Koreatown is a neighborhood in Los Angeles, California. Here are my top recommendations for visiting the area.
History and Significance
Historically, Koreans living in Los Angeles were restricted to housing in the area that is now known as K-Town. As a result, many Koreans also built businesses, churches, and more to serve their community. During the 1930s, the area was popular among Hollywood celebrities who frequented the Ambassador Hotel. The entertainment industry grew both in and around Koreatown, resulting in gentrification and the displacement of many Koreans.
By 1948, the Shelley v. Kraemer Supreme Court case ruled against racially and ethnically restrictive housing policies and Koreans began to move more freely in Los Angeles, though other legal and social mechanisms still restricted them. One such example is the 1924 Asian Exclusion Act which remained in effect. This law essentially banned all immigration from East and South Asia, preventing the growth of the community. This ban was not changed until the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. After decades of being barred, Korean immigrants could naturalize as US citizens. This change in policy allowed family reunification and the growth of Koreatown.
1992 LA Uprisings
In many predominantly black Los Angeles neighborhoods, Korean individuals and families owned the majority of businesses. Leading up to the events of 1992 was the murder of a 15 year old African-American girl, Latasha Harlins, at a Korean owned market. In March of 1991, a store clerk accused Harlins of theft and shot the teenager point blank. This was caught on surveillance video and the clerk, Soon Ja Du, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter. Despite this, she did not serve another day in prison and was released on probation.
Two weeks earlier, at least five police officers beat Rodney King in the street, a black motorist who had been stopped after a high-speed chase. Video footage filmed by a bystander surfaced on the news. Four policemen were charged with use of excessive force, but a jury made up of residents from the distant suburbs of Ventura County found them not guilty in April 1992.
Within hours of the acquittal, mass protest and riots erupted. Many Korean-American businesses were within reach of the uprising, where the outrage of many black Americans directed their anger. Koreatown was blockaded, trapping rioters, protesters, and residents alike within the neighborhood. This caused some Koreans and Korean Americans to arm themselves on the rooftops of their businesses. With calls for help to emergency responders unanswered, many used Radio Korea to communicate the need for help or defense at certain businesses.
Legacy of 1992
Ultimately, the week-long destruction decimated much of Koreatown. Nearly one billion dollars worth of damage was done in Los Angeles, half of which was on Korean-owned businesses. While the uprising for the injustice done to King, Harlins, and countless others is rooted in a justified cause, the media portrayed the violence as a black vs. Asian issue. This enabled accountability to be shifted away from the significant social, economic, and political disparity between European-American white and ethnic minority residents in the city.
The systemic policies of racially discriminatory housing, unemployment, the violent policing of racial minorities, the prison system breaking apart families, poor education and health opportunities, and more contributed to collision of Korean and African Americans. A great deal more could be said about the complexity of the 1992 uprisings, but in short its significance cannot be underscored enough. It also does not merely exist as an event of the past, but rather the racial and class tension continue to this day nearly 30 years later. Learn more and see pictures of the event here.
Despite its history and name, the community today is highly diverse ethnically. Based on the 2010 census, half the residents are Latino and one third identify as Asian. Two-thirds of the residents were born outside of the United States, a high figure compared to the rest of Los Angeles and especially high compared to the rest of the country. Because of this, a wide range of languages can be overheard or spoken in K-Town. The most common of these languages are English, Spanish, Korean, and Mandarin. It is also the most densely populated neighborhood in Los Angeles, and one of the most densely populated in the country.
Homelessness is an increasing problem as inequality continues to rise. Koreatown, like many other urban LA neighborhoods, provide a visual representation of gentrification and income inequality. Luxury apartment buildings are filled by those paying well above $2,300 per month. There are high rise condos worth more than a million dollars being sold on the market. Meanwhile homeless camps or sidewalk tents can be found almost every other block.
