Koreatown in Los Angeles is unlike any other Koreatown in the world. Though it’s a far cry from the real deal, it’s probably the closest you’ll get to Seoul without leaving the country. There are parts of K-town where you’ll forget you’re in LA, or in the U.S. for that matter. There are plazas you can walk into where everything is in Korean. There are stores and restaurants you can duck into where all you see are Koreans and all you hear is Korean — and you have to ask for an English menu.
Koreatown is unlike any other neighborhood in Los Angeles. It is thriving, a living and breathing neighborhood with a constant pulsing of energy, a rhythm of life that just seems a little more city like, a little more full of life than the laid back scene in other parts of town. Maybe it’s the wide streets, tall (comparatively) buildings, bustling strip malls and shopping complexes filled with KBBQ joints and boba shops and cafés and Instagrammable snack foods and quick serve restaurants imported straight from the motherland. Maybe it’s the hectic intersections and the fact that it takes a full 10 minutes to drive a block up or down Vermont or Normandie or Western. Maybe it’s the grand modern looking metro stations that deceive visitors into thinking we’re a normal city with normal transportation.
Things are convenient here, probably about as much as it can be in LA. There are actually people walking around (probably the only part of LA where that’s socially acceptable). There’s at least a dozen large Korean supermarkets, and mini-ecosystems around them. And yes, you may be judged by where you shop. There’s California Market, two Galleria’s, a couple H-Marts, Zion Market, HK Market, Hannam Market… iykyk. There’s 5 Paris Baguettes, 4 Tom & Toms, 2 BCD Tofu Houses (but let’s be real, you go to the one with the parking lot).
To the untrained eye, every intersection looks the same. Big commercial centers lit up with neon signs. But to those who know, every street has its own quirks. The glitz of Wilshire is contrasted by the more local feel of Olympic. 6th is where everyone flocks on a Friday night but 8th is where the real Koreans go. And of course there are the landmarks (the Wiltern, the Line hotel) from which the neighborhood sprawls out in every direction, hiding gems in strip malls and enclosed shopping centers (not common in LA outside of Ktown) as it blends into Little Bangladesh, Little Guatemala and El Salvador Corridor. Of course these days, it is a lot more diverse in its Asian representation, keeping up with international trends (you know Koreans love trendy shit) from 85C Bakery and Yifang tea to Coco Ichibanya and Daiso. The neighborhood is becoming a conveniently central place for the thriving Asian immigrant and Asian American population to flock to — more versatile than Sawtelle, and a lot closer than San Gabriel Valley.
I have to admit, Koreatown is not my favorite part of LA. In fact, I actively avoid going there — parking is profoundly painful, any time of the day. When I do venture over, I try to hit as many places as possible in one trip so it’s “worth it.” But of all the Koreatowns, this one is my favorite. It puts the others to shame. This one is a primer for the real thing.
While we’re here, let’s also geographically loop in MacArthur Park and Westlake, a highly diverse and often overlooked neighborhood tucked between Koreatown and DTLA. This neighborhood is crowded and lively, with a significant Latinx population (mostly Mexican and Salvadorean). From the park itself to the iconic Westlake Theater sign to the always bustling swap meet to the historic buildings to the much-loved Langer’s Deli, the energy of these few blocks feel like a world in itself.