It goes without saying that coffee in Los Angeles has improved by leaps and bounds over the past few years; the city is now very much on the national specialty coffee scene. But one of L.A.’s most interesting coffee subcultures is usually overlooked: that of Koreatown.
We dubbed K-Town “America’s Hippest Neighborhood” back in 2012, when it was featured in its own self-caricaturing, Jersey Shore–style reality show, but it would be more appropriate to call it a city within a city, where it is possible to conduct much of your daily business without speaking a word of English. While K-Town’s cafes lack the name recognition of some major specialty coffee companies, it would be a mistake to ignore them, The cafes of Koreatown are as interesting as they are diverse, as if echoing the vibrant coffee culture of Seoul itself.
While most K-Town cafes offer table service, there is no singular style: There are franchise cafes (the South Korean chain Tom N Toms is most prominent — offering drinks and treats, such as sweet potato lattes, that definitively set it off from its North American counterpart, Starbucks); there are coffee palaces that offer a dizzying array of food options; there are cozy cafes that provide a refuge from the bustle of daily life.
Still other cafes (some of which closely resemble non-Korean specialty cafes) provide spaces for business meetings, studying and, of course, coffee that is carefully sourced and hand-roasted — although sometimes to a flavor profile that would surprise drinkers used to major third-wave brands like Intelligentsia, Blue Bottle or Stumptown. Indeed, Koreatown’s cafes offer outsiders the special pleasure of observing subtle differences in everything from roasting to service, and their food programs are often much more extensive, showcasing K-Town takes on everything from soups and sandwiches to Southwestern, South Asian and Italian flavors.
It would take a short book to describe all the cafes of Koreatown in the detail they deserve, or to fully describe the way patrons enjoy them. Here are five shops that showcase many of the unique features of the Koreatown coffee scene:
5. Café Loft
Loft offers a wide assortment of coffee drinks and teas (the teas are especially good, and range from Assam to jujube) as well as cakes (try the red velvet). While the prices are slightly above average, so is the ceiling; “Loft” is the perfect name for this space, which soars up to a dramatic set of wooden rafters, in the midst of which a disco ball slowly rotates. Classical music often plays on the stereo and much of the décor evokes fin-de-siècle Vienna while other elements (such as the huge mirrors on the walls, the exposed light bulbs, the flat-screen) push the old-world European look through a rapid modernization process. The mood at Loft is far more peaceful and calm than at many other K-Town cafes, and there are two levels of seating (the upper floor can get very warm) as well as outdoor seating behind the building. 3882 W. Sixth St., Koreatown; (213) 383 3006.
4. Iota Brew Café
Iota is ultra-modern and features glowing design elements, massive flat-screen monitors showing K-pop music videos and smaller ones showing still images from the coffee roasting process – not to mention a monitor displaying references to Iota on Twitter and Instagram (of which there are many). Social media is huge here, and it’s not unexpected to see a neighbor carefully photographing his food and posting the image to one platform or another. That food might be a plate of Italian-style pasta with red sauce, or any number of amazingly composed salads. It could be a cloud of cotton candy with a Mason jar lurking under it, a Mango Roll Quesadilla, or a massive container of shaved ice topped with other sweet things, especially red bean and mochi. Or it could be one of the delicate macarons that pack a display case, just across the shop from an almost aggressive display of wine bottles (wine tasting flights available). In one corner stands a coffee roaster and the surrounding equipment; Iota roasts its own, and offers a range of coffees including single-origins, in addition to the expected confectionlike “coffee drinks” that many K-Town clients turn up for. At night, the light and images streaming through Iota’s huge glass windows illuminate Western Avenue and the place is packed to the gills. 528 S. Western Ave., Koreatown; (213) 568-3700.
3. Haus by Coffee Hunter
Haus, originally a so-called “dessert boutique” owned by Brian Chong of Iota, was purchased by Korean food television personality Chris Kim in 2013 — the “Coffee Hunter” of the shop’s name reflects Kim’s bragging rights as the person who brought Kona coffee to Korea. The coffee menu is ambitious (not to mention featuring some of the most expensive cups in town) and showcases Kona coffees one doesn’t often see outside of Hawaii (or Japan, which purchases much of Kona’s crop), as well as carefully selected African and Latin American coffees. The hand-drip coffee is finished at the table and served in delicate cups, foregrounding the fact that — unlike some K-Town shops — this one wants the customers to care as much about the coffee as the décor and social experience of the space. But Haus partakes of the typical K-Town resistance to purism: You can also get sweet coffee drinks, such as a Nutella Latte, and a wide variety of juices and slush drinks. On the food side, there are gestures at Korean-Western food fusion, such as a bulgogi and mozzarella panini, plus more conventional fare and a spread of tasty cakes. Like Iota, Haus is set up to accommodate larger groups, and while it opens early to help K-Town greet the day (7 a.m., unusually early for this neighborhood), it also comes alive at night. 3826 W. Sixth St., Koreatown; (213) 388-5311.
BrewWell, nestled inside the Assi Supermarket, offers a surprisingly bright, pleasant space given its odd location; its reclaimed wood furniture, tile and tons of light, not to mention a few pastel colors on the signs, almost evoke surf culture. The La Marzocco espresso machine is fed a steady diet of Heart Coffee, from Portland, Oregon, and while BrewWell’s approach to coffee service (line up at the counter, choose from a small menu, etc.) is much more in keeping with non-K-Town specialty shops, it fits into the neighborhood in other ways. Sorbets (including one made with a Golden Road IPA) by John Park (former pastry chef at Lukshon; now running Burbank’s Quenelle) cool off a hot L.A. day, and hand pies and quiche hold down the savory end of the spectrum. There are more than enough seats to camp out and write (or, if you prefer, Instagram your Gibraltar) but there’s also an expansive (if a bit odd) outdoor seating area, just below the Assi building’s escalator — and about 20 short feet from Gook Hwa House, a stand outside the shopping market that sells hoddeuk (sometimes hotteuk), a Korean filled pancake featuring cinnamon, sesame, brown sugar, chopped peanut and honey, and arguably the best accompaniment to a coffee from any shop in the surrounding area. 3525 W. Eighth St., Koreatown; (213) 384-0884.
1. The Café at the Line Hotel
Let’s be honest: Including this café in this list isn’t really about K-Town’s coffee scene as it’s been in the past. It’s about where K-Town coffee might be heading. The somewhat-less-than-intentional coffee is done by Silverlake’s LAMill, and at this café counter in the lobby of the recently opened Line Hotel, whose restaurants (POT and Commissary are the others) are all run by Roy Choi, the focus is definitely on food. There’s excellent congee, a wide variety of Taiwanese-style buns, European pastries, American sheet cake (with army figurines climbing all over it, because why not?), juices and much more. Patrons can relax in the achingly hip hotel lobby, which is a wonderful spot for meetings if your business brings you to K-Town. And if you’ve been indulging yourself to excess at the POT lobby bar, you may be eager for the spongy, white Hawaiian pull-apart bread — the perfect substance to balance out a cocktail. 3515 Wilshire Blvd., Koreatown; (213) 381-7411.