Koreatown is complex. It is both historical and lively, but it is also gritty and tense. A visit to K-Town warrants an empty stomach, an open mind, and observant eyes. There is much to eat, learn, and process. Few other neighborhoods in the entire country offer such an experience.
What to See
1. Wiltern Theatre
This iconic jade colored theatre is one of the preserved historic buildings of Los Angeles. It is considered one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture in the country. Originally built in 1931, it was was nearly demolished in the 1970s. It was preserved due to the efforts of the Los Angeles Conservancy, serving as one of the first victories in its fight to protect the architectural heritage in LA. Today it is commonly used for concerts, serving as one of the largest theaters in the area. Since the outbreak of COVID-19 though, it has remained closed.
2. The Historic Ambassador Hotel
Among other historic landmarks in Koreatown, the Ambassador Hotel is another that stands out. Unfortunately, this once wildly popular hotel and host to numerous Academy Awards shows was demolished in the 2000s. This hotel was once well known for its “Cocoanut Grove” dining area and celebrity guests. It was also the location of the assassination of Senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy.
After years of battle between potential investors in the plot of real estate, to include Donald Trump, the grounds were ultimately won by educators to serve as a public school. The Robert F. Kennedy Community School was built to resemble the original Ambassador Hotel and embody the goals of the late politician. The school serves at risk youth and due to its efforts to invest in low income LA residents, it is the most expensive public school in the country.
Today you can visit outside the gates of the school and explore the “pocket park” devoted to the senator. They have also reconstructed the tall statue at the previous entrance of the hotel to help you envision what this historic ground once looked like.
3. Chapman Plaza
This buzzing plaza is filled with restaurants, some of which are noted below for their excellence. From the outside, the plaza stands out for its Spanish style architecture. Especially given the precautions taken during the COVID-19 outbreak, outdoor seating has filled the plaza like never before and makes for a lively Saturday night. Indoor seating remains closed in Los Angeles.
Alight, yes this is just a grocery store. I add to the list though because if you have never been to Asian grocery store, coming into a store like this (or alternatively Zion Market or California Market, both also in K-town) can be a memorable experience. Rather than a small section of Ralph’s or Vons dedicating shelf space for an entire continent of cooking varieties, H-Mart more appropriately offers thousands of square feet to products that are often found in Asia or used in Asian cooking. There’s an entire aisle of different kinds of rice and ramen, a row of different types and brands of frozen dumplings, a refrigerator full of mushroom varieties, and many other differences from most American supermarkets. It’s a great place to wander around curiously, just stay out of the way of people actually trying to shop of course.
5. Hollywood Sign View from Windsor Blvd
This is technically not in Koreatown, but rather just outside of it in the Wilton Historic District. There is a picturesque palm tree lined street with a straight shot at the Hollywood sign. It usually not too crowded because it’s not as well known among tourists. While it’s in the middle of a quiet neighborhood, there’s great potential to capture a beautiful LA picture here.
If you are familiar with redlining, a visit to both this spot and Koreatown can give you a visual contrast of the legacies of this policy. Wilton historic district is a neighborhood home to well groomed yards and multimillion dollar properties (including the Mayor’s house on Irving and 6th Street). Banks granted more loans to people applying for assistance in purchasing homes in this neighborhood, historically and presently a very much white European-American community.
Meanwhile home loan applications in the area to the right, Koreatown, was coded as yellow. This meant that the neighborhood was considered a risky investment for banks (though not as risky as a red zone) and as a result people without the money or racial access to Wilton could not acquire equity and purchase a long term asset like a home. The map below is from 1939, and while Los Angeles was much less developed, many of the green and blue areas of the map continue to be the most expensive markets (with the best schools, hospitals, parks, roads, etc.) to this day.
What to Eat
1. Bulgogi Hut
One of the top reasons for people to visit Koreatown is for Korean BBQ. If you have never experienced Korean BBQ, you are in for a treat and K-Town leaves you with no shortage of options to choose from. To those that may be unfamiliar, you cook the food yourself at the table on built in grills. It makes for a fun, interactive dining experience.
