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‘Past Lives’ Actor Greta Lee Grew Up Going to K-Town, So We Should Trust All Her Picks

The native Angeleno stars in the new A24 film Past Lives and shares her old haunts and new loves in Koreatown

Asian woman smiles while holding her hand to her face sitting in a car.
Greta Lee in Past Lives, a move about childhood friends separated in South Korea that reunite 20 years later.

When actress Greta Lee moved back to Los Angeles in 2020 after spending 17 years in New York, it was a homecoming for her. She reexplored her old stomping grounds, especially in neighborhoods like Koreatown, hitting up spots with the best jjajangmyeon and banchan. She’s also been connecting with her Korean roots in other ways as the star of the new A24 film Past Lives — a love story about childhood friends who are separated in South Korea and reunite 20 years later in New York City — that’s in theaters June 23.

While Lee (also in Netflix’s Russian Doll and the Apple TV+ series The Morning Show) spent her formative years growing up in La Cañada Flintridge, she often found herself in Koreatown, where her father ran a private practice as a doctor. “There were a lot of meals there, a lot of church,” says Lee. “Our whole family identity existed in Koreatown.”

These days, she’s living in El Sereno on a property that was once a cattle ranch with her husband, comedic writer Russ Armstrong, and their two young sons. Her parents live in Koreatown, and she’s now making new food memories with her expanded family in her hometown.

Eater LA spoke with Lee about her favorite Koreatown restaurants and how working at various Momofuku restaurants in her early days in New York widened her food world.

Eater: How did working at Momofuku restaurants as a host and server influence you?

Greta Lee: That was a big part of my early New York days and who I am today, for sure. When I was there, I was desperately trying to learn lines for an audition that I had just heard about, while trying to serve pork buns to people. [I developed an] appreciation and education around food. Yes, I learned what microgreens are and what sous vide means, but there was also this general love in embracing food.

Now that you’re back in LA, do you find yourself going to your old Koreatown haunts or new restaurants?

It’s been a mix of both, including some tried-and-true [spots] that feel historic for my family. There’s this restaurant across the street from my parents’ office called Western Doma Noodles. We’ve been going there for as long as I can remember.

Doma was a place where we’d get everything. There was doenjang-jjigae, which is a cornerstone food for Korean people. It’s this fermented soybean paste [stew] that I remember smelling distinctly like feet to me as a child but is now a dish that I can’t live without.

The barbecued meats there, like galbi or bulgolgi, are something that are maybe more accessible to a wider audience. Eating ssam with a little bit of ssamjang, a fermented soybean paste — again the funky foot — and making these lettuce wraps was a big part of of our meals. There was kimchi-jjigae and so much kimchi. And this place is known for hand-cut noodles in a clam broth.

Two actors stand in a field smiling with the sunset behind them.
Greta Lee and John Magaro in Past Lives.

What’s another restaurant that you love?

There’s this excellent place called Sulga House of Bone Broth that does amazing food in such an intimate way. They’re also elevating some of the more traditional dishes that I grew up with, like a cold buckwheat noodle where they add a hint of beet in it that makes the broth pink. It’s this beautiful pink that’s so Instagram-friendly, but it was clearly not the owners’ intent. It’s been a joy to find new interpretations of these tried-and-true dishes.

Tell me about Yuchun and why it’s one of your favorites.

Yuchun is a place where my brother and I have an official standing lunch date. And that place is known for the mul-naengmyeon. It’s this cold buckwheat noodle. And there’s also bibim-naengmyeon, which is the same dish, but without the chilled broth and just tossed together in a spicy sauce with vegetables.

And they have killer dumplings. I mean, this is a full endeavor. We’re talking lunch, but you start with a full plate of steamed leek and pork dumplings and then you move on to a massive bowl of noodles. There are days when that’s the only thing I have to eat. My brother calls it “one-meal day.”

And why do you go to Sun Nong Dan?

There’s a new Sun Nong Dan location in what used to be a Sizzler. I frequently go there alone and just eat by myself. It’s incredible and where you go when you want tang, which is a soup. They have a beefy broth that comes with brisket or different kinds of meat, and noodles — but instead of the buckwheat noodles, they’re like glass noodles. There’s also rice.

I mean, these are all full meals. There’s nothing casual about this.

And they have this large-format tteokbokki rice cakes [dish topped] with cheese, and they come in with a torch and will light it on fire for you like it’s some sort of savory creme brulee. They say it’s for two people. It can easily feed like 15.

What reasons do you go to The C (Dae Bu Do) for?

The C is a newer experience for me. I was introduced to it by a friend and it’s just incredible food. There’s a fully immersive experience involving seafood barbecue. Typically people are more familiar with grilling meat at your table, but this is all seafood, like scallops, shrimp and clams. It feels almost cinematic, where they’re taking you through these various stages: First you grill the bivalves, the shellfish, and you move on to a rice dish that’s used with the broth, and then there are noodles involved. And you have to eat it all while drinking soju and beer.

Asian man on the left and Asian women on the right looking at each other, with a carousel in the background.
Teo Yoo and Greta Lee in Past Lives.

What do you love about Young King?

It was probably one of the first restaurants in Koreatown that we went to as a family. It’s a Korean Chinese restaurant, so these are totally different dishes but also tentpole meals for Korean immigrants. There’s something called jjajangmyeon, which is fermented black bean noodles. It’s something that I searched endlessly for in New York City, trying to find the best, and it always hearkens back to, ‘What can match Young King’s jjajangmyeon?’ There’s also this sister companion noodle dish called jjamppong. It’s a spicy noodle dish with this intense red broth with lots of seafood.

I’ve seen certain restaurants now that will have a bowl that will divide it with half jjajangmyeon and half jjamppong, so you don’t have to choose. I profoundly appreciate that.

They also have something called tangsuyuk, which is a breaded fried pork that’s usually glazed in a sweet and sour sauce, and you dip it in a vinegar-soy sauce.

I’ve never been to Yongsusan. Could you walk me through an experience there?

Youngsusan is probably my mother’s favorite restaurant. The first time she took us there as kids, it was done with sort of an educational mindset because what they specialize in is something called the king’s meal. It’s this traditional, historical, and elevated meal that looks back to the [Goryeo] Dynasty and was served to the monarchy.

Typically, you have banchan at any standard Korean meal that’s done much more casually, but here, it’s totally different. Each dish really speaks for itself in a more refined way.

I just went there for a good friend’s 40th birthday party. And she’s not Korean. I just felt overjoyed that Korean food could be recognized and appreciated in a much more expansive way. It just feels so different from what I knew growing up.

There’s this dish called muk, an acorn jelly that looks like a gray jello. To me, it was one of those foods that just felt kind of embarrassing growing up. And now as an adult, I’m at this birthday party with grown-ups who aren’t Korean at all, eating bowls of acorn jelly.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Young King

3100 West Olympic Boulevard, , CA 90006 (213) 487-6154
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