The majority of all Korean-Americans living in LA have been to one Koreatown at least once in their lives.
It’s a little before 5 p.m. on a Wednesday at The Dragon in Koreatown, but that’s not stopping patrons from arriving early and ordering bowls of jjajangmyeon, the hand-pulled noodle dish with a gleaming, obsidian-black roasted soybean sauce that Jonathan Gold once termed "the divine crankcase sludge of Korean-Chinese cuisine."
That spelling of jjajangmyeon is intentional, by the way. Though similar, the Korean-Chinese dish is not to be confused with zhiajangmien, the Chinese noodle dish made from fermented soybean that’s popular in its own right at restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley and Silver Lake’s Pine & Crane. The Korean-Chinese version employs chunjang, a sauce made from roasted soybeans and caramel that’s at once savory, salty and slightly sweet.
But back to the restaurant—it’s a bit past five now, and patrons are either disappearing into one of The Dragon’s many private rooms upstairs or filing into the main dining room for what appears to be a routine weekly dinner. Servers promptly attend to diners with steaming plates of tangsooyook, or sweet and sour pork, while the restaurant’s owner, T.J. Wang, walks around and exchanges greetings with some of his regular customers.
Sustained success that doesn't come without repeat customers
"It’s good to see you again," Wang remarks to an elderly patron in Korean before bowing. This is presumably something Wang says often; after all, he’s owned and operated a restaurant that has served the same Korean-American community for almost 35 years — sustained success that doesn't come without repeat customers, and many in the room tonight look like the types who come here every Wednesday.
Mongolian beef at The Dragon
And why wouldn’t they? In addition to a very respectable bowl of jjajangmyeon, the aforementioned sweet and sour pork is a refined rendition of the Korean-Chinese comfort food staple, taking fried strips of pork that manage to avoid being soggy despite being slathered in a sweet sauce and topped with still-crunchy carrots and cabbage.
Fried strips of pork that manage to avoid being soggy despite being slathered in a sweet sauce
Wang, a Seoul native and the son of Chinese-born restaurateurs, came to Los Angeles in 1971 and worked as a dishwasher, bus boy, server and sous chef prior to opening a couple of other restaurants with partners, before finally opening The Dragon in 1980.
It’s no secret that Koreatown in Los Angeles by and large operates as an apt gastronomic microcosm of the Land of the Morning Calm. This is due in no small part to the fact that Los Angeles boasts the largest Korean population of any city in America, and the effect is such that restaurants catering specifically to Korean tastes have managed to sustain success for as long as The Dragon has.
"We started as Mandarin style, and took the style in the northern part of China and transferred to Korea," Wang says. "Korea changed it a little bit to suit the local material and Korean people’s tastes. That’s how we’re surviving in Koreatown. The way it’s cooked is different than restaurants in Chinatown and Monterey Park."
Though the food is plenty well-executed, the larger contributor to The Dragon’s sustained success is its private rooms and banquet halls.
"We have about 14 different-sized banquet rooms, the biggest one hosts 200," Wang said. "We do lots of banquets here."
The Dragon is an inextricable part of Koreatown’s cultural tapestry.
Already upstairs in the larger banquet room, a company prepares a presentation on a projector. Other rooms look fitted for wedding receptions with a horizontal table designated for the newlyweds. Wang stops by and greets his guests with a smile and a handshake. The Dragon is such an inextricable part of Koreatown’s cultural tapestry in this way — it provides a central venue which, in 35 years, has seen relatively little change in spite of being located in a restaurant community that has a mind-bending turnover rate.
"It’s funny, one time, I had two separate individual regular diners who came into the restaurant on separate days, but later on found out that they were father and son and part of the same family," Wang said. "It always gets me to see little kids who grew up eating our jjajangmyeon coming in here on their own to eat their jjajngmyeon when they are grown up."
Tang sook yook, sweet and sour pork
Which only belabors a point; The Dragon has been the site many first birthdays (typically a huge celebration for Koreans), funeral dinners, wedding receptions, or company dinners. The food certainly fills a unique craving, but the space sustains a significant cultural utility for the Korean-American community at large. Everyone, from South Korean soap opera stars to retired athletes, seems to have graced the restaurant with a seat at one point or another to try Wang’s jjajangmyeon or the fried shrimp with hot sauce.
"As a matter of fact, [former Dodgers pitcher] Chan Ho Park was here three weeks ago," Wang said, laughing gently. "The Dragon is already well-known in Korea. People will make sure to stop here from Korea because they know who we are."
And it’s no wonder — with the kind of addictive comfort food his kitchen puts out, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that The Dragon has been a consistent Koreatown classic for the past 35 years. If the banquet room bookings on a Wednesday night are any indication, Wang might need to plan for at least 35 more.