One of the earliest things I can remember is sitting in a high chair as a toddler and taking spoonfuls of seolleongtang (beef bone soup) from a metal bowl at Nak Won House, or Nakwonjip, as Koreans call it. My parents would order their seolleongtang and ask an ajumma to give me a little bit of extra broth with tender white rice, and it was all the nourishment I needed.
Maybe that wasn’t actually my memory, but a story my mom told me because she knew how happy I was sitting in that restaurant. Nakwonjip is now closed after 34 years of business; September 30 was its last evening of service. The end was abrupt, unheralded, and sorely received by the people it served over the decades. Many, like myself, never got to say goodbye to Koreatown’s longest running 24 hour restaurant.
Nak Won opened in 1985, the year after I was born. I might not have realized it then, but it was the place where I fell in love with eating in restaurants, propelling me into a life of constantly seeking new dining experiences. When I was a child, Nak Won was a favorite family Sunday lunch after church. Even then, the menu was posted on the wall, with mirrors to amplify the strip-mall space, floor-to-ceiling windows showing the bustling intersection of Vermont and Olympic, and warm sunlight filtering through mini-blinds. The only sounds I remember are the clinking of utensils and the occasional “juhgiyo!” (come over here!) to the ajummas, who would refill banchan or bring out plastic-wrapped to-go orders. Koreans tend to eat in silence, focusing on the food instead of prandial banter.
Like any casual Korean restaurant in LA, meals started with a humble array of banchan like kimchi, crunchy kkakdugi (radish kimchi), limp bean sprouts, and potato salad. You could go a traditional route with bubbling pots of doenjang jjigae and sundubu, focus on a sizzling cast-iron skillet of LA galbi, or share a platter of dakdoritang — a spicy, saucey stewed chicken dish that rarely makes the jump from your mom’s kitchen to the restaurant table. With such a wide menu, Nak Won really was like walking into a grandma’s home and asking her to cook something from her arsenal.
Strangely, I don’t remember ordering anything in particular at Nak Won in my formative years. My younger sister and I would usually pick at whatever my parents had, like japchae or some grilled mackerel. I wasn’t a big eater until I was a teenager, when a growth spurt dictated I eat more than cereal or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Nak Won was my introduction to homey Korean food, mostly because my parents were too busy working to prepare meticulous meals. After school I would go to my dad’s office in Koreatown and hang out there until we drove home, and Nak Won made for a quick, easy dinner. I loved its seolleongtang, of course, but also ventured into buttery kimchi bokkeumbap (fried rice) topped with a fried egg just barely crisped on the edges and slippery boiled mandu filled with juicy ground beef. When I was young, I didn’t like kimchi, but bokkeumbap helped ease me into the funk of Korea’s national dish.
It was always fun to debate the merits of Nak Won and its rival and neighbor Hodori, which opened a few years later, in 1991, serving food 24/7 and offering a similarly wide menu of Korean classics. Non-Koreans usually ventured to Hodori first, its picture menu making it easier to navigate the mountainous list of dishes (Nak Won eventually got a picture menu too). Koreans who grew up in LA tended to pledge their allegiance to Nak Won because it had a homier feel, but, to be honest, both places were probably average in terms of food quality. It was like arguing about Denny’s versus IHOP.
When I went to college at USC, Nak Won was the perfect antidote to the boring cafeterias on campus. I would drive up Vermont Avenue for heaping platters of rapokki (a sloppy plate of spicy rice cakes, fish cake slivers, vegetables, and Korean instant ramen) and deep bowls of yukgaejang (spicy Korean beef soup). In fact, its yukgaejang is probably the reason why this soup is my favorite Korean dish: not because Nak Won’s was particularly impressive, but because repetition breeds fondness in memory — I ordered it almost every time I went there. Nak Won’s yukgaejang taught me a truism of many Korean dishes: Almost any version of this spicy beef soup is going to be good. I’m haunted by its dark orange broth, shredded brisket swimming among long green onion strands, and chewy vermicelli noodles, served in a pale blue plastic bowl and always tasting better in early morning hours.
But that’s what Nak Won was to me. It was always open because they never closed. Running a 24-hour restaurant in Koreatown must have been a crushing, impossible task. I heard from a reliable source that the restaurant had difficulty making the rent every month but somehow made it work until the pandemic. Despite the challenges, Nak Won persisted because it was a neighborhood institution. Ask anyone from grandmas and busy families to night owls and college students where they would go in the 1990s and 2000s, and Nak Won was always a defendable choice. No one judged you for eating there alone. No one judged you for showing up after more than a few drinks at 3 a.m. trying to stave off an impending hangover with some donkatsu and bibimbap. Nak Won was the place to find comfort amid LA’s unrelenting city life, a balm to awful days and lonely nights, a solace to those hungry for something familiar.
The last time I went to Nak Won was in 2010, as part of a wild night when my first dinner was at a tapas and wine bar, followed by drinks and cigars at La Descarga, and then, finally, a second dinner at Nak Won (I probably had bokkeumbap). We drank until 4 a.m. at some place in Pasadena, where I ended up falling asleep and waking up mid-morning in a daze. I can’t explain why I never went back to Nak Won after that, except maybe I graduated from its wide menu in search of more focused dishes in LA’s Koreatown. There were times when it wasn’t everything I wanted, though it did give me what I needed, from a hangover cure to a soul-satisfying jjigae.
Driving past it over the years, knowing it was open and serving, always made me feel like it could be there again if I needed it. It wasn’t the greatest restaurant, just an honest place where I genuinely fell in love with the simple comfort of Korean food. With longtime Koreatown restaurants closing because of the pandemic, many won’t get the chance to have a final taste from these beloved establishments. I didn’t get to say farewell with a last bowl of yukgaejang or even a small silver cup of seolleongtang and rice, so I’ll just say, “jal meog-eo-sseum-nida” (thank you, I ate very well).