-jelly shots are embraced by adults with the careless heed of spring breakers. Here, the city fades away behind a singular block resonating with the collective sway of a thousand New Yorkers who, for just a night, are on vacation.

The Ideal K-Town Itinerary:

Gaonnuri: The classy joint. Classic cocktails, date night food and views. 1250 Broadway, penthouse (39th floor)

Turntable Mad for Chicken: Chicken wings, records and the coldest beer in New York. 314 5th Ave. (2nd floor)

Bangia: Flavored shooters and late night food. 11 E. 32nd St. (basement)

3rd Floor Café: The best piña colada in Manhattan. 315 5th Ave. (3rd floor)

Maru: High-end karaoke. 11 W. 32nd St.