As tracks by A Tribe Called Quest, Naughty by Nature and other artists from hip-hop’s golden era blare with the thump of bass and 808 drum beats, a heaping plate of cross-cultural flavors emerges from the kitchen. It’s overflowing with Korean barbecue short ribs, crunchy Colombian chicharron, spicy Filipino longaniza, pinto beans, plantains and an arepa — the dense Colombian flatbread made from ground maize.
This is the bandeja at Escala, a Korean-Colombian restaurant in Koreatown that opened in early 2014. Bandeja is traditionally a Colombian dish composed of different grilled meats served with beans, rice and arepas, but at Escala it's something more: an eclectic blend of Asian, Latin and African flavors crafted by a Korean-born guy who grew up splitting time between Colombia and L.A.
Like his bandeja, Escala's owner — who goes by “OG Chino” — aims to bring together seemingly unrelated cuisines. A collaboration with Seoul Sausage chef Chris Oh, the menu is a reflection of Chino’s own eclectic upbringing, which found him moving from Korea to Bogotá at the age of 1, then being sent to L.A. for school at 11. In L.A., without much supervision (his father stayed in Colombia, and his mom traveled back and forth frequently), Chino became involved in gang culture.
“It was the late ’70s, early ’80s, when being in a gang was like hip-hop — it was the cool thing to do,” he says. Not being able to speak Korean, he felt at home with the newly immigrated Latino kids. It was during this phase in his life that Chino found hip-hop.
In 1979, when “Rapper’s Delight” came out, hip-hop became a continuation of the funk and soul music Chino and his friends were already listening to. Inspired by the new genre, Chino became an aficionado, collecting every hip-hop record he could get his hands on. After dropping out of art school, he opened a record store in South L.A. that became a community center for kids in the neighborhood to practice DJing and graffiti. He then got into the music industry, designing logos, managing artists and at one point even doing promotions for Sir Mix-A-Lot’s first album.
Then, after nine years of tour-managing hip-hop turntablist crew The X-Ecutioners, he came back to L.A. — and the timing felt right to open a restaurant that echoed his experience, a place where he could combine his passion for hip-hop culture with his diverse cultural background. “Even though I’m Korean by blood, and a lot of my morals and ethics may be Korean because we were raised Korean at home, my spirit is very Latino,” he says.
As it turns out, Colombian food easily lends itself to a Korean touch. Everything from Mexican to Hawaiian influences appear on the menu at Escala. You can order yucca fries loaded with Oaxacan cheese and salsa, kimchi fried arroz con pollo and the Hawaiian-inspired loco moco — and wash it all down with a shot of Colombian aguardiente.
Escala is a love letter to L.A., to hip-hop culture and to the diversity of both, with Chino’s story as much a part of the establishment as the food.
“I came to look at the space, and immediately I thought graffiti art, I thought DJ booth, I was thinking everything I know,” he says. His goal was to open a place that would bring together the “good music people” of L.A., as he calls it. “They just recognize good music, and you run into the same people at every ‘good music’ event in LA. There’s like a family feeling with this circle of people. I just wanted to bring those people together to my place.”
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Sitting inside Escala, Chino is surrounded by the arches and ironwork of the historic Spanish-style building; a chandelier made of vintage phonographs hangs from the high-reaching ceiling. The walls are adorned with eclectic street art, a graffiti mural of Erykah Badu, wood-burned portraits of cholos and an old-school lowrider bicycle, which hangs above the entrance. Communal wooden benches surround the centerpiece of the restaurant: the DJ booth. On weekends you can catch a member of Beat Junkies or De La Soul on the turntables, or even contemporary L.A. beat-scene DJs, such as those from the Soulection crew.
Chino hopes good music is what keeps bringing people back but says his concept goes beyond that.
“Escala means 'layover' in Spanish, and for me it’s a very personal thing — I only got to see my parents during their layovers in L.A," he says. "Most of the time, we all kind of lived apart.”
Escala, 3451 W. Sixth St., Koreatown; (213) 387-1113, escalaktown.com.