About 20 years ago, when Debbie first started coming to K-town, it was mostly Koreans who ate in places like Elephant Snack Corner, where I try the best beef steamed dumplings I’ve ever had—bulging and pillowy.
That was back when K-town tilted more toward Latino businesses. Now, with more non-Koreans coming from the nearby University of Southern California, the Westside, and Hollywood, Debbie estimates that the Korean clientele at her favorite haunts has dropped to closer to 60 percent.
Along the way while searching for the mythical pancakes, we eat. Seriously eat. At elegant ChoSun Galbee for its buttery short rib barbecue and cleanly acidic kimchi, at the Prince for spicy twice-fried chicken, and at popular Park’s BBQ for pork belly drenched in a soy sauce like smoky candy. Even if you tried a different Korean dish at each meal for a year, you still couldn’t scrape the surface—there are that many flavor nuances and ingredients. Spicy, smoky, sweet, acidic, peppery, citrusy: You can get the range of tastes in banchan, side dishes to eat while you wait for your main course and to use as condiments with rice. They can be everything from radish kimchi and cucumber pickles to seaweed salad, fried yellow corvina (local saltwater fish), and seafood rice pancakes. “The banchan alone are an overall representation of Korean cuisine,” Debbie says—a meal on their own.
On West Sixth, there’s a Korean-style hookah lounge across the street from fashionable Haus Dessert Boutique, where hipsters sit on the patio to sip red bean lattes and eat Korean-style (subtly sweet) pastries. Coffeehouses, Debbie says, are the new bars in K-town. Everywhere I turn, a restaurant or pojangmacha beckons. A lot of choices, but not what we’re looking for.
Toward the end of the night, Debbie swings into a parking lot where a cart is serving hotteok: pancakes! It’s not Koo’s, nowhere to be found, but Gook Hwa House. We stop the car, eager for our long-overdue fix. The pancake maker repeatedly flattens the cakes onto the griddle, the scent of caramelized honey and brown sugar reaching us as we drop our money into the blue plastic bin. Sweet, molten, delicious. He also makes gook hwa bhang, flower-shaped “chrysanthemum bread” filled with vanilla custard or sweetened red beans. Now Debbie has a new favorite. And I’ve learned how to eat like a Korean. Dusting the crumbs from our laps, we consider calling it a night. But maybe after just one more stop.
Info: Debbie Lee is the author of Seoultown Kitchen: Korean Pub Grub to Share with Family and Friends (Kyle Books, 2011; $25) and the owner of Ahn-Joo ($; 668 Americana Way, Glendale, CA; 818/242-3793). For more about Koreatown, go to visitkoreatown.org