Another episode of producer Tyrese Gibson's reality show K-Town is not so much being taped as it is going off with cameras rolling. Watching people get lit up as you remain sober is like trainspotting, except in this case the trains crash in slow motion. The YouTube series has often been described as the Asian Jersey Shore, and the cast of mostly Korean Americans rarely disappoints when it comes to high school drama, hair gel and hook-ups. Just add the vodkalike green-bottle alcohol known as soju and watch what happens.
During production at the Koreatown café Bohemian, the cast is earning its pay. "Mohawk" Steve Kim commands: "Everybody do shots if you're single."
Most of the dozen people at the table go bottom-up, and soju is spilled.
Jowe Lee, the show's BMW-driving player who calls himself "the prince of K-town," notes that it's way too early to be spilling rice wine: "We're only on round one!"
Drinking games ensue and, at one point, Mohawk and fellow cast member Joe Cha, a nightclub promoter, are challenged to kiss each other. Then it's two girls' turn: "Keep your eyes open," they're ordered as the others hoot and holler. More drinking is goaded on by a chant of "suck it, suck it, suck it!"
It's not even 10 p.m. yet. On a Sunday. This is how Koreatown rocks.
K-Town, which returns for a second cycle on YouTube's LOUD channel Nov. 28, has sparked renewed interest, often among Asian young people, in the rituals and bacchanalia of the YouTube series' biggest star, Koreatown itself.
Amid the worst American economy since the Great Depression, Koreatown has emerged as perhaps America's hippest new neighborhood. Its vitality has survived and even thrived, thanks to the emergence of a new pop culture spotlight (K-Town, "Gangnam Style," the Kogi taco truck), a residential hipster invasion, foodies' exploration of its bar eats, and the community's own evolution as a destination for non-Koreans. The nightlife scene has expanded to the point where some community boosters are calling for an official city "entertainment district" designation along the lines of Hollywood.
"Curiosity drew people into Koreatown," says Jimmy Han, co-owner of area hot spot Beer Belly, a gastropub that opened to rave reviews in May 2011. "I think it has a lot to do with how Food Network, the foodie culture, Yelp, and the celebrity chef thing have contributed to people's desire to try Korean food."
In K-Town, food rarely goes without drinking, and vice versa. Former L.A. Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold started to pique foodies' interest in Koreatown more than a decade ago. Since then, Korean-American chefs such as Kogi's Roy Choi and Father's Office's Sang Yoon have risen to national prominence. People often mention "the Yelp effect" when discussing the Koreatown nightlife revival, noting that soju cafés with menus completely in Korean started to be reviewed on the site — translated for non-Koreans— in about 2008.
"That's when things definitely shifted," K-Town co–executive producer Eugene Choi says. "You saw a lot of your non-Asians coming in."
The likes of Beer Belly, Biergarten and R Bar comprise some of the community's newer, more ethnically diverse nightlife destinations, none devoted to Koreatown's old-school, green-bottle drinking. While the area's three main, traditional clubs, Vibe, The Feria (formerly Velvet Room), and KarNak, remain from the last decade and beyond, a slew of newer and revamped spaces, including Gaam, S Bar and Blipsy Barcade now welcome more outsiders. Orchid, a club, restaurant and karaoke-room venue on West Sixth Street and South Oxford Avenue, hosts African-American parties and other events.
"For Beer Belly, I never particularly planned on catering to Koreans to experience and discover craft beer," says Han, who opened the restaurant on Western Avenue near Sixth Street, in the heart of the community, with his wife, Yume. "It was about anyone willing to try new beer and new food: Stop by Beer Belly before you go on your Koreatown crawl, and try some different beer and food and be a part of a discovery."
Korean-American youths have spread out to downtown and to Hollywood celebrity haunts. At the same time, Koreatown has seen an invasion of largely white hipsters priced out of bungalows and condos in Silver Lake and Echo Park. Some of them see the area as a new cultural frontier fueled by the search for cheap urban rent, much like Manhattan's Meatpacking District or London's Stoke Newington.
"I have a lot of white friends moving here," says K-Town's Jasmine Chang, from a table at café Gaam in Chapman Plaza. She grew up at 11th and Fedora streets with a sister, Christine, who is joining the cast this month. "Rent is definitely cheaper" than in neighborhoods her friends are abandoning.
Koreatown's ever-expanding boundaries generally include Olympic Boulevard to the south, Beverly Boulevard to the north, Crenshaw Boulevard to the west, and Hoover Street to the east. While Koreans dominate the bars, restaurants and dense commercial real estate along Wilshire Boulevard, Western Avenue and Olympic, 50 percent of its residents are Latino, and many of them arrived from El Salvador and the Mexican state Oaxaca. It's the birthplace of the reviled gang Mara Salvatrucha, which got its start at Seoul International Park on Olympic Boulevard in the 1980s. The Wilshire-Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council represents about 100,000 denizens, though the area bleeds beyond its borders. Median household income is only $27,483.