Kerstin Kühn: LA’s food scene - Koreatown

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 28th February 2014
This is the latest in a series of monthly blogs by LA-based food writer and former restaurant editor of Caterer and Hotelkeeper, Kerstin Kühn, otherwise known as La Goulue.  A MINI CULINARY TOUR OF LA’S KOREATOWN Chunju Han-Il Kwan_2 One of the most exciting things about LA’s food scene is its community of ethnic restaurants. After all, Los Angeles County is recognised as the most ethnically diverse city in the USA, where you can explore just about every country’s cuisine.  Arguably LA’s most interesting ethnic quarter is Koreatown, K-Town for short, which is home to the largest community of Koreans outside of Korea. Under the guidance of young Korean chef Justin Oh, a K-Town local, who works for José Andrés at his Beverly Hills restaurant the Bazaar, I recently spent a night out in K-Town, visiting three of its most authentic hidden gems.   K-TOWN IS THE PLACE TO BE Put on the culinary map by famous chef Anthony Bourdain, who featured it in his Parts Unknown series on CNN, and voted in 2013 as LA’s hottest neighbourhood by Conde Nast Traveler, K-Town is said to have the highest concentration of restaurants and nightclubs in Southern California.   Line_HotelPerhaps it’s thanks to Gangnam Style but K-Town is the place to be in LA right now and its coolness factor has just been bolstered with the January opening of the Line Hotel, run by Sydell Group, the company behind New York’s NoMad. Bringing together the city's top Korean-American trendsetters, Line Hotel features a retro-themed lounge from LA bar gurus, the Houston Brothers, as well as two restaurants headed up by Korean celebrity chef Roy Choi, who has made a name for himself as the creator of the gourmet Korean taco truck, Kogi.   Beyond the mainstream, however, K-Town can be intimidating, as upon first glance, it seems like a huge impenetrable maze of restaurants, bars, markets and strip malls. Sprawling across a three-square-mile radius, it's a whole foreign city within the city, where at times you can feel like you’ve left the USA and gone to Asia.   But of course that’s exactly what makes K-Town so exciting and what’s really amazing about it is its plethora of truly authentic restaurants. For unlike many other nations, Koreans have resisted the Americanisation of their food and continue to celebrate their country’s cooking in all its glory. Next to a host of top Korean barbecue restaurants and their all-you-can-eat menus, there is so much to explore – from hot soups and stews to abalone porridge, raw fish salads, rice bowls and of course lashings of kimchi (spicy, pickled cabbage); every Korean speciality under the sun is served up here.   CHUNJU HAN-IL KWAN – A TRADITIONAL KOREAN DINER Our mini K-Town tour started out at Chunju Han-Il Kwan, a modest diner, tucked away in a strip mall in the Chunju Han-Il Kwan_3heart of K-Town. Described as a ‘hole in the wall’, it has been open for more than 20 years and is about as traditional as they come – with a menu that was only recently translated into English and a group of old ladies in the kitchen cooking homely Korean food.   Before we ordered our main dish, we were presented with an array of complimentary banchan, comprising ten different small bowls of delicious cold side dishes including: kimchi; broccoli, cauliflower and asparagus covered in chilli sauce; egg soufflé; mushrooms with garlic; pickled seaweed; chap chae rice noodles with vegetables; and sweet fishcakes with chilli sauce and sesame seeds.   Then came the main attraction: budae jjigae, a bright red stew served up in a piping hot cauldron on a tabletop burner. “The dish originates from the Korean War,” Justin informed. “Due to food scarcity, people would use all sorts of scraps to cook it.”   Indeed budae jjigae was formerly made by using leftover ingredients from the US Army such as Spam, hotdogs, cheese and baked beans, as a result of which the dish is also sometimes called Johnson Tang (Johnson being the common US surname and tang the Korean word for soup). At Chunju Han-il Kwan, it comprised a steaming broth seasoned with chilli paste and kimchi, with lozenges of Spam, sliced hotdog sausages, dduk rice cakes and ramen noodles swimming in the spicy, hot and flavoursome soup, which was served with a bowl of purple rice on the side. I could have stayed here all night tucking into the deliciousness of the nourishing, warming budae jjigae but alas off to the next place we were.  CHUNG KI WA – KOREAN BLACK ANGUS Chung Ki Wa_1Specialising in Korean Black Angus, as the sign outside proclaims, this place isn’t designed for vegetarians. Another traditional Korean eatery, it’s a standalone venture on the outskirts of K-Town that has more of a restaurant-proper feel than the previous place. We sat in a semi-private room and called our Korean waitress by pushing a button on the wall. As before, we were served a bunch of cold side dishes this time also including black beans, pickled cucumber, mackerel, and Chung Ki Wa’s very own house kimchi.  Although Chung Ki Wa specialises in Korean barbecue, with heaps of meat pictured on the menu and tabletop hot plates designed for patrons to cook their own meat, Justin ordered dolsot bibimbap, a signature Korean dish, literally translated as ‘mixed rice’. Served in a stone pot on a flame, the bibimbap comprised warm white rice mixed with strips of beef and topped with an array of vegetables and a raw egg in the middle. Again it’s a dish that dates back to times of war, Justin said. “It’s sustainable food and has all the vitamins, proteins and carbohydrates you need in one bowl,” he explained. “Traditionally it was made with dried vegetables, which would last throughout the cold winter, but these days it’s fresh vegetables and in the summer it’s served cold.”  Justin mixed up the contents of the bowl and very politely served me first as I’m his elder. “It’s not seasoned,” he said, pointing to a bowl of bright red chilli sauce designed for diners to use to season their food according to their own taste. “The best part comes at the end, when the rice at the bottom of the pot goes crispy,” smiled Justin scraping it out. He was right.   BYUL POCHA – A KOREAN PUB Our last stop in K-Town was a traditional Korean pub. Over a bottle of Hite beer and a plate of crispy pig’s Byul Pocha_foodintestines eaten wrapped in a shiso leaf with fried garlic and – you guessed it – more chilli sauce, we chatted about K-Town’s vibrant nightlife. It turns out that Koreans love nothing more than a good piss up. In fact, South Koreans drink twice as much hard liquor as Russians and six times as much as Brits.  K-Town too celebrates this tradition and never sleeps, with 24-hour restaurants being just the tip of the iceberg, according to Justin. K-Town is home to more nightlife outlets than many other entire cities, ranging from pubs to dive bars and high-end cocktail lounges as well as secret karaoke bars hidden inside malls where locals can be seen staggering out at 4am in the morning. Much of the party is underground as under Californian licensing laws no alcohol can be served after 2am, but that’s when, according to Justin, the fun in K-Town just begins.   As our night came to a close, I realised that we had only just scratched the surface of K-Town’s thriving restaurant and bar scene. “You’ll have to come back soon,” said Justin. “And next time we’ll go out all night.”  Kerstin_KuhnKerstin Kühn is a freelance food and travel writer, specialising in restaurant and chef stories. The former restaurant editor of Caterer and Hotelkeeper, she relocated from London to Los Angeles last summer, where she lives with her husband and two cats. With a vast network of chefs from around the world, Kerstin has profiled the likes of Michel Roux, Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, the Roca brothers and Massimo Bottura. She has been a contributor to publications including FOUR Magazine, the Evening Standard Food and Travel Magazine, M&C Report, Design Week, Frame Magazine and City and Canary Wharf Magazines and also writes her own blog, La Goulue. You can follow Kerstin on Twitter @LaGoulue_

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 28th February 2014

Kerstin Kühn: LA’s food scene - Koreatown