At Soban in Koreatown, owner Jennifer Pak beams as she approaches a table while carefully carrying a stone pot of steaming hot galbijjim, braised beef short ribs studded with tender carrots, and chewy rice cakes. Placing the pot gently in the center of a table, she makes space between 12 banchan plates filled with kimchi, pickled spicy radish cubes, and braised lotus roots, among others, and points to a photo on a poster of her husband and Soban chef Renxi Piao standing next to the late Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold. “He [Gold] was the first one who helped us,” she says in Korean. Endorsements from the Michelin Guide and Parasite director Bong Joon Ho are among the 30-seat restaurant’s only adornments, an otherwise spartan dining room representing arguably the finest traditional Korean restaurant in Los Angeles.
Soban’s tight menu of jjigae, fried fish, and an otherworldly ganjang gejang — marinated raw flower crab, is also among the neighborhood’s most expensive, an undesirable trait in a competitive and crowded field of restaurants in which value for money is tantamount to Korean American diners. Soban manages to meet the lofty expectations of its prices with expressive, comforting flavors, but the challenges of its small space, razor-thin margins, and ever-increasing costs contribute to the Sisyphean task of operating a restaurant. While Jennifer soaks in the praise of guests and doles out a few free plates of seafood pancakes, her 30-year-old daughter, Deborah Pak, toils away at the pass, sending orders to the kitchen and asking guests waiting at the front to be patient while the next table clears up.
The younger Pak is one of the many second-generation Korean Americans hoping to take over, or who have already taken over, the restaurants their parents own. Deborah worked for years at other restaurants, including as an assistant general manager at Pasta Sisters in Culver City, but came to help her mother six years ago. Deborah’s goal is to continue what her mother built over the past decade (Jennifer Pak acquired Soban from the original owner, who sold it around 2013 after opening it in 2009), and showcase it as a standard bearer of great Korean cooking. But Deborah often second-guesses herself.
“I don’t know if I’m taking away from what the restaurant means to other people. I go to the farmer’s market a few times a week, or I want to add specials, but I have to convince my mom,” Deborah says. “I almost run the restaurant 100 percent at this point, aside from a few things, but I don’t have the final say.”
The Paks’ approach to running Soban, perhaps largely unspoken but generally agreed upon, embodies the struggle between first- and second-generation Korean restaurant owners: preserving the essence of what makes traditional Korean restaurants special while adapting to the demands of increased costs and competition. With the first generation approaching retirement age, it’s up to the next generation of ownership to balance the expectations of older diners, many of whom are accustomed to a certain level of treatment to match their years of patronage and low-as-possible menu prices, with younger crowds, whether Korean or non-Korean, who are usually more amenable to change.
If anything, with pandemic challenges and its rapid, ongoing development, Koreatown has experienced constant change in recent years. Developers see the raw potential of the neighborhood with its transit infrastructure and mixed residential-commercial zoning that make it easier to build towering condos and apartment buildings. Koreatown’s stature as a nightlife hub has encouraged the opening of swanky clubs and trendy non-Korean restaurants. Traditional Korean restaurants have had a difficult time competing with all these forces; many that decamped to satellite suburban communities like Buena Park, Garden Grove, La Crescenta, Torrance, and parts of the San Gabriel Valley have flourished. But without its traditional restaurants serving classic jjigae, jeongol, gukbap, and more, Los Angeles’s Koreatown risks losing its identity as a vital gathering place and hub of Korean American culture.
In Koreatown’s almost 3-square-mile radius, traditional Korean restaurants serve steaming hot bowls of seolleongtang, sizzling stone pots of dolsot bibimbap, and wide platters of eundaegu jorim (spicy braised black cod) inside no-frills spaces filled with utilitarian furniture. Tables are filled with elderly couples or young families trying to get their children to take down a few bites of banchan while at others, students film themselves slurping steaming hot knife-cut noodle soup to share on social media. Small, independent mom-and-pop restaurants often tucked into low-flung strip malls have been the neighborhood’s defining dining establishment since at least the late 1970s, rising up as a part of Southern California’s Korean American population, the largest community in the United States.
