Entering through the wooden door of Dan Sung Sa feels like a step into a time machine. With wood paneling, dim lighting, and walls plastered with antique movie posters and faded newspapers, it embodies a very different Korea.
Over the years, Koreatown’s Dan Sung Sa has become a quintessential spot in Los Angeles, garnering acclaim from visitors and locals who are fascinated by the transcendent nature of the pub. But perhaps best of all, Korean immigrants itching for a sense of home can find nostalgic comfort when they enter. To many, the dimly lit sections provide the chance to let loose over soju shots and bottles of Hite while taking down some skewers, corn cheese, and other popular Korean bar foods.
This is the environment that Caroline Cho aspired to create when she started Dan Sung Sa in 1997, calling it “a home away from home” for immigrants like herself. Before Dan Sung Sa made its debut, sports bars and suljips were Koreatown’s only drinking spots. But Cho aimed to capture the essence of Korea’s tented street pubs, called pojangmacha, or pocha for short. Bringing one of the first-ever real pochas to Los Angeles, she constructed Dan Sung Sa as a piece of Korea based on her very own memories.
The name of the pub may ring a bell to those familiar with a former Seoul. Before Dan Sung Sa took shape in LA, it was the name of the first movie theater in Korea, established in 1907 in Jongno — a once-bustling street in Seoul comparable to today’s Gangnam district. The theater is a place that Cho holds dear, though she visited only once prior to emigrating in 1986. “Before I left Korea to immigrate to the U.S., my best friend and I went to Dan Sung Sa to watch one last movie, called Sunflower, an Italian film that was playing at the time,” she recalls.
Before she opened Dan Sung Sa, Cho was a property manager in Los Angeles. “I realized that many fellow Korean immigrants had nowhere to go and celebrate,” she says. “There weren’t many places in LA that they felt truly comfortable. It was a gamble to launch the concept of a pocha here, but I wanted to create that place for them.” Certainly, there was a risk in launching a dining concept that was unfamiliar to non-Koreans, but like American dive bars, Korean bars served as a place for people to congregate on otherwise lonely nights. Cho, wanting to establish a place for Korean immigrants to unwind with friends and coworkers, vowed to keep Dan Sung Sa open every single day of the year, including all major holidays.
For most of its 22 years in business, Dan Sung Sa has fulfilled its promise, with largely the same menu of over 90 items arrayed in tiny Korean text on tablet-sized wooden blocks. Many customers indulge in rounds of meat skewers, prepared over the flames of the grill in the center of the dining room, along with other dishes that bring to mind the streets of Seoul, like Korean fried chicken and spicy rice cakes. The menu also consists of more traditional anju — affordable, flavorful bites shared with the table to help soak up the booze and extend the night a bit longer, like simmering pork-bone stew and bai top-shell salad, a sweet and spicy seasoned medley of vegetables and chewy shellfish.
One of the most popular dishes, unmistakably shaped like dumbbells, is a fun spin on gimmari — seaweed rolls packed with vermicelli noodles, fried to a crisp and doused in the fiery house sauce. The food and recipes haven’t changed, but Cho admits she had to make an English version of the menu, which is used more than she ever anticipated.
“I can’t believe that non-Koreans even know about Dan Sung Sa,” she says. “I created this for the Koreatown community, back when [the neighborhood] really only had Korean residents. I could have never imagined a day that people from all over the world would be interested in visiting Dan Sung Sa.” Though Koreatown has always had a diverse community of Koreans, Latinx, and Bengalis, Dan Sung Sa now brings in visitors from far and wide.
Cho points to a singular moment that propelled Dan Sung Sa into the spotlight. Though she was not familiar with Anthony Bourdain at the time, she marks his visit with Roy Choi in 2011 as a turning point. “All of a sudden, we were getting all this unexpected publicity overnight,” she says.
Yet, even with the heightened attention, Cho has remained committed to her original vision. While most pochagoers might expect modern K-pop or top 40 hits, Dan Sung Sa’s speakers only know old Korean pop songs — romantic ballads from the ’80s and ’90s that are noticeably slower than the high-volume BTS and Blackpink sounds of today. The high shelves above the bar boast rows of soju bottles from discontinued brands. To this day, a now-defunct payphone remains by the bathroom, which would invite a line of late-night drunk dialers back in the day.
