I took the red line down to Koreatown on L.A.’s still brand spankin’ new mass transit system. I was advised not to take it at night because “nobody uses it.” I can’t say whether or not that’s true. I rode in the evening, and the train was full, though the idea of how to use a train doesn’t seem to have settled into the collected consciousness of Angelinos. People wait until the doors of the train are open before getting up to get out. They fail to make room for new passengers by moving into the aisles. Rookie moves. They’ll get the hang of it.
I was on my way to see my old friend Tommy Kim. For five years, Tommy’s been promising me the Grand Koreatown Tour, and I was finally in a position to take him up on it. We met up in front of Ham Ji Park, a local eatery that’s gained some national attention in recent years, thanks to Anthony Bourdain stopping through. Even so, when we sat down, I was pretty much the only non-Korean in the place.
Ham Ji Park, like most Korean establishments, sets out banchan when you sit down: little appetizer plates of things like cabbage kimchee, fish cakes, and mung bean sprouts. They are delicious, they are complimentary, and you’ll hear from a variety of sources that the quality of an establishment can be determined by how serious they are about their banchan.
Tommy said something in Korean to the waiter.
“What did you order us?” I asked.
“Pork spare ribs and beer. We’ll start with that.”
The major Korean beer is called Hite, and it’s customary to pour for others but not for yourself. If you want to get super proper with it, hold your glass in one hand and hold that wrist with the other hand.
“It’s real submissive,” said Tommy.
The pork spare ribs came out sizzling hot, and the waiter brought a bowl of rice and a pair of scissors. The idea is to cut up the ribs with the scissors, then eat the pieces with your chopsticks. We started cutting, started eating, and started talking.
When Tommy and I made plans for this evening, he sent me a picture from his wedding. Both of us have been through divorces, so it was nice to see him landing on the good foot. I asked Tommy how married life was treating him.
“Good. I’m going to be a dad.”
I put down the scissors. “We got some catching up to do.”
Koreatown covers almost three square miles of Los Angeles, but much of the activity centers around West 6th Street. Just one block down from Ham Ji Park sits Dan Sung Sa, an exceedingly dark bar and cafe with wooden tables set against walls covered in graffiti, which you are encouraged to add to. Tommy ordered us a kimchee pancake, tteobokki (a gnocchi-like pasta-ish thing) and a thick rice wine called makgeolli, which is much like sake, but a little sweeter and with a lower alcohol content.
One of the first things you notice once your eyes adjust to the dark is that the waitstaff are all dressed in military fatigues. I asked one of the waitresses about this. She just shrugged and said it was the owner’s preference, then bounced on to the next table.
Military service is compulsory in South Korea (two years, in most cases), and there are stories of people raised in the United States, but still holding Korean citizenship, being pressed into the army the second they return to the home country, even if they don’t speak the language. Such are the consequences of living on the border of the most attended-to demilitarized zone in the world. But that history of military service has carried over to Koreatown in other ways, most notably in the reaction the community made to the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.
“You just saw everyone snap into that military mode,” says Tommy.
As Los Angeles burned, Koreatown organized. Patrols were set up, stores were guarded, command posts established. Koreatown was left to fend for itself by an overwhelmed police force, and many stores burned. The riots left a permanent mark on the country, the city, and the neighborhood, and a lot of longtime residents moved elsewhere. But the neighborhood survived, on the backs of both longtime residents and new arrivals, many from different cultures.
Still, despite the smorgasbord of cultures that call Koreatown home today, it keeps its name for a damn good reason. Everywhere you go, signs are in Korean. English is occasionally non-existent, often an afterthought. It seems like such a different landscape that it can be a bit jarring when you get a piece of history you would never have associated with the area thrust right in front of you.
“What’s that thing?” I asked Tommy, referring to big white monolith.
“It’s part of the Ambassador Hotel.”
I stopped in my tracks. There it was. The old Ambassador Hotel, where Bobby Kennedy, a man who might have been the greatest president of the century had he lived, was gunned down as he cut through the hotel kitchen after a speech. That was May of 1968. The Summer of Hate. Cities burning, panic in the streets. Twenty-four years before four L.A.P.D. officers walked away from trial with not guilty verdicts across their faces and this same neighborhood nearly went up in flames.
We stood in front of that monolith for a while. Neither one of us had anything to say.
* * *
Located near the old Ambassador is The Prince, a bar right out of a Rat Pack film. The difference is, everyone in the room is Korean.
