A Koreatown State of Mind

An illustration depicting Korean BBQ

(Illustration by Karan Singh / For The Times)

Koreatown is a neighborhood of extremes. At any time of day, its streets surge with traffic, car horns blaring as they dart through traffic lights. Nondescript shopping malls and plazas give way to smokehouses specializing in everything from coal-fired seafood to pan-grilled duck. And at night, when the rest of the city slows down, Koreatown turns neon-bright with karaoke dens, secret speakeasies, dive bars and kitschy restaurants that keep their kitchens open late.

The enclave, home to the largest Korean community in America, threatens to overwhelm with its fast pace and unapologetic indulgence. But those who immerse themselves in its magic know that Koreatown is more than just a place. Its sights, sounds and smells stick with you. Hours, days, sometimes weeks later, you find yourself daydreaming about a particularly transcendental slab of marinated galbi, an inventive soju-laced cocktail or an “American Idol”-worthy karaoke performance.

The spirit of Koreatown extends far beyond the boundaries designated by the city. In North Orange County, a tri-level mall has emerged as an apex of Korean culture, and a city best known for its berry-themed amusement park has named its own Koreatown.

Across the country, a Korean wave of fine dining is marked by creativity and extravagance, with carefully plated dishes that feature caviar and truffles alongside fermented bean paste and kimchi. Newcomers similar (but not too similar) in hue have also arrived in Los Angeles as of late.

The next time you find yourself seeking an epiphany, whether brought on by flame-kissed meats, brilliant banchan or a raucous night of drinking, head to Koreatown.

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