Dan Sung Sa is clearly a reflection of the past, but it’s also shaped by the people who have visited over the years, even up to today, as is apparent by the mounting graffiti that patrons have scratched on nearly all of the wooden walls after a few too many drinks. “Koreans can be really expressive and strangely cynical sometimes,” Cho jokes, reading some of the slanted scribbles. Today, almost every slab is covered in professions of love, vulgar notes, and absurd doodles.
Like many establishments in Koreatown, Dan Sung Sa resides in a commonplace strip mall, but its faded, eccentric mural hanging over the entrance catches the eyes of most passersby. To capture the essence of the Dan Sung Sa she knew as a child, Cho commissioned a Korean movie poster artist to paint the artwork running across the top of the building’s exterior. Some may be perplexed by the stark depiction of Kim Jong Il, the former dictator of North Korea, but for Cho, the focus of the mural is the figure on the other side of the Korean flag. It shows Kim Dae Jung, former president of South Korea, and the only Korean to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize, which he was awarded in 2000 for his reunification efforts.
“To me, the painting is a symbol of pride. I felt very proud to be Korean when he received that award,” Cho says. Even from halfway across the world, she paid homage to the national milestone in her own way.
Since opening Dan Sung Sa, Cho has embarked on other business ventures in Koreatown, setting up a number of coffee shops and karaoke bars. Yet Dan Sung Sa is the only one that remains in operation. She sees it as an emblem of the life that she’s built in the U.S. as a self-made entrepreneur and a mother of two sons.
Despite her efforts to preserve Dan Sung Sa, it has looked markedly different over the past nine months, without the typical long lines, crowded booths, and smoky haze that have always been core to its unique charm. After closing in March, she intended to reopen in May and then again in July, but her plans were repeatedly foiled by shifting COVID-19 dining regulations. Initially, indoor dining at a reduced capacity was allowed in late May, with the city promoting outdoor dining with its Al Fresco program. However, increasing rates of COVID-19 cases led the city to shut down indoor dining just six weeks later.
In October, Dan Sung Sa introduced a new look, with bright red parking-lot tents, plexiglass dividers, and space heaters — investments that Cho made to adjust to outdoor dining. However, that was shut down on November 23, after just 40 days of operation, due to yet another surge in COVID-19 cases that has now put the entire county under a stay-at-home order. Though she attempted a takeout menu in early December, Cho made the difficult decision to close the doors until outdoor dining is permitted again.
“Dan Sung Sa just isn’t meant for takeout. You have to be here to experience it. To gather together, to mingle, and to laugh. It’s that kind of place,” she says.
Jae Han, one of Dan Sung Sa’s servers, shares similar sentiments. “We never installed call buttons on our tables [a typical feature of eating in Korean barbecue spots, bars, or karaoke spots], which meant we had to go check on each party every couple minutes or so. I felt like that really allowed us to really get to know the people we were serving and build connections with our customers,” Han says. “It’s so sad that we lost that this year, but I’m looking forward to the day we can come back.”
Since the beginning, Dan Sung Sa has relied on strong community support, with around three-quarters of business coming from K-Town locals. Despite the financial hit from this year, Cho has been especially grateful for supporters and is sure that Dan Sung Sa will return. “I feel like my arms and legs have been cut off due to all the restrictions, but I’ve still experienced so much love from the community,” she says. “Koreans have a way of taking care of each other, even in tough times.”
Nicole Um, a long-time patron who had her first date with her husband at Dan Sung Sa, designed and began selling T-shirts featuring a photo of Dan Sung Sa’s storefront, pledging to donate the proceeds to local nonprofits. “I’ve made so many amazing memories here. Even though 2020 has been so difficult for so many people, it’s inspiring to see someone like Caroline, a Korean female role model, persevere through it all,” she says. During the pandemic, Um launched an initiative, called Ktown Fanclub, which aims to bring awareness to small businesses, like Dan Sung Sa, that have served the Koreatown community for decades.
“It’s heartbreaking that Dan Sung Sa is closed for the time being,” says John Min, another loyal fan. “I’ve been visiting since the late ’90s, and it’s like a second home to me. But I’m looking forward to going back to support it when they reopen. It’s a place that has really been there for everyone.”