On the asphalt parking lot of Tenraku, an upscale Korean barbecue restaurant in LA’s Koreatown, servers carry wide trays of kkotssal (fatty strips of short rib) and chadolbaegi (thinly shaved brisket), searing the meats over camp-style butane tabletop grills shielded by metal panels to prevent the wind from blowing out the flame. The servers also wear masks and gloves while cooking at the table while diners pick at banchan and sip on boiling-hot doenjang jjigae (soybean paste stew). With a lineup of canopies providing some semblance of shelter and white plastic tables placed well beyond the six-foot requirement of social distancing, Tenraku’s setup very much feels like pojangmacha, or covered Korean streetside eateries. In fact, with bottles of cold soju and beer, plus the faint wafts of cigarette smoke, the atmosphere resembles a busy street food scene in Seoul.
A postwar tradition that sprung out of the developing economy of South Korea 60 years ago, these street carts (pojangmacha means “covered wagon”) morphed into covered tents, with vendors serving snacks, meals, and alcoholic beverages to diners sitting on stools and makeshift tables. Pojangmacha, or pocha for short, were ideal places to have a late-night meal for Koreans coming out of offices in the evenings. Everything seemed tailored to soak up the accompanying rounds of alcohol, like tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes), sundae (blood sausage), and odeng (boiled fish cakes). Sadly in Seoul, despite their historical importance and widespread appreciation, pojangmacha have been declining in numbers as officials have waged a war on what they consider “unsanitary eyesores.”
The pojangmacha concept has proven popular enough that it’s become its own restaurant format, like Koreatown’s Ddong Ggo or Torrance’s 3355 Grill, which operate as permanent semi-outdoor pochas serving cheese corn, fried chicken, and makgeolli (a fizzy unfiltered Korean rice wine). Now the term “pocha” is as much a catch-all term of a casual, often raucous Korean drinking establishment as it is the physical street vendor. Koreatown’s Go Pocha, typically only indoors, has fully embraced its namesake with a substantial covered dining area in a parking lot.
With dining rooms ordered to close during the COVID-19 pandemic, Koreatown restaurants have had to adapt multiple times, focusing on takeout and then adding its food onto more modern delivery apps like Uber Eats and Postmates, and eventually shifting to outdoor dining. Some older Korean restaurants struggled to adapt to an outdoor dining setup, most likely due to space restrictions and also the nature of their menus. Traditional Korean dishes, like big bubbling stews in stone pots or platters of spicy braised fish with a dozen accompanying banchan plates, just aren’t conducive for eating on plastic tables and flimsy chairs outside. Both Jun Won and Dong Il Jang restaurants closed in recent weeks after decades in business. The restaurants that can set up outdoor dining rooms are making sure to make them into somewhat familiar environments.
Typically, pocha dishes tend to be snackier bites like gimbap and dumplings, or even drinking foods (anju) like spicy stir-fries, but Koreatown barbecue spots like Jjukku Jjukku at the Brown Derby Plaza and Yerim on Third Street have set up tabletop grills in tents with hanging lights just outside their dining rooms. For most LA Korean barbecue places, setting up outside like this is a completely new affair that will likely only last as long as the city allows. And while Korean barbecue isn’t a typical pocha food, eating grilled short ribs and pork belly under the stars is about as enjoyable of an outdoor dining experience as one could expect during a pandemic.
MDK Noodle owner Stella Shin recently repurposed the noodle soup restaurant’s hidden parking lot into MDK Pocha, with more drinking-focused menu items and late-night service on weekends. “My dad used to have a sushi restaurant [in this space] called Naruto, and it made a lot of money selling alcohol,” says Shin, who’s leaning on a bigger percentage of alcohol sales to buoy the front-facing MDK Noodle, which typically doesn’t sell a lot of soju or beer alongside kalguksu and steamed dumplings. Because of the back parking lot’s junkyard feel, Shin wanted to play up that theme, decorating the area with old TVs, vintage tape recorders, and other kitsch.
Meanwhile, Koreatown sports bar Biergarten (which is nothing if not a German “pocha”), which serves bratwursts and burgers with Korean ingredients along with a lineup of craft beers, is living up to its name. A new outdoor dining area with canopies occupies the parking lot just in front of its entrance with tables while a projected screen shows Lakers, LAFC, and Dodgers games. Still, with just 35 seats outside, it’s much lower than Biergarten’s typical indoor capacity of 120. “We’re just barely making it by without losing money,” says owner Neil Kwon. “Al fresco dining is our only saving grace, but I don’t know how long it’s going to go.”
As the pandemic persists, it’s not difficult to imagine even more Koreatown restaurants adapting to outdoor dining, giving parking lots, alleys, and sidewalks even more of the classic pojangmacha feeling. Though Koreatown’s businesses were among the first in the city to see a drastic decline, due to unfounded rumors of the coronavirus and compounded by dining room closures, the neighborhood continues to battle through the uncertainty of the pandemic with creative approaches, even if it’s one that Koreans themselves came up with 60 years ago.