In a neighborhood where there are dozens of similar KBBQ spots, Bulgogi Hut is one that stands out. Prior to the pandemic, I had never seen this place without a buzzing crowd outside waiting to get a table. Like most KBBQ restaurants, it’s all you can eat at a set price.
2. Monty’s Good Burger
Are you vegan? Honestly, it doesn’t matter because the burgers are that good. They specialize in amazing burgers made from Impossible “beef” patties. Everything here, from burgers to milkshakes, is plant based. If you have never tried an all vegan restaurant, this might be one of the best spots out there to experience an all out plant based meal.
Check out their Instagram for “secret” menu items. You can also score an amazing birthday sundae here with your ID. They offer both fries and tater tots. Personally, I think their tots are unmatched. Plus, there are half a dozen unique dipping sauces (also totally vegan) to plunge your sides or burger into.
Monty’s is located in a few spots in Los Angeles, with increasing popularity. The spot in Koreatown doesn’t have very much seating, so going during off-peak hours is advisable. During Covid times, they have a good set up for customers. You order from outside and wait under umbrellas for your order to be called. Then, your order is pushed to you out the window on a custom built rolling tray.
3. Cassell’s Hamburgers
After decades of business, Cassell’s went through a revamp. This chic restaurant has a retro diner style with an excellent menu that will satisfy everyone. Carnivores and herbivores alike will find something to their liking on the menu. Are you a fan of sweet potato or waffle fries? They’ve got both. Do you like a THICK milkshake? They’ve got that too. This place may be most notable for its grill items, but don’t pass on their pies. Come the holiday season, you can also preorder full size pies for your gatherings.
If you thought you could just show up at Quarters (or really any KBBQ spot in K-Town) on Saturday night without a reservation, think again. Quarters is a particularly popular spot. It has a stylish atmosphere nestled in the Chapman Plaza and is a real local favorite.
5. Dave’s Hot Chicken
Dave’s hot chicken has several locations, one of which is in the heart of K-Town. They have a relatively straightforward menu: chicken sandwiches and chicken tenders. You can decide the level of spice and your sides. Starting as a pop up in 2017, the business has grown dramatically and they have built several physical locations that never fail to attract a line.
6. Egg Tuck
Looking for a quick Brunch? Egg Tuck is right next door to Dave’s Hot Chicken, a central K-Town location near the Line Hotel. Egg Tuck offers a variety of breakfast sandwiches, to include vegan options.
If you’re looking for a stylish sit-down restaurant in Koreatown, Openaire might fit the bill. They offer everything from brunch to dinner items depending on the hour. Located on the second floor of the Line Hotel, this restaurant is built and decorated to resemble a greenhouse, making for a tranquil escape in busy Koreatown.
8. Dragon Boba
Huge sugar rush alert! This place offers a huge array of drinks and desserts. They also serve fresh mochi donuts. What’s a mochi donut? They are doughy, somewhat chewy rings covered in a unique variety of icings and toppings. Add one to the top of your boba drink if you can’t decide whether you want to drink or eat your sugar. Another amazing item is the rainbow crepe cake. I had never tried this before and let me just say, WOW. It’s a soft, delicate slice of cake with an unexpected creaminess.
Not found in any one location, Kogi has a fleet of food trucks. One of these trucks is routinely found in Koreatown, but check their schedule for a more precise time and location. You may have heard of Kogi BBQ for a few reasons. For one, it is regarded as one of the first wildly successful food trucks in LA. For another, it was one of the first businesses to capitalize on social media and internet marketing. Moreover, it serves up a unique Korean-Mexican fusion of food. Kimchi quesadilla? Yes, and its awesome (even if you don’t like kimchi). While that’s my personal favorite on the menu, they’re best known for their short rib taco.
