Koreatown in Los Angeles used to be like an inside joke: if you were in on it, you felt undeniably cool, and if you had no idea what this sprawl of urban life was about, the town was somewhat befuddling and unwelcoming. The neon diaspora of foreign Hangul signage has generally produced more confusion than curiosity, and so Koreatown, with its all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ joints, secret after-hours nightlife, and the pockets of Latino and Bangladeshi communities was, until recently, not the easiest place to navigate without the help from someone on the inside.
The Next Frontier
“Koreatown is like the next frontier in Los Angeles,” says Ted Vadakan, half of the husband-and-wife duo that founded the LA-based shop/gallery, Poketo, which just opened its second location at the new Line Hotel in Koreatown. “It has a great nightlife, delicious food, and a lot of hidden gems—but, it’s also a bit of the unknown for a lot of Angelenos.”
Now, it has slowly come to the attention of many an Angeleno that the joke has actually been on them for some time. “We’ve been special. Everyone just took their time figuring that shit out.” says chef and Kogi Taco master Roy Choi, who was approached by the Sydell Group (the guys behind The NoMad and Ace New York) to head the eats and drinks program at the Line Hotel.
Now, in true spirit of true “fomo” (fear of missing out), everyone on the outside of this ethnic hub is clamoring to be on the inside.
Lucky for them, they’re being ushered into an era where this town is embracing and abridging the onslaught of attention, all thanks in part and parcel to the flood of cultural PR—from the globalization of kimchi to the phenomenon of Korean pop culture.
However, what these outsiders are initially drawn to is not what they’re discovering. This town isn’t only about the dank and pungent fermented cabbage or people that look and have moves like the ubiquitous ‘Gangnam style’ star: instead, they’re being introduced to a trilingual community—where you can hear English, Korean and Spanish, and sometimes an amusing blend of all three—and a new creative and cultural force spurred on by this diversity.
The Line Hotel Lifestyle
The Line Hotel is the first lifestyle hotel of its kind to draw upon the social fabric of Koreatown, intentionally translating the quirky and unfamiliar aspects of this metropolis into a community experience that pays homage to the Korean and Latino communities.
Sydell Group founder, Andrew Zobler, set out with the idea of creating a gathering place where the lobby would be an extended living room for the entire neighborhood. It’s where you’ll witness the intersection of worlds: old Korean men brandishing copies of The Korea Times traversing paths with hordes of horchata drinking hipsters (who are mentally jotting down a few fashion pointers or two from their elders).
The Poketo team, Vadakan and his wife, Angie Myung, were tapped alongside Choi to join the impressive roster of LA creatives that are converging at the Line Hotel. “We considered it an amazing opportunity to acquaint people to this part of LA,” says Vadakan. “The Line is a true collaboration [between] Roy Choi, Sean Knibb, the Houston brothers, and Poketo. It nurtures an environment where we are collectively brainstorming and collaborating on things together. The synergy alone between us all, there’s no stopping us.”
The Koreatown Comeback
Choi, who has founded his success on the Korean Taco, shows another feat of cultural symbiosis at his new hotel restaurant, POT. It’s food that is markedly Korean, but the nuances are Choi, through and through. The mood is set by ’90s hip-hop music, and hipster servers donned in floral prints usher you into a no-frills space. On the menu, you’re faced with a picture of a Korean grandma nonchalantly puffing the magic dragon, priming you for what’s to come in the pages to follow. There’s the standard fare of banchan and galbi, and then the signature dish whose moniker has become a 420-friendly innuendo: the spicy Korean hotpots. The most popular of these is “The Bootknocker,” a hotpot which includes instant ramen, Spam, corned beef hash, pork sausage, rice cakes, fish cakes, tofu, and a sprinkle of greens on top–a literal melting pot of everything in Choi’s pantry.
He creates a space for outsiders in this cuisine to explore with ease without forgoing the culinary narrative at hand. And besides, you can’t get more Koreatown than eating kimchi and instant ramen accompanied by uncensored Tupac lyrics.
However, this open door policy was not always the norm. If anything, the same diversity that inspires so much of Koreatown today was actually the bedrock of violence during the Los Angeles riots in 1992. What started out as a reaction to police brutality violently spun out into a free-for-all that drew the participation of all different ethnic groups; Korean small businesses were robbed and burnt to the ground, and with the LAPD and National Guard unwilling and unable to control the chaos, the community was wrecked by the emotional and financial damage.
Today, all of that seems like a distant memory. The homecoming of The Line hotel leaves no trace of a town that was once devastated by anarchic mayhem a mere 20 years ago. Its introduction serves as a subtle reminder of the redemption and progress that has culminated into this creative expression of community, an expression that finds significance in the differences of its people. “As long as the Koreans, Latinos and Bangladeshis live here,” says Choi, “it will always be K-town.”
The town now boasts the highest concentration of restaurants and nightclubs in all of southern California, and a big part of that comeback has been the cultural grit in embracing of one of the most multiracial cities on Earth. “Change mixes things up, it can enrich a community, it can increase diversity,” says Vadakan. “Koreatown will continue to be a melting pot, not unlike Los Angeles, not unlike this country.”
So, without further delay, welcome to a town where cultural collisions run as deep as they run high.
Koreatown has finally arrived, and it’s about damn time.