KCET (by Clarissa Wei):
Filipinos make up the largest Asian-American population in California, so it’s interesting that the Filipino food scene in Los Angeles is not as prominent as, for instance, Thai or Chinese.
There are various theories as to why there isn’t a stronger Filipino food scene in L.A.: a common one is that home-cooked Filipino food is better than restaurant food. While that may be popular reasoning, that doesn’t explain why restaurant chefs can’t cook better than mom.
“A lot of the Filipinos who immigrated here became nurses,” Marianne Aranda, a Filipino-American heavily involved in the Angeleno Pinoy community, told me over dinner. “They integrated quickly into the working class culture in the States so it was easier for them to assimilate because they knew English very well.”
This makes sense. The Chinese, Japanese, and Korean communities, on the other hand, were forced to develop their own self-sustaining communities because of stark language and economic barriers. Opening restaurants were not only their way of feeding their community, but an entrepreneurial move. The Filipino community didn’t need that; by applying for the H-1B temporary work visa which allows trained nurses to enter the country and work right away, they were able to assimilate more easily.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a Filipino community. During dinner with Marianne in Historic Filipinotown, I realized that the Pinoy community in L.A. is strong. They seem better organized and much more established than most Asian immigrant communities.
They just don’t open as many restaurants.
The cuisine of the Philippines is a true hodgepodge of international flavors with Malay, Spanish, Chinese, and American influences, and is generally big on stews, roasts, and meats with a distinctive sour element.
There are regional distinctions as well. “In the North there are more bitter flavors,” Marvin Gapultos, the author of the Adobo Road Cookbooks, says. “Bitter melon is common and there are a few dishes that have bile, specifically goat or beef digestive juices. The South has less pork dishes. In the Central region, there’s a lot of coconut used in both savory and sweet dishes. The Bicol region is the Philippines’ main coconut growing industry. There are also a lot of dishes with chilies in them and it works well because the coconut balances out the spices.”
And while there aren’t enough Filipino restaurants in Los Angeles to represent all of the above, we most definitely have a diverse mix of different Filipino food in in our city. Here’s a guide:
Grocery Store: Seafood City Supermarket and Grill City
Seafood City is a Filipino grocery chain with marketplaces all over the West Coast. “While we have a supermarket, we like to surround it with Filipino businesses,” Melvin Avanzado, the general counsel of Seafood City says. “It’s a place where people can come. On weekends we have a street food cart where you can get food on a stick. Some of our locations also have a Grill City. So we try to create a community for people to hang out.”
Grill City is a turo-turo establishment. What that means: a cafeteria-style dining set-up. “Turo” means “to point” in Tagalog, and that is exactly how you order: point to what you want.
1525 Amar Rd., West Covina, CA 91792
BBQ: Park’s Finest
The folks at Park’s Finest don’t like to market themselves as a Filipino barbecue joint, but prefer the term Filipino-inspired instead. The menu is a variety of meats like pork shoulders slow-roasted for 16 hours, sweet Filipino longanisa (a spiced sausage), and thinly-cut crusted sirloin beef paired with homemade horseradish sauce. They also have their own take on cornbread, which is made with rice flour and baked on a banana leaf for flavor.
If you make it there on Wednesday, they have a Worker Wednesday special where customers get a little bit of everything.
1267 W Temple St, Los Angeles, CA 90026
Post-Drink Food: Belly and Snout
Belly and Snout is the place to go for a no-frills, fast, and casual Filipino food experience. The food quality is top notch here and though at its core it’s thoroughly Filipino, it’s presented in ways completely approachable to those with less adventurous palates. Think hot dogs, french fries, and grilled cheese sandwiches. But the french fries are topped with fried egg, garlic crema, and chicharron. The hot dog is a peanut braised oxtail, smothered with cotija cheese, garlic creme, beans, and cilantro. And the grilled cheese is sandwiched with house-made sweet sausage and American cheese.
Located in the heart of Koreatown, Belly and Snout is the ideal place to end up after a long night of drinks.
974 Western Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90006
Tastes Like Home: Max’s Restaurant of Manila
Max’s is a Filipino food chain straight from the Philippines. They’ve been in operation since 1945 and has become the place to go for Filipino fried chicken paired with garlic rice. The menu is mostly traditional: kare kare (stewed oxtail), pork sisig (chopped pig’s head), crispy pata (fried pork knuckles), and chicken adobo (a vinegar-based stew).
“Max’s is the place to go if you’ve never had FIlipino food and want a basic introduction to it,” Avanzado says.
313 W Broadway, Glendale, CA 91204
Iconic: LA Rose Cafe
LA Rose is perhaps the most visible Filipino restaurant in Los Angeles, and it’s one of the few Pinoy eateries where presentation is a priority. The crowd favorite here is most definitely the lumpia shanghai, which is the Filipino answer to a Chinese-American spring roll. It’s deep-fried and stuffed with ground meat and various spices. For that classic sour element, the sinigang (sweet and sour soup) is a good thing to try. It’s cooked with pork belly and ribs and balanced out with chunks of taro and greens. Folks on the more adventurous side can pursue the dinaguan — blood stew with beef.
