Iconic Neighborhood Restaurants: Koreatown

This article was first published on KCET. I plan on exploring all of L.A.’s neighborhood in depth, beginning with Koreatown, Chinatown, Boyle Heights, and South Central L.A. I have a special fondness for these neighborhoods. I’ve lived in L.A. since I was five years old. Although I’ve traveled extensively, L.A. is my favorite city in the world. 

At the turn of the last century, Korean immigrants began settling into Bunker Hill, one of the few neighborhoods designated for non-whites, on the western edge of downtown Los Angeles. When the Korean United Presbyterian Church was established further south on Jefferson Boulevard in 1905, the Korean community began to grow around the church, unofficially establishing the area into “Old Koreatown.” As racially restrictive covenants began to decline over the decades, Koreans began moving north to Olympic Boulevard. By the early 1970s there was a cluster of businesses catering to a fast-growing Korean population.

In 1971, a Korean immigrant named Hi Duk Lee purchased five blocks of real estate near Olympic and Normandie, opening Olympic market with a grand plan to have Koreatown’s architecture rival Chinatown’s. He imported tiles for VIP Palace restaurant which he opened in 1975. He then built the Korean Village Shopping Center; the cluster of businesses he started are considered to be the foundations of contemporary Koreatown as we know it. To solidify his investment, Lee spearheaded the campaign to have Koreatown officially designated and in 1980, L.A. acceded.

Today, Koreatown encompasses a 2.7-square mile. Virtually every style of major 20th century American architecture is represented here. It’s also home to the most neon signs, densely packed strip malls, valet parkers, and Korean

restaurants in all of L.A. County. As the majority of the residents here are Latino, Korean business owners are more likely to have signs in Korean and Spanish than in English.

Guelaguetza: As the center of Koreatown began to shift even further north to WIlshire Center at Western and Wilshire, Oaxacans began to move into the old center of Koreatown along Olympic. In 2001, Fernando Lopez took over VIP Palace to expand La Guelaguetza, a regional Oaxacan restaurant which he originally opened on 8th Street in 1994. The Lopez family left the Korean facade of ornate paintings and imported shingles intact, while redesigning the interior with vibrant colors. Lopez, like Hi Duk Lee, has proven to be a tour de force when it comes to promoting his culture, even founding El Oaxaqueno, a free newspaper. Often called Oaxacalifornia’s first family, the Lopezes have championed Oaxacan cuisine and culture for decades. The award-winning restaurant and its mole has legendary status among Angelenos. 3014 W Olympic Blvd, Los Angeles, (213) 427-0608.

Taylor’s Steakhouse: Taylor’s Tavern opened in 1953 on the corner of Western and Olympic. They moved to their current location on 8th Street in 1970 and revamped as a steakhouse. If the website is any indication, the restaurant seems oblivious to their Koreatown environs as are most of the patrons who seem to be permanent fixtures from a bygone era. Taylor’s claims to be located in downtown L.A. and Mid-Wilshire, which is physically impossible and not even based on historical maps of the city. Regardless, when you enter Taylor’s you feel as though you are not in the present day. The dimly-lit dining room has barely changed, including the waitstaff, in the restaurant’s 45 years. Deeply shined, button-tufted red leather booths provide most of the lighting required to read the menu which is reminiscent of a cookbook from the 1950s. Old school classics such as Steak Diane, Filet Oscar, and pot roast with mashed potatoes are served in hearty portions at prices that cater to middle class sensibilities. There are no names of farms on their menus or tender grass fed beef. They’re most famous for their culotte steak, a cut known for its meaty flavor and hefty chew. 3361 W 8th St, (213) 382-8449.

Soot Bull Jeep: When Soot Bull Jeep, which means “charcoal fire house,” opened in 1983, the idea of grilling meat indoors over live coals was virtually unknown to most Angelenos. For many non-Koreans in L.A., this was the first restaurant where they experienced the flavors of real Korean barbecue, cooked their own food at a restaurant, and learned how to share every dish on the table with their dining companions. The stark service style transports you to a back alley restaurant in South Korea. The meats are hand-cut slabs instead of machine cut wisps. The banchan selection is as minimalist as the decor. But the point of dining at Soot Bull Jeep is to enjoy smokey meat wrapped in lettuce, topped with charred garlic slices, a little green onion, and a dollop of fermented bean paste. 3136 W. Eighth St., (213) 387-3865.

The Dragon Chinese Restaurant: When it comes to feeding large groups, Chinese restaurants are a mainstay for Korean-Americans. With 15 private rooms and a banquet room large enough to accommodate 200, the Dragon has probably hosted more Korean celebrations and meetings than any other Chinese-Korean restaurant in Koreatown. From baby’s 100th day celebrations, first birthdays, wedding rehearsal dinners, post-funeral family meals, and office meetings, the Dragon has hosted them all for the past 35 years. 966 S Vermont Ave, (213) 387-8833.

Pollo a La Brasa: Pollo a La Brasa feels like it’s been open for about 100 years. It’s mostly because the restaurant looks like it was built in someone’s backyard and it’s hard to believe that it could have passed any modern zoning laws. Piles of wood tower over the tiny shack and smoke billows from every crevice. You can smell Pollo a La Brasa before you see it. Owned and operated by a Japanese-Peruvian family, it’s been a neighborhood favorite and a dining destination since it opened in 1989. It’s an L.A. institution that almost everyone should try at least once. 764 S. Western Ave., (213) 387-1531.