America’s most prominent Koreatown, located in what was once known as Wilshire Center, formed in the late 1960s as part of the wave of immigration that followed the Hart-Cellar Act, which opened immigration from South Korea during the post-Korean War period. From 1965 to 1980, 299,000 Koreans immigrated to the United States, more than 60 percent of which settled in the Southern California area. The 1970s and 1980s marked a period of white flight and the area’s fading stature as a Hollywood hot spot, including the closures of places like the Ambassador Hotel and Brown Derby. As white residents and office workers abandoned the area, Korean and Latino business owners came in, establishing sizeable Central American, Oaxacan, and Korean communities that lived and worked in the neighborhood.
Along the way, ambitious restaurant operators opened traditional Korean restaurants in affordable, easy-to-convert strip mall locations across the neighborhood, like Jeon Ju in 1998, Seung Buk Dong, Olympic Cheonggukjang, and Mapo Kkak Doo Gee. Other operators took over midcentury modern spaces, putting a Korean spin on Art Deco or other architectural spaces like the Prince, Myeong Dong Kyoja, and Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong, which occupies a prime space in the 1930s-era Spanish Revival development of Chapman Plaza.
Monica Lee opened Beverly Soon Tofu in 1986, establishing the bona fide Korean American specialty of soondubu jjigae, or spicy Korean tofu stew, as a standalone restaurant concept. By 1996, BCD Tofu House opened in Los Angeles and expanded with the popularity of soondubu jjigae into over a dozen locations, including Seattle, New York City, Seoul, and Tokyo, showing the influence of LA’s Koreatown on global cuisine. From the 1990s into the 2010s, one could argue Koreatown was one of the best places to eat in Los Angeles (and still is), immortalized in Jonathan Gold’s final LA Weekly feature “60 Korean Dishes Every Angeleno Should Know.”
While the neighborhood remains a vibrant dining and nightlife scene, many traditional Korean restaurants haven’t seen business return to pre-pandemic levels. Before March 2020, securing a table at Kobawoo on weekend dinners often meant waiting in line for up to an hour, while weekday lunch service was packed with nearby office workers looking to get affordable plates of the restaurant’s signature pork belly bossam. Now, dinner most nights doesn’t require a wait, and lunch is less busy, according to second-generation owner Janice Baik, who runs the day-to-day of her parent’s restaurant. While attending FIDM in 2004, Baik started helping her parents on the side, never going into a design career that she intended. After she got married, her husband Chris Kim became involved in running the restaurant, and together they’ve been the de facto owners, though Baik’s parents still chime in on major decisions.
“To be honest, I want to do this as long as I can. My parents made it what it is today, so if we don’t take over, then it’s a waste,” Baik says. “Lots of old-school places are gone now. One of my favorites was Dong Il-Jang,” she laments, referring to the 41-year-old restaurant that closed in August 2020.
Author and photographer Emanuel Hahn, whose book, Koreatown Dreaming, chronicles small businesses and restaurants across the country, says Koreatown’s pandemic-era turnover actually reflects its adaptability. “In Korea, when a business closes, another one opens the next day or the next month in the same space. Koreatown has also operated like that,” Hahn says. Beverly Soon Tofu’s Olympic Boulevard restaurant turned into SYTK Sullungtang a few weeks after its 2020 closure. The seolleongtang spot is still open, and despite only serving soup, boasts a perfect five-star Yelp rating.
Hahn says the savvy businesses that create cult followings will always have the support of the dining community. “Restaurants have staying power,” he says. “If anything, there’s more demand for Korean food because of media coverage. My Korean friends and I joke that Dan Sung Sa is for non-Korean people now.” In effect: Even though the dimly lit bar and restaurant struggled during the pandemic, it’s busier than ever following a recent boost in social media fanfare.
