Word of Mouth: Koreatown, Los Angeles
Word of Mouth: Koreatown, Los Angeles
Exploring the historic neighborhood's most recent additions, from stoner food to classic cocktails
With the largest Korean population outside of South Korea, LA's sprawling Koreatown neighborhood offers an almost overwhelming number of food, beverage and shopping options at every turn. Traditionally home to many Korean families and a large Latino community, the neighborhood has an ever-expanding multicultural population. Visitors to Koreatown can now stay at the The Line Hotel, a 1964 Brutalist concrete building with sweeping city views and a colorful outpost boutique by Poketo tucked into a cozy space by the elevators. (Word is the Huston Brothers will also open their Speek nightclub inside the hotel soon.)
As the neighborhood continues to offer traditional foods and culture, new businesses continue to crop up. In a brick building from 1926 just around the corner from The Line lies the Normandie Hotel, which has recently been renovated to include a new restaurant and bar. Nearby music venues like the historic Wiltern and the newer Cathedral Sanctuary draw world class music acts. The newest additions to Koreatown reveal an evolution of a community that welcomes new businesses, while always maintain its traditional core of authentic Korean food and drink. Below are a handful of relative newcomers to the neighborhood that deserve a closer look.
Being second generation Korean American and growing up in Koreatown inspired Beer Belly owner Jimmy Han to focus on working in real estate in the neighborhood and eventually led to the opening of Beer Belly a few years ago. Han describes the menu as "beer food" or "stoner food" served with some of his favorite beers, often aged in bourbon or wine barrels. The space was designed by MAKE Architecture, who transformed a tire shop into the modern beer pub. Out front Han’s high school friend MR44 painted the mural that was originally black and white and now bursts with color. Inspired by Beer Belly’s chef Wes Lieberher's Philadelphia roots, last year Han also opened Whiz a corner sandwich shop on the other side of the block. Both are definitely worth a visit.
Leading up to the recent opening of his current Le Comptoir location at the Hotel Normandie, Chef Gary Menes spent a year tending to his urban farm in Long Beach. There, he carefully cultivated crops of his favorite ingredients and planned a menu to harness the best of the produce he grows each season. Previously his Le Comptoir menu had been developed during stints in downtown LA and Glendale. Menes, who spent time working in the French Laundry Kitchen and presiding over formal dining establishments in LA, knows his flavors. His precise style of elegant preparation looks deceptively simple—see the pureed cauliflower velouté over toasted breadcrumbs with a quenelle of tart Greek yogurt for example.
Menes offers a prix fixe menus for up to 12 people for two seatings a night at the walnut wood counter. The menu is prepared à la minute in front of the diners with additional menu options of luxurious ingredients like foie gras and seasonal truffles. Menes often ends a meal with his inspired version of donuts and coffee made with his sourdough starter and expertly prepared pour-over coffee with coffee beans from Trystero and other locals roasters.
Cassell’s Hamburgers opened in 1948 in another location, though recently reopened at the corner of 6th Street and Normandie Avenue at the Hotel Normandie. This new incarnation of Cassell’s pays homage to the original hamburger stand, while adding a coffee bar, breakfast menu, craft cocktail bar and house-made sodas. Chef Christian Page updated the original menu. Each day beef is ground in house. Tuna is poached and made into tuna salad for sandwiches and tuna melts. Sides are a fun retro assortment of mac salad, coleslaw, potato salad with horseradish and fresh potato chips. The tasty, creamy milkshakes are made with McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams from Santa Barbara.
The Normandie Club
The most recent addition to Koreatown is none other than The Normandie Club, a bar created by Death & Co’s Alex Day and David Kaplan, along with bartender Devon Tarby (also of Proprietors LLC) Cedd Moses and Eric Needleman of 213 Nightlife. Their prodigious cocktail know-how makes this comfortable neighborhood bar, with a menu of innovative takes on classic cocktails, something truly special. Inside, brown leather bar stools flank a dark wood bar with sleek booths for table service. The collection of spirits behind the bar, as well as on their optics rack (ready to quickly dispense measure shots) will inspire repeat visits. Just make sure to try the bartender's current favorite variations of the Old Fashioned, Manhattan and the Martini.
The menu offers inspired versions of the classics including a spritz on tap by the glass or pitcher made with cucumber water and clarified lime juice combined with blanc vermouth, douglas fir eau de vie, mint and fizz. The Normandie Club is located on the bustling 6th Street just steps from Le Comptoir and Cassell’s and around the corner from The Line Hotel, solidifying the feeling that this block is becoming the neighborhood's new travel destination and hospitality hub.
Document Coffee Bar and Gallery
Near The Wiltern artists Sojung Kwon and Byoungok Koh have transformed the large light-filled space into a coffee bar and contemporary art gallery. Kwon and Koh designed every aspect of Document with lighting fixtures fashioned from utility buckets. They oversee all of the design features of the space, branding and art shows. The name refers to their obsession with documenting artistic process also leading them to chronicle the design process of building the coffee bar and gallery which will all be displayed at a future show. The menu features a multiroaster coffee program serving coffees from Ritual, Phil & Sebastian, Temple and others. Their signature drink is called the Document Cold, a frosty glass of milk with a little maple syrup served with bottle of strong cold brew.
On the more traditional side of food offerings in Koreatown, Okrumong serves shaved ice topped with red beans in metal snow bowls with a long gold spoon. It’s a luxurious way to experience South Korean-style patbingsu. Angie Myung from Poketo vouches for the authenticity of this icy treat, while other popular places have begun to take liberties and serve Oreos and other candies on their shaved ice. Tucked into a strip mall on 6th Street a few blocks West of the Hotel Normandie, Okrumong also serves black sesame snow bowls, mango snow cups, porridge and assorted baked goods.
No visit to Koreatown is complete without enjoying a drink or a meal at The Prince. This historic bar and restaurant has been the backdrop for scenes in the movie Chinatown and more recently Mad Men. Sitting in one of the red vinyl booths under a still-life oil painting feels as if Frank Sinatra may walk in at any moment. Drams of The Macallan 12 can be had for a fair price and the cocktail list still offers Midori sours, White Russians and Apple Martinis. For a classic Koreatown experience, order their signature Korean fried chicken and fried rice with spam and sit back with a bit of whisky or a glass of soju and relax with friends.
Image of Le Comptoir courtesy of the venue, all others by Julie Wolfson