When visiting Koreatown in Los Angeles, I sense a distinct shift in pace from the rest of the city. Patrons linger for hours in establishments socializing with friends and indulging in leisure activities. The neighborhood feels like a boundless network of malls, restaurants, spas and salons, golf ranges, and karaoke bars.
The trouble is choosing where to go and what to do. So, here are some of my top suggestions for how to spend a day exploring this vibrant pocket of Los Angeles and feel like you’ve taken a trip to South Korea.
For breakfast and brunch
Just like in Seoul, Euro-style cafés can be found almost everywhere in this neighborhood. One of my favorites is Paris Baguette Café, where you can get some of the best Parisian-style pastries in Los Angeles.
But my top choice for coffee is Iota Brew Café. The cafe encompasses a small art gallery, with a vibrant mural and a wall covered in framed works that portray scenes of Korean life. Elsewhere in the cafe, there is a large TV playing K-pop music videos on mute. At Iota you can order all types of European-style coffee. My latest cappuccino came adorned with a portrait of a teddy bear in my milk foam. The drink was accompanied by a dark chocolate-dipped marshmallow.
My cappuccino at Iota Brew Cafe
Iota’s menu features savory dishes of mainly Italian-Korean fusion. It’s no easy task to choose between the kimchi carbonara and the Pollack fish roe spaghetti. Breakfast is served all day.
Activities for the afternoon
Spend your afternoon in Koreatown shopping. From Iota, head down Western Boulevard and cross West 6th Street, where you’ll find The Face Shop on the west side of the street. In recent months I’ve developed an appreciation for affordable Korean skincare products such as moisturizing scrubs and face masks, and this store is the reason why. Around the corner, in the Madang Plaza Shopping Mall, you’ll find Daiso, a Japanese home goods store also popular in South Korea. Here, you can buy all sorts of brightly colored products at reasonable prices.
Next, visit the Koreatown Galleria. This compact mall is full of small stores selling imported goods. I love the Sejong Bookstore; though I can’t read a single page of the books, almost every instance of beautiful cover art is a masterpiece. Also in this mall are many Korean clothing stores, an herbal pharmacy with over-the-counter remedies to cure a number of ailments, and a Korean supermarket.
Viewfinder Tip: It is best to visit Koreatown in Los Angeles on Sundays when most parking is free.
Finally, immerse yourself in Korean culture with a visit to a traditional Korean spa. I recommend two spas in particular: Wi Spa and Crystal Spa. Wi Spa is easier on the wallet and great for spending an entire day lounging in hot rooms and hot tubs. Crystal Spa, choice No. 2, is better if you want to get in and out quickly; it is smaller and bit more expensive but offers spa treatments using only Aveda skin products and purified water. (Century Day and Night Spa also tends to be quite popular with non-Koreans.)
Dinner is served
Options abound for dinner in this part of L.A. Do you opt for a comforting tofu stew at BCN Tofu House? Will you stand in a cue for hours to get spicy shellfish from The Boiling Crab? Or might you choose The LINE Hotel, with its two outstanding restaurants from the famous Los Angeles chef, Roy Choi?
In keeping with my mission of feeling transported to Seoul, I suggest heading to Chapman Plaza, which is located just north of West 6th Street on Kenmore Avenue. The plaza is a bustling square lined with restaurants, coffee shops, a karaoke bar, and a hooka lounge. Valet parking is available (just drive down the alley).
Make a beeline for Kang Ho-Dong Baekjeong, a Seoul-based restaurant chain founded by popular Korean comedian, Kang Ho Dong. You likely will have to wait for a table, but once your name is called, your table will be waiting with a large selection of Korean side dishes known as banchan. Order select cuts of either beef or pork and a bottle of Soju (the sweet and clear Korean liquor) and see where the night takes you.
What is your favorite way to explore an ethnic neighborhood?