It's girls' night out in K-town. I'm wedged in at a tiny table in a buzzing pub called Dansungsa, looking up at photos of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean juxtaposed with Kim Jong-il. A hint of cigarette smoke hangs in the air here in this 3 square miles of no-man’s-land somewhere between America and Korea, just off Wilshire Boulevard. The decor is studied seaminess, the cheap plywood walls scrawled on by customers. Waiters glide through the shadows. Rock music pounds gently in the background, and the cloudy, effervescent makgeolli, a seductive fermented rice wine, goes down easy. Maybe a little too easy.
But that’s okay, because before I can finish, the first plate arrives. You don’t go to a pojangmacha, or restaurant/pub, in Koreatown just to drink. It’s just as much about the hansik, the food. Don’t get between Koreans and their food, Korean chef Debbie Lee tells me as she’s showing me her hood. Between sips of makgeolli, we’re munching on skewers of sweet and crispy pork belly, and grilled chicken gizzards marinated in mirin and soy sauce. But these are all a prelude to the spicy chicken wings—drumettes with crunchy honey-flavored skin. The scent of chile, garlic, and grilled meat is revving up my taste buds. And this is only the first stop, Debbie says. Eating Korean-style means making a night of different stops for different specialties—barbecue, tofu, noodles—like a progressive dinner.
Debbie Lee, a woman of explosive laughs and definite opinions, regales me with stories of her parents and grandparents, whose lives revolved around food even before they fled North Korea at the war’s outbreak many decades ago. Food broke the language barrier between Debbie and her grandmother. Her grandmother’s home cooking inspired her to become a chef—she has her own little Korean eatery called Ahn-Joo in the L.A. suburb of Glendale, and was a finalist on TV’s The Next Food Network Star.
Peeling me away from the table would’ve required an act of courage if not for Debbie’s tales of pancakes: sweet rice pancakes—thin folds of dough, gently flavored with ground nuts, brown sugar, and honey—that she likes to get from a cart called Koo’s. As we search for the elusive cart, Debbie pulls over to show off her favorite dishes, navigating the turns in the neighborhood with the confidence of a Formula One driver. We sail across Sixth Street to Normandie Avenue, then head back over to Western Avenue, like Thelma and Louise hunting down sweet treats. We pass strip malls with noodle houses and snack shops, barbecue joints and coffee shops, all crowded with smartly dressed, hungry eaters, because Koreatown’s Saturday night fever is all about the food. Korean food is the “it” cuisine, and with Roy Choi’s Kogi BBQ spawning L.A.’s Korean taco addiction, and David Chang’s Momofuku empire exploding taste buds in New York City, its flavors are finally mainstream—even T.G.I. Friday’s is serving Korean steak tacos.
The L.A. metro area now has the largest Korean American population in the United States, with heavy emigration from South Korea in the 1960s, so it only makes sense that L.A.’s Koreatown is ground zero for the food. “Koreatown is literally Little Seoul,” Debbie says.
“K-town has become the largest Korean community outside of Seoul, and the restaurant community here has tremendous influence on how the cuisine spreads globally. While David and Roy have introduced Korean flavors to non-Koreans, much of what they do is fusion. Here is where you’ll find true Korean dishes.”