But if you just want meat, give the Cebu-style lechon a whirl. “Lechon” means roasted suckling pig and Cebu is an island in the Philippines. Their lechon is distinguished by the stuffing — a combination of lemongrass, leeks, salt, pepper, and garlic.
4749 Fountain Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90029
Street Food: Dollar Hits Food Truck
This food truck is a ton of fun. Perched off to the side of a very rundown strip mall, it’s truly a party on wheels. Music is blasted as a group of Filipino aunties manage crowds and sell $1 skewers off of their truck. There are grills set up all around the sidewalk where patrons can heat up their food. Menu items are offal-heavy and include blood, pork and chicken intestines, liver, and hearts. There’s even balut (fertilized duck eggs).
Most customers are Pinoy who come for a taste of Filipino street food. If you’re clearly not Filipino, the owner, if she’s in the mood, might ask you for your country of origin and proclaim it loudly and proudly on her microphone for the crowd to hear.
2422 Temple St
Los Angeles, CA 90057
Roasted Pig: Eva’s Lechon
Lechon is one of those classic Filipino dishes that everyone has to try at least once. It’s an entire suckling pig, roasted and glazed, and Eva’s is one of the few places that get it right. Banana leaves are usually used to brush the roast and the key to a good lechon is the skin, which should be a crunchy caramel brown. It’s almost glassy when bitten into and the meat is tender and full of juice (no doubt a result of hours of slow and low roasting).
This is most definitely party food. Their largest pig is $260 and can feed a grand total of 80 people.
4252 W 3rd St, Los Angeles, CA 90020
Farm-to-Table Pop-Up: LASA
LASA is truly where the future of Pinoy dining in Los Angeles lies. In Tagalog, “lasa” means taste or flavor, and brothers Chase and Chad Valencia are raising the bar for Filipino fine dining, creating a pop-up that merges cuisine from the Philippines with the seasonality of the local farmers’ market.
As with events like these, menus rotate regularly, but past items have included pork rillette paired with sugar cane vinegar pickles and duck longanisa (sausage) with chickpeas and kale stew.
5010 York Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90042
East San Gabriel Valley/West Covina: Pondahan
There’s a thriving Filipino community in the eastern portion of the San Gabriel Valley, particularly in West Covina. The star restaurant of those parts is a place called Podahan, which means “hang out” in Tagalog. They market themselves as a place to taste home cooking and if you have a group of friends with you, I recommend the crispy meat platter
which is a combination of crispy pata (fried pork), lechon kawali (crackling pork belly), and a whole fried chicken.
535 W California Ave West Covina, CA 91790
Desserts: Crème Caramel LA
The eatery specializes in Filipino-inspired treats and the cornerstone of the menu is the namesake dish — the lovely crème caramel. Presented in a pool of caramelized syrup, it has just the right amount of resistance so it doesn’t fall apart at the touch of a fork. In fact, the discs are just firm enough to divvy up among your friends. The caramels are creamier than most, but that’s just because the recipes are based off of the owner’s Filipino aunt’s rendition of leche flan.
Gently cooked in a Bain-marie, Filipino flan traditionally has a heavier egg ratio; and Crème Caramel LA has taken it upon themselves to color the dessert with the flavors of their heritage. They always have French custard, coffee, and chocolate varieties on tap, but if you you happen to stumble in on a good day, you’ll spot some of the most colorful flans to ever grace the Valley. Lavender and bright neon green color variations sit side-by-side. They’re made with fresh ube (purple yam) and buko pandan (young coconut and pandan, also called screwpine), respectively. True to its tubular roots, the ube has an earthy, heavier taste — a clear contrast to the sweeter dewy flavor profile of pandan.
Try them both or order in advance for an eye-popping addendum to any dinner party or Instagram feed.
14849 Burbank Blvd, Sherman Oaks, CA 91411
About the Author:
I’m a writer with a knack for Asian cuisine. Los Angeles native.
A Korean spa, for a first-timer, is definitely an experience you won’t forget. To be frank, there’s plenty of nudity everywhere you look so you’ll see everyone’s full moon, their stars and everything in between.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being comfortable enough to walk amongst others in your birthday suit. In fact, in Korean spas, it’s actually frowned upon if you’re clothed because it’s a snub to the other spa-goers. It’s as if your body is superior and no one deserves to see it. However, in America, baring it all is just something we’re not accustomed to. Our idea of a spa trip typically has us comfortably bundled up in a robe and the level of nudity would only go so far as a body towel to hide the cash and prizes.
