It’s no secret that Koreatown is a magical place. The 3-square-mile neighborhood offers an experience unlike anywhere else in Los Angeles. Preserved art deco structures mingle with 1980s strip malls and newly built mega complexes. Karaoke houses, pirate bars, plush speakeasies and a dizzying selection of restaurants make it arguably the city's most exciting neighborhood. And one of the more recent additions to the treasure trove: beautiful ice cream.
If you’ve checked Instagram lately, you know about beautiful ice cream. Swirls of purple soft serve topped with fresh flowers in a charcoal-black cone, gripped by a perfectly manicured hand against a “coincidentally” flattering wall. We’re in an era that pushes us to taste with our eyes, and while the onslaught of social media surrounding it can be tiresome (I’m guilty of the occasional soft-serve post), these businesses are doing truly imaginative and delicious things with their ice cream. As luck may have it, a great many of them are concentrated in Koreatown.
Virtually every restaurant in the neighborhood, be it Korean barbecue or something fusion-y, is located within walking distance of a beautiful ice cream shop. When planned correctly, you can curate a culinary night to remember that requires parking (or Lyfting) only once. It’ll begin with a meal, then a quick walk to a confection that looks like it was created on Mars.
In an inadvertent love letter to the neighborhood, we’ve put together five dinner and dessert strategies for a wonderful night out in Koreatown.
BCD Tofu House and Somisomi
Fun fact: This is the very strategy that inspired this article. BCD Tofu House is a Korean chain specializing in sundubu-jjigae, or tofu soup. It's open 24 hours a day; you’ll never wait long for a table and will rarely spend more than $20 per person, making it the most relaxed and inexpensive place on this list. But what it lacks in frills, it makes up for in flavor. The banchan include a whole fried fish for each diner, along with kimchi, pickled cucumbers, fish cakes and squid. Then, a bubbling pot of soft tofu and red chili, with different variations of kimchi, dumplings or your choice of meat, greets the table boiling hot. Crack the raw egg into the soup and watch it cook. Soak up the intense flavors and spices with spoonfuls of white rice —it’s comforting and intoxicating all at once.
By the time you’re through with this hyper-savory meal, you’ll want something sweet yet light. Just a half-mile away is Somisomi, the ice cream shop that swirls soft serve into fish-shaped waffle cones stuffed with your choice of Nutella, red bean or vanilla custard. Known as ah-boong in Korea, this otherworldly sweet is a two-part experience: First, enjoy the creamy, cold soft serve, whether it be matcha, ube, black sesame, vanilla custard, chocolate or a combination of two. Once you’ve made it down to the cone, the residual ice cream has melted into the filling; carefully squish the cone (it’s malleable yet strong) into a sandwichlike state and enjoy the dance of flavors and textures with each bite.
BCD Tofu House: 3575 Wilshire Blvd., Koreatown; (213) 382-6677, bcdtofu.com.
SomiSomi: 621 S. Manhattan Place, Koreatown; (213) 568-3284, somisomi.com.
Dan Sung Sa and Holy Roly Ice Cream
Dan Sung Sa is a dark Korean tavern where the soju flows and the frog legs are plentiful. The menu is huge and specializes in skewers ranging from the aforementioned hoppers to scallops and chicken gizzards. Platters of hot cheese corn, seafood pancake, BBQ pork and lunchbox kimchi fried rice (you shake the box yourself to mix the egg) are there to create a base for the soju and Hite you’re sure to keep ordering. The vast menu provides options for both the adventurous and more conservative eaters in your group. It’s the type of place you stay for hours, ordering as you go, sharing dishes and drinks with your pals around a long wooden table.
By 1 a.m. you may have had enough soju and skewers, but you want to keep the party going. Holy Roly Ice Cream is just 0.2 miles away, and open for another two hours (if it’s Friday or Saturday.) The Thai-style ice cream is scraped off a cold stone and rolled into neat little tubes, providing a unique texture and perfect platform for strategically placed Teddy Grahams.
Dan Sung Sa: 3317 W. Sixth St., Koreatown; (213) 487-9100
Holy Roly Ice Cream: 3450 W. Sixth St., Koreatown; (323) 739-8828, holyroly.com.
