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A Los Angeles Primer: Koreatown

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LAP Koreatown 1.jpg

"So they put chapulines in their kimchi?" a friend in Mexico City asked about my neighborhood. I do hold out hope that eateries in Koreatown, the district of Los Angeles it makes the most (and the least obvious) sense for me to live in, will one day offer its fermented cabbage topped by roasted grasshoppers. For now, the dish remains one we prepare at home. The Chilango's half-joking expectation came in response to my explanation of Koreatown's demographics: a sizable wedge of Koreans, as you'd expect, but an even larger one from the chapulin-rich southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Yet these groups, despite living at the highest population density the entire city, seldom mix. If I want my kimchi sprinkled with chapulines, or my street-grilled sopes topped with kimchi, or my bulgogi served in mole, I've got to do it myself.

Looking over the Los Angeles map in search of a home, I understood only in the abstract how much the city would, for better and worse, ask me to do myself. But I did know full well that few if any other cities in the world have blocks that put busy makeshift sincronizada griddles right up against coffee shops pouring six-dollar sweet potato lattes with equal briskness, or utilitarian panaderias against bass-leaking, quasi-legitimate noraebang (that is, Korean karaoke bars). This occurs without much of a normalizing flow — or diluting flow — of what the purely theoretical average American might recognize as average Americans. All this sprouted in the remains of what the 1930s called the Ambassador District, which former resident and well-known food critic Jonathan Gold describes as a place "when the old ballroom around the corner hosted big bands, when a romantic night out in the neighborhood might have involved a show at the Cocoanut Grove, big steaks at the Brown Derby, maybe cocktails afterward at the Town House or the Cove."

The delayed hybridization of its immigrant cuisines notwithstanding, Koreatown has held the attention of every serious eater in town. Like any other part of Los Angeles, its internal culture manifests itself most accessibly in food and drink. Yet even if content to skim that surface, one would do well to cultivate a basic facility with the Spanish and Korean languages. Gold put it most succinctly in his famous comparison of eating in America's two largest cities: "In New York, they're cooking for us. Here they're cooking for themselves." Much of the time, Koreatown offers the adventuring eater neither English-language menus nor even English-language signage. These places will never turn you away; they just don't need you. Functionally open, if passively discouraging: in Koreatown's businesses, behold the attitude of Los Angeles itself writ small.

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But can any neighborhood reasonably expect its citizens to attain trilinguality? Some Koreatowners do indeed attain it, or a form of it, especially if they work in one of the surprisingly numerous supermarkets or manage one of the seemingly infinite number of apartment buildings. Despite my own clunky Spanish and child's Korean (if that), I relish the challenge, though my freestanding interest in foreign languages keeps frustration at bay. (At a coffee shop just down the road from my building, I often spot one middle-aged Korean huddled intently over, and silent mouthing the sentences of, various English-language bestsellers. I feel some kinship with this man.) That said, a surprising number of Koreatowners seem to know not a word outside their native tongue. One can technically live an entire life in only Korean or Spanish — or indeed, only English — within these almost three square miles, but it would by no means count as a full one.

Koreatown, like the whole of greater Los Angeles, yields riches to those willing to step without hesitation between cultures, however clumsily they may do so. Tailoring, an art losing ground in all but the rest of the city's priciest enclaves, appears to thrive among the Koreans here. Note, though, that making best use of those services requires learning a rather specialized vocabulary, or at least using appropriately expressive hand gestures. Bewilderingly low prices for everything from household appliances to a taxi to the airport await those willing to peer, and deal, just below the surface. Koreatown's smokers enjoy effectively indoor dining rooms built in just such a way as to qualify as "outdoor space." Many of the neighborhood's businesses even stay open, officially or unofficially, far later into the night than the still dispiritingly early Los Angeles standard would dictate.

Yet I've often heard, especially from my longtime Koreatown-resident girlfriend, that things used to stay open later before. Alas, not even the most biased Koreatown partisan could today echo Gold's 2004 description of "a nightlife zone almost as dense as Tokyo's Roppongi District, a 24-hour neighborhood of neon and giant video screens." Something has, it seems, cooled the overt hedonistic, commercial blaze of Koreatown. The all-night revelry no doubt continues, though it continues someplace where we can't identify it so easily. And whenever I walk past the only giant video screen here, a lonely sort of billboard atop a combined mall, gym, and driving range at the corner of Wilshire and Serrano, I wish it some company. With Blade Runner, Ridley Scott gave us a bustling, neon-lined, video-lit, East Asia-saturated 21st-century downtown, but 21st-century Koreatown evidently came closer to realizing the vision. Would that it could try again, and come closer still.

I've come to know most intimately four blocks in Koreatown. They're on Eighth Street, which runs just below Wilshire. I routinely walk the aforementioned girlfriend home along this stretch, and have thus experienced it at every possible time of day or night. On each stroll, I take notice of the smokers gathered outside R Bar at Irolo, one of the few drinking establishments geared toward neither Koreans nor Mexicans; of the unpredictable openings and closures of the two facing lavanderías (or, less meaningfully, laundromats); of which warbled songs pump faintly from the noraebang's private recesses; of whether the 24-hour church has kept its promise of perpetual openness (as it often hasn't); of whether the middle-aged ladies selling foil-wrapped tamales and steaming cups of atole are packing up for the evening or setting up for the early morning. At just the right hour, I can deposit my Korean girlfriend at her place, then walk back up Eighth to grab breakfast at the Guatemalan bakery, its doors having just opened. Beginning the transaction to pay for my pan dulce in Spanish, I switch to Korean upon looking up at face of the cashier, who then replies in English. At these moments in Koreatown — and only in Koreatown — making any kind of lament feels ungrateful.

Photos by Colin Marshall.

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