For some restaurant owners, the urge to continue a family legacy is as strong as the need to modernize. Stella Shin, who rebranded Myong Dong Kyoja, which her aunt started in Seoul, into MDK Noodles, a mini-chain of knife-cut noodle restaurants in the U.S. Her father, Chul Heay Shin, opened Myong Dong Kyoja in Koreatown in 2002 then another location in Anaheim in 2007. In 2019, Stella and her cousins, Leah and Kyojae Shin, took over the business, knowing and embracing its challenges, while Chul Heay retired. “People don’t know that we make everything in-house fresh daily. Older Koreans still think noodles should be cheap, but we just have to educate them about why things cost more,” says Stella. While she says the business has dipped down a little of late, delivery apps have helped sales. MDK Noodles will even expand to Austin, Texas, sometime next year, evidence of its lasting power as a Koreatown noodle icon.
Other restaurants play into their classic status but manage to gain new audiences by sticking to a one-of-a-kind dish. Sun Ha Jang’s weathered strip mall spot along Olympic just west of Crenshaw has specialized in tabletop grilled duck since 2010, when owners Yoon Ho and Yeon Jong Yu debuted a novel type of Korean barbecue using thin slices of duck. Meals conclude with an epic pan-fried rice prepared laden with fat, kimchi, and browned chunks of duck meat. Now the Yus’ daughter, Caroline Torres, has been slowly taking over operations, working to ensure that the novelty of their single-item menu has staying power. Part of Torres and her husband’s strategy is to embrace the restaurant’s old school ambience but stay relevant for a younger crowd, like designing nifty streetwear merch and appearing on popular food YouTube channels.
But when the Yus eventually retire in a few years, the restaurant will face an uncertain future. In his book, Hahn writes that Yoon Ho doesn’t want her daughter to continue in the business due to its progressive hardships. At the same time, she said “it would be a shame to sell her life’s work to a stranger.” Torres, who has been helping her parents since 2012, remains optimistic, believing that Sun Ha Jang could have a long future with a new location elsewhere in LA. “Our main pool of repeat customers, who help keep us afloat, are getting older,” Torres says. “But a lot of our weekend diners are younger, driving in from Orange County and San Gabriel Valley. If we move closer to them, they’ll eventually be our repeat customers.”
At Jun Won Dak, owner Jeff Jun works a tiny one-table restaurant along Third Street with his septuagenarian mother, Jung Ye Jun. This is the duo’s third location, after opening Jun Won on Eighth Street from the mid-1990s until April 2016, serving some of the best homestyle cooking in Koreatown (they even operated a rare standalone banchan shop for years). In August 2016, Jun Won reopened triumphantly in a fresh new space on Western Avenue before being forced to close again in July 2020 at the height of the pandemic. Still, the Juns always plotted a comeback, moving into a takeout-only space last fall. Now with a single four-top up front and another VIP table behind the counter, the Juns are serving just four dishes: eundaegu jorim, galbi-jjim, daktoritang, and the restaurant’s signature samgyetang — an herbaceous, almost medicinal chicken soup.
“Even though we lost everything, we put ourselves in a good situation,” says Jeff Jun, who likes the low overhead of this space. His mother, Jung Ye Jun, still cooks a lot of the food, but Jeff finds himself doing everything else. “We’re increasing little by little. We’re doing really good, actually.”
Wandering through the streets of Koreatown, with its packed strip malls; new residential towers; aging midcentury office buildings; and Latinx, Bangladeshi, and Asian communities, it’s apparent that this central neighborhood encompasses one of the city’s most important cross-cultural foodways. Nestled into all of that, classic traditional homestyle Korean restaurants hope to stand the test of time with the perfect comfort of banchan, boricha, and bubbling earthenware pots of jjigae.
Even after the first generation retires, another one will crop up to serve these bowls of comfort. “It’s an opportunity for evolution, for different types of restaurants that aren’t just Korean; maybe Vietnamese or Thai, and I think that speaks to how diversified Koreatown is becoming,” says Hahn, who thinks the likes of Open Market, a cheerful, minimalist corner store selling espresso drinks, natural wine, and upscale sandwiches, marks a new direction for Koreatown. “So while it won’t be so heavily Korean, I don’t think the restaurants will fundamentally go away.”