What has really helped Koreatown is actually a bit of a boon in urban planning, as well as the Korean immigrant propensity to an urban lifestyle. The staggering majority of South Koreans live in metropolitan Seoul, and as a result a majority of newer immigrants are from the capital. Most recent immigrants are more than satisfied living in an apartment or condominium (detached housing is rare in Seoul), hence the density in Koreatown. Wilshire is the 5th Avenue of Los Angeles, the major non-freeway thoroughfare in the city, and it runs right through K-town. While technically free-way locked, it's surrounded by all sides by the 110, 101, and 10 Freeway, giving it proximity to a resurgent Downtown and Hollywood. While real estate development is just finally taking a turn in Mid-Wilshire and Miracle Mile, Koreatown's mid-century offices, a remnant of the Occcidental Petroleum days gives it plenty of office space that gives it a bevy of day time employees. Consider also the ubiquity of public transit, multi-use development, and even the considerable nightlife (mostly the result of lackadaisical police work in the "gray" areas of bars, karoake lounges, and clubs), and you get one hot spot.
The restaurant scene is no surprise, given the number of restaurateurs that come over stateside. While the best ones no-doubt stay in the motherland (why would you, if you're already successful), the ease of acquiring a business and applying skills already learnt allows immigrants to actively pursue an entrepreneurial spirit. Language barriers prevent people from applying directly into the corporate environment, unless they come with higher education or start at a mainly Korean-owned company. And city life prevents the urban dweller from investing too much time in cooking at home - hence the wealth of relatively cheap meals. All of the fundamentals are there. The only thing that remains is an increasingly savvy consumer, both Koreans and non-Koreans. Unlike the San Gabriel Valley, where restaurants almost laugh at the prospect of non-Mandarin speakers from enjoying a proper meal (I'm looking at you, Shaanxi Gourmet), Koreans know that catering to English-speaking clientele isn't just smart business - it's mandatory. I was quite surprised to learn two friends who had been to nearly all of Jonathan Gold's recommendations, many more than myself, and neither of them speak a lick of Korean. Impressive.
My list takes an approach of the essentials - preferably just one or two restaurants in each major category of restaurant, and a few more in the "diner-type" restaurant, where traditional dishes abound, and more than a few choices in the barbecue category, without a doubt the most popular single type of restaurant in Koreatown. I'm hoping that the overall quality and breadth continues to develop. There needs to be greater demand for unique dishes and preparations. There needs to be less repetition of the all-you-can-eat barbecue genre. I'm really hoping that we get some real chef-like approaches to Koreatown restaurants, so that a David Chang-type can create a true destination. I think a place like Beer Belly is starting to make strides in this direction, with a terrific gastropub model and some creative cooking. My buddy Eddie Hah was doing some good stuff incorporating his experience from 8 oz. over at Biergarten before better opportunities took him away.
And then this past year I discovered the stand-out traditional restaurant in Soban, which I consider to be the best single Korean restaurant in Los Angeles based on my three meals there. And yet I know the place could be better, and busier. We're still looking for a true royal palace cuisine exuded in the right ambiance. Yong Su-san has fallen pretty low at the point, and really needs to be retooled by management that wants to take it to another level. With today's review of LaOn by Tien Nyugen in LA Weekly, it looks like modern Korean cuisine might finally have stepped into the spotlight, albeit more with a whimper than a bang. Hopefully this review will help that turn around, though I've also heard some other information that it might be more flash than substance. I'll have to see for myself and write a review, naturally.
For my Eater LA list of Koreatown restaurants, click here.
For Jonathan Gold's amazing list of 60 dishes in Koreatown, click here.