10. MDK Noodles
Myung Dong Kyoja is a popular Korean restaurant. It is located within a modest building, but is constantly full. If you are looking to try authentic Korean food that isn’t K-BBQ, this is the place. My favorite item is the kimchi pancake.
11. Bon Shabu
Are you familiar with Japanese hot pot? It’s a bit similar to Korean BBQ in that you prepare your meal at your table. You start by picking your broth and protein. Then, you pile your plate with all the veggies you want. Add it all to the broth to cook with thin slices of meat. It’s a delicious and interactive meal.
12. BCD Tofu House
Don’t let the name fool you, there are plenty of meat options here. As a testament to its popularity, there are also a few BCD locations in the neighborhood. Even if its midnight, they are packed. Part of this is attributable to its more affordable prices.
13. El Cholo
Next, El Cholo is a large Mexican restaurant in the neighborhood that has been there for nearly a century. Built in 1923, the business claims to be LA’s first Mexican restaurant. It continues to be a family owned restaurant, passing through the generations. On the weekend they switch up the menu and serve brunch items (try the huevos rancheros!).
14. Park’s BBQ
Off of Vermont Ave, Park’s is a classic KBBQ spot in Koreatown. Though it is just shy of 20 years old, it has been featured by various media outlets (to include Ugly Delicious on Netflix) and has won many awards. Customers praise the high quality meats and great, refillable banchan (the included side dishes).
15. California Donuts
Not just any donut shop can make this list. California Donut is a serious neighborhood establishment. How often do you find a donut shop with 6,000 reviews between Google and Yelp? The line can stretch around the block! Through the glass windows you can take your pick of a variety of creative flavors and designs. Unicorn donuts, green tea matcha donuts, horchata donuts, Reese’s donuts… the list goes on. They also offer coffee, boba, teas, and smoothies. If you’re after a caffeine and sugar fix, this is the place.
Tip: Don’t park in the parking lot. Park in the neighborhood behind the shop. The tiny parking lot is a nightmare when this place is busy, which is pretty much always.
16. Guelaguetza Restaurante
Finishing off the list is one of the most reviewed restaurants I’ve ever seen on Google Reviews or Yelp, an Oaxacan speciality establishment. It offers several types of mole and tlayudas, large almost pizza-like tortillas piled with toppings. It has a bright orange exterior with Korean influenced roof details to reflect the neighborhood. Don’t forget to order some amazing queso fundido and sample some mezcal.
Find your restaurant here:
What to Drink
1. The Alchemist
The pour over is a guaranteed caffeinated crowded pleaser. If you’re looking for something sweeter though, consider the Cold Chocolate with almond or oat milk. It’s essentially the LA version of Hot Chocolate, but on ice. This coffee shop has two locations in Koreatown and is great spot to get work done.
2. 6XS Coffee
Pronounced “success,” this shop opened up recently in 2020. There are limited seating options, but the atmosphere is calming and trendy. They have several specialty drinks. Two of the most popular are the 6XS Cloud and the Einspanner. My particular favorite here is their slow drip cold brew. Their beans are also roasted right here in Los Angeles.
3. Balcony Coffee and Tea
Newly renovated, this coffee shop is a great spot to get some work done. They have the greenest patio space I’ve found in any cafe in Koreatown. There’s a fountain as well which makes the outdoor space even more tranquil for an urban cafe. Even with all the plants in the outdoor space, there are ample electric outlets for those of you needing to charge your devices.
4. Lock & Key
One of the most popular spots in the neighborhood for drinks, Lock & Key serves up craft cocktails. It’s one of the better known speakeasies in the city, but you’ll still have to find the right doorknob to get in. They also serve a great variety of food if you come hungry.
5. The Normandie Club
Located in the historic Normandie Hotel, this business has a bar within a bar. Behind the hipster lounge is the Walker Inn, a smaller speakeasy. Both spots are a cozy, intimate location for a night out or a date. Plus, the drinks are delicious.