Best Of :: Koreatown
Best Seolleongtang: Ha Sung Saeng
There are a number of very specialized restaurants popping up in Koreatown, and one of the best is Master Ha, or Ha Sun Saeng, which focuses most of its energy on a soup called seolleongtang. The dish starts with a base of bone broth — or, you know, stock. Beef (typically oxen) bones are simmered for about a day to create the soup, to which slices of beef are added. The broth traditionally is an off-white, opaque color, but at Master Ha seolleongtang also comes in a brick-red spicy variety. Either way you order it, the soup comes to the table boiling hot. There isn't much in it beyond the generous portion of meat: a few vegetables and a handful of noodles. You can, of course, gussy it up with the selection of banchan: both cabbage and root vegetable kimchi, various pickles and dried herbs. (The spicy version comes with an egg.) But taste the soup first — you may find that you appreciate the extremely clean beef flavor unadorned.
It seems as if every third restaurant that opens in L.A. can trace its lineage to Animal, that 9-year-old poster child of meaty chic and gluttonous cool. But the Animal vets at Here's Looking at You — Jonathan Whitener, the former chef de cuisine, and Lien Ta, a former manager — did something a little different than the others: They took Animal's more feral qualities and civilized them, to great effect. The dining room is more comfortable and intimate while retaining that high-spirited vibe; the food less riotous but no less exciting. Silky heirloom tomatoes rest in a bed of crème fraîche and hide under a blanket of pulverized Chinese sausage that calls to mind bacon bits — and the whole thing tastes like the world's most luxurious BLT. Sprouted broccoli is mixed with seeds and nuts and ginger and is crunchy and salad-y and heavenly. And oh my God the sunchoke and squid ink meringue dessert. If you're having a hard time imagining how either savory ingredient makes sense in this context, just trust that the whole thing comes out tasting like cookies and cream. This is a sophisticated creature indeed.
Even on weeknights, the Normandie Club usually is bustling with Koreatown's growing hipster class. But walk past the fedoras and sleeve tattoos to a locked door back by the bathrooms (helpfully labeled "Secret Door"), push the buzzer, and you'll be escorted into a quieter, wood-paneled lounge where it's all about the booze, not the scene. Opened in 2015, the Walker Inn became almost immediately famous for its unique, omakase-style cocktail tasting menu, and it's definitely worth trying if you're feeling adventurous. For $70 (or $40 for a shorter late-night version), you'll be treated to five courses of whimsical potables all based around a theme, which could be seasonal ("Winter Citrus"), conceptual ("A Day & Night at Sea") or a combination of seasonal, conceptual and silly ("Wet Hot American Summer," which featured one drink served in a Capri Sun pouch). But you can also skip the Willy Wonka–like concoctions of the tasting menu and just hang out in the lounge, which offers sophisticated spins on dozens of classic cocktails, from mai tais to martinis, all made with top-shelf liquor and an attention to detail that justifies their $16 to $18 price tags.
In a town like Los Angeles, where every other waiter or Lyft driver is an aspiring singer, karaoke bars can be intimidating. Hell, some karaoke bars even have real artists showing up undercover, like when Jewel dropped in at the Gaslite in Santa Monica a few years back. So what about people who just want to sing “Bohemian Rhapsody” in public but don’t sound quite like Freddie Mercury? Luckily, there’s one karaoke bar that offers the best of both worlds: Cafe Brass Monkey. Located behind a Bank of America and next to a sports club, the Brass Monkey attracts singers with amazing voices that will blow you away, but its low-pressure atmosphere makes it a safe space for those not able to hit the high notes. The place isn’t huge, so get there early on weekend nights if you want to sign up to sing. Even if you have to wait a while, the people-watching — and listening — are just as thrilling as taking the stage.
Life is full of Google searches you will regret. "Toe Bang" is one of them. But life also is filled with experiences you will regret missing, and Koreatown restaurant Toe Bang (pronounced Toe-BONG) is one of those, too. Finding the small restaurant is the first part of the fun. It's hiding on a back street just off of Wilshire Boulevard in Koreatown. Wade through a parking lot populated with Audis owned by nouveau riche nightclubbers, and you'll see the rustic restaurant clad in weathered wood, sporting a janky waterwheel out front. Inside the tiny spot is popping, as waiters shuttle giant plates of kimchi rice and piles of chicken wings to cramped tables where friends share tales while knocking back soju. The vibe is based on provincial Korean drinking halls (its name roughly translates to "dirt floor") where rowdy diners spend hours on end, much like Japanese izakaya joints or even a German ale haus. At Toe Bang, televisions blare various sporting events, K-pop plays over speakers, and the sensory overload can seem like too much. Then a sizzling iron wok of savory "military stew" arrives at your table alongside frosty mugs of Hite beer, and your equilibrium will return: Your epic evening has just begun.
Runner-up (tie): Smog Cutter and Breakroom 86