Beer Belly and CottonHi
Beer Belly serves unapologetic comfort food, often cooked in duck or bacon fat, to be washed down with a craft beer. The gastropub offers lots of fried things and several types of macaroni and cheese, including the Hot Chicken Mac (it comes with spicy chicken nuggets). It’s a place to celebrate being alive, specifically that you live in a place where you can eat catfish 'n’ chips with Sloppy Joe mac ’n’ cheese and a 10 percent ABV peanut butter–infused ale. The entire menu is over the top (including the salads), but the flavors are well-balanced and extremely fun.
If you don’t completely exhaust your appetite at Beer Belly, CottonHi is just 0.3 miles east. Here, cotton candy and soft-serve ice cream share the same cup, and can be topped with glorious treats like Lucky Charms, red velvet crumbs or a giant ladyfinger. You can keep it simple with plain soft serve in a cone, or go full fairy-tale dessert with the works. Full disclosure: Bumsan Organic Milk Bar is actually just a few steps from Beer Belly — but multiple mac and cheeses requires a bit more of a walk before dessert.
Beer Belly: 532 S Western Ave., Koreatown; (213) 387-2337, beerbellyla.com.
CottonHi: 3825 W. Sixth St., Koreatown; (213) 263-1905, cottonhi.com.
Gwang Yang BBQ and Honeymee
Koreatown’s Gwang Yang BBQ is the only stateside location of this Korean chain best known for its bulgogi. The tender and delicate grilled beef almost melts in your mouth, perhaps because the servers cook the meat at the table for you, avoiding the very real risks of DIY Korean barbecue: overcooking, undercooking, forgetting about the grill because you’re too busy talking to your friends and end up with incinerated shrimp, etc. The banchan are plentiful, including multiple fresh salads, steamed egg and a small pot of tofu soup. This is one of the more expensive barbecue spots in the area. The $100 combo feeds two to three people with five or six types of meat (one order of bulgogi included) and unlimited banchan. The proteins are not all-you-can-eat (AYCE), however, which means ordering additional meats will incur à la carte charges. If you’re up for a pricier meal with quality meats, Gwang Yang is well worth it.
By the time dinner’s over you’ll need to offset the meat sweats with something light and sweet. Good thing Honeymee is catty-corner from Gwang Yang. Though simpler than the rest of the ice creams on this list, the silky “true milk” soft serve drizzled with honey is the sweet simplicity you might crave after an epic meal. If you need to be perked up, Honeymee does a brilliant affogato in both espresso and matcha.
Gwang Yang BBQ: 3435 Wilshire Blvd., Koreatown; (213) 385-5600, gybbq.com.
Honeymee: 3377 Wilshire Blvd., Koreatown; (213) 267-0020, honeymee.com.
Oo Kook Korean BBQ and Drips & Swirls
Oo Kook Korean BBQ is a high-energy barbecue spot with a big meat selection, including standouts like beef belly, duck breast and marinated ox intestine. There are a few veggie options (including a grill-it-yourself skillet of cheese corn) and standard banchan. The huge two-story restaurant is perfect for a raucous night with friends, or when you’re getting to know someone — between the menu options, the cooking and overheard conversations, there’s always something to talk about. The AYCE option will run you roughly $30 for dinner and $25 for lunch.
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After you’ve had all you can eat, stroll half a mile to Drips & Swirls, the soft-serve shop with the avant-garde, charcoal-black cones. Its rotating menu features out-of-the-box flavors like Hot Cheeto, fig and brioche, and Thai tea, and charcoal and melon are available daily. Be sure to start early in the night, as Drips & Swirls is only open until 9 p.m. during the week and 10 p.m. on weekends.
Tip: If you’re looking for a higher-end dinner to complement your charcoal dessert, Park’s Barbecue is also half a mile away in a different direction. It’s not AYCE and can cost roughly $60 per person.
Oo Kook Korean BBQ: 3385 W. Eighth St., Koreatown; (213) 385-5665.
Drips & Swirls: 3076 W. Eighth St., Koreatown; (213) 568-3021, dripsandswirls.com.