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Koreatown's Top 40 

Thursday, Feb 5 2004
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Photos by Raul Vegaand Anthony Allen

Twenty-odd years ago, I lived in a neighborhood that was then called Wilshire Center, in a large apartment, probably grand in its day, with Palladian windows, an oddly placed stairwell, and carpet that hadn’t been changed since the place was built in the mid-’20s. My neighbors then were mostly elderly white people who had lived in the neighborhood since the ’30s, 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 neighborhood had become slightly shabby since then — the big insurance houses down on Wilshire seemed to be all that was keeping the area alive — but it was a genteel shabbiness, and something of the old rhythms were still alive.

Not long after, the Koreans started moving in: a few families at a time at first, then into most of the block. My own landlady, who had lived in the same apartment for 50 years, eventually sold out herself, and I wasn’t surprised to discover that the new owners, who moved into the apartment next to mine, were Korean as well. The “For Sale” sign out front, as well as the signs posted everywhere down the rest of the block, had been lettered in neat Hangul script.

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When the new owners closed escrow and inspected my apartment for the first time, they took off their shoes out of respect although I begged them not to, and they managed to restrain from grimacing as they slid their stockinged feet across the freshly mopped kitchen floor. When I went to a Wilshire high-rise to sign the new lease, one wall of their agent’s conference room was covered with a large-scale map of the Mid-Wilshire area on which each Korean-owned property was marked with a pushpin. Entire swaths of the city, including much of Hancock Park, Country Club Park, the Ambassador district and the Pico-Union area, were paved with the pins, solid, shiny surfaces pebbled like the skin of a basketball — neighborhoods where the fire escapes now were blanketed with cabbage leaves in the fall, clotheslines (like mine) bristled with drying fish, the silence of dawn punctuated with the steady, rhythmic pounding of garlic in wooden mortars. I came to love that sound. In a way that I neither had been nor could be, my Korean neighbors were at home.

I had eaten Korean food, of course. My father, a great fan of buffets, particularly admired the spread at VIP, the first grand restaurant in Koreatown, and I had been taken to the Pear Garden, up on La Cienega’s restaurant row, for bulgogi since I was a child. But as Koreatown grew and spread, what was remarkable was the huge range of restaurants, not just noodle shops and barbecue parlors but fish houses and sushi bars, taverns devoted to a specific kind of homemade rice wine and the small dishes, anju, that might be served with it. California-style cafés served pasta with kimchi beurre blanc; underground dives, selling soju and steamed goat, invited you to stack your used dishes on the floor; beatnik coffeehouses owed more to the American ‘60s than to Starbucks. One place, ostensibly famous for its version of old-style buckwheat noodles, did most of its business with Japanese tour groups eager to try the barbecued lion, tiger and hippo fillets the owner managed to procure from game-shooting preserves. Another restaurateur, I recall, slipped powdered deer antlers into everything but the Coca-Cola. More than once — more than a dozen times, actually — I’d sit in a restaurant for 45 minutes or more before a waiter finally “explained” that the kitchen had run out of food.

Years later, home to a reputed 850 places to eat and drink, as well as scores of nightclubs, coffeehouses, billiard parlors, supermarkets and bookstores, Koreatown has matured into one of the great nightlife districts in the world, a veritable restaurant paradise shoehorned right into Los Angeles’ urban core.

When I began my most recent forays into Koreatown, which entailed about 120 restaurant meals over the course of a couple of months, I barely recognized the neighborhood, which has been transformed into a nightlife zone almost as dense as Tokyo’s Roppongi District, a 24-hour neighborhood of neon and giant video screens, alive with the squeals of tweaked-out Honda tuners and bone-stock AMG sedans, the smell of grilling meat, and the bleary eyes of party people who have stayed up till dawn.

High-rise office buildings are being converted into flashy lofts, left and right: My old floor-through apartment now seems impossibly quaint. The area has what may be the most visible contingent of security guards in the Los Angeles area, and practically every restaurant with more than a couple of tables has a secured parking lot, a bouncer and a valet.

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