“This place looks like an old Hollywood place,” I said.
“It was,” said the bartender. “Then we took it over. You know how you know it’s a Korean Bar?” I shook my head and he pointed to a buzzer next to our table. There was one at every table. It’s used to call for service.
“Koreans are real impatient,” he explained. Tommy just nodded.
We ordered a bottle of soju, a Korean liquor made from rice and/or wheat and sometimes potatoes. The taste is a bit like vodka, with a hot finish on the throat. A piano player ran through a series of jazz standards as we sat there.
“I love this bar,” I told Tommy.
“Wanna hit another one?”
“Yeah. I’m into bad decisions tonight.”
Our fourth landing was a bar called Cafe Bleu, and it’s about the hippest bar you’ll ever find tucked into the corner of a mini-mall. I immediately felt out of place. This was high end territory. A fashionable place for fashionable people. Everything was polished and shimmering, brushed metal and reflective wood floors. Tasteful lighting on the bottles behind the bar, and not much lighting anywhere else.
“Gentlemen, what can I get you?” said the bartender.
Tommy and I both got bottles of Hite and grinned like a couple kids who found themselves at the grownups table. Me in my ridiculous Hawaiian shirt and Tommy in his getup like he just came from a volleyball game. This was another side of Koreatown. A home for those who are killing it on the market. This was the Koreatown that looks up at all times, because it knows that’s where it’s going.
Still, Tommy reminded me, this was nothing. It was only 10:00 p.m. “Wait until it’s late. Then things really get going.”
At this point, we’d had plenty to drink, and plenty to eat, so the only reasonable thing to do was walk around. And because we walked around, we ended up in an alleyway behind the shops on 6th Street, walking past a loud, bamboo strewn bar called Toe Bang.
“We need to go here,” said Tommy. “Yeah. You need to go to Toe Bang.”
“What’s at Toe Bang?”
This is Military Soup. Don’t knock it til you tried it.
They seated us in a corner booth and Tommy, because he speaks Korean, ordered the Military Soup. And I, because I speak Hangover, asked for more food than that. When Tommy told me the soup would be more than enough, I ignored him. He clearly didn’t know what he was talking about. He eventually relented and ordered us bo ssam, which consists of strips of cabbage that you pick up with your hands, then layer with pork belly, fermented shrimp, and hot chiles, then wrap in the cabbage and eat. It’s finger food on another plane.
As you can probably tell from this photo, we had entirely too much food.
Both dishes were delicious, but the Military Soup intrigued me. I asked Tommy to give me the history.
“Okay, so, during the Korean War, when the Americans were occupying—I mean, when they were helping the South Koreans…as the deuce-and-a-half, three-axle trucks would roll by, the Americans would throw these cans of Spam off the trucks, and the villagers would take them and throw them in their stew. Back in the day they used to have tire pieces in there, but they took those out. We’re more refined now.”
“So it’s Mulligan Stew, Korean style.”
It’s also delicious. Ramen, jalapeno, veggies, bean sprouts, cut up hot dog and Spam. It doesn’t sound like it should be awesome, but it is. As much as we’d had to eat, we still managed to put away the entire bowl. There was still some left over on the bo ssam, but I had Tommy take that home. I couldn’t look at food anymore. If I ate another bite they would have had to roll me out.
Tommy gave me a lift back to my sister’s house. It was the first chance we’d had to hang out in five years, and I thanked him for guiding me through a stretch of the city that would have been impenetrable for me without him. Sometimes you go out for a meal with a friend. But when you have someone you haven’t seen in a long time, you want more than that. You want an experience. You want to create a memory to share.
“This was good,” I told him. “I’m gonna be full for days.”
He dropped me off and we hugged and exchanged promises to see each other again soon, which I hope we’re able to keep.
“Great to see you,” he said.
“You too. Let’s not let five years pass before we do this again.”
Ham Ji Park is located at 3407 W. 6th St. They are open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Thursday, and stay open til 11:00 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. They are open on Sunday from 4:00-10:00 p.m.
Dan Sung Sa is located up the street at 3317 W. 6th St. They are open from 4:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., seven days a week.
The Prince is located at 3198 W. 7th Street. They have a website here.
Cafe Bleu is at 3470 W. 6th St, inside a strip mall. They have a website here.
Toe Bang is officially at 3465 W. 6th Street, but it’s actually in the alley behind the other places on 6th. Enter the alley on Kenmore or Alexandria. They have a Facebook page here.