So imagine throwing American stars, Conan O’Brien and Steven Yeun, into a Korean spa. Sounds entertaining? Yup, it absolutely is. From their embarrassing interactions with the other men to their awkward bromance moments, the little episode is pure hilarity.
Watch as Steven and Conan go au naturel at a Korean Spa:
Ramen burgers, kimchi fries and pho tacos. Stinky tofu. Spiral-cut fried potato skewers sprinkled with a variety of seasonings. And balls — lots and lots of balls: curry fish balls, fried yam balls, takoyaki squid and octopus balls, kimchi fried rice balls with DMZ sauce, gourmet rice balls with honey Sriracha, crispy tofu balls covered with Vietnamese green crisped rice and spicy orange aioli. Truly, the wealth of options at an Asian American night market can be overwhelming for an attendee. After all, we only have one stomach.
Last October’s OC Night Market — the latest extension of the 626 Night Market that has since branched out from Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley (home of the 626 area code) into downtown Los Angeles and Orange County — was filled with over 200 vendors competing with each other for the attention of 60,000 potential customers. Sometimes that involved shouting Korean BBQ menu items from a loudspeaker or flashing eye- catching disco lights; sometimes it took three half-naked Asian girls encouraging onlookers to buy delicious Vietnamese coffee. But the most effective and envied form of attraction was a long line of customers, signifying the food must be worth the wait.
Though many Asian countries have their versions of outdoor food markets — from Singaporean hawker centres to Korean pojangmacha — the term “night market” was popularized in Taiwan, where these nighttime food markets still remain a key attraction for foreign tourists visiting the country, eager to experience the noisy atmosphere, crowded food stalls, mouth-watering smells and cheap eats that you consume on the spot (or while walking in search of your next snack). According to Taiwan’s government information site, food bazaars that operated at night in ancient China were originally called ghost markets, and contemporary-style night markets began to appear in Taiwanese cities during the turn of the century, when the government actively set aside blocks of streets for permanent night markets.
For Asian immigrants and their second-generation children, night markets elicit fond memories. “I always remember visiting the night markets with my family and friends to eat all different kinds of food,” says Jonny Hwang, the founder of 626 Night Market, who was born in Taiwan but immigrated to the U.S. when he was a child. So when his family relocated to Alhambra, a suburb of Los Angeles with a large Chinese and Taiwanese immigrant population, he wondered, why didn’t they have one?
“There are tons of little businesses and good restaurants, but they all have Chinese menus and signage, so it can be very foreign and intimidating to outsiders,” he says. “Because so much good food is hidden, I thought a night market would be a great showcase for the talent and entrepreneurs in the area.”
Hwang had heard of a couple successful night markets in Vancouver, as well as previous attempts to start a night market in Southern California that didn’t work out. Assuming it had to do with the challenges working with health departments and government agencies, he and his partners went straight to different cities of the San Gabriel Valley with a night market proposal, figuring that if they had the government backing them, the entire process would be a lot easier.
At first, most of the cities in the area were not interested. “The people running their events recreation departments didn’t even know what night markets were, because they weren’t Asian,” says Hwang. “Which is kind of sad, because they serve a very Asian population. They were used to doing their Lunar New Year Festivals, so they figured they already had an Asian event.”
Pasadena was the only place that was interested, because they happened to have an initiative to attract more Asian businesses to the area. So the very first 626 Night Market was scheduled for April 2012, with plans to shut down a couple streets in Old Town Pasadena for the event.
Hwang’s team was optimistic that they could get 8,000 attendees, but the Pasadena special events folks, who had years of experience planning signature events like the Tournament of Roses parade, tempered their expectations. As first-time organizers, they’d be lucky to get 500 people to attend, they were told. But come event time, Hwang says the team had mobilized hundreds of thousands of people — many of whom ended up stuck in long lines, trapped in walkways like sardines or unable to even get in.
“If we had gotten 8,000 to 10,000 people throughout the day, it probably would have been OK,” says Hwang. “But people were coming from Orange County and Riverside, and all the way from San Diego and Las Vegas.” The surrounding freeways and side streets were packed. A police chopper had to monitor the traffic jams and crowds from above.
Though it seemed like a disaster to attendees (many of whom blasted the event through angry Yelp comments), business-wise, it was a huge success. Vendors were happy because they all sold out, and most importantly, it proved that there was a huge demand for a night market. The 626 team learned a lot of things, and soon, the other cities that had originally shunned their proposal came knocking.
Though 626 Night Market was not the first night market in America — Night Market Philadelphia, for example, though not focused on Asian cuisine, began in 2010 — it has made the biggest impact.
“626 are the ones that really started this night market hype,” says Jeff Shimamoto of The Original Ramen Burger, whose ramen-bun burgers have been a fan favorite since his brother Keizo debuted it in New York in the summer of 2013. “Our type of food probably wouldn’t have existed in a regular food market. It’s when the Asian night markets started popping up that we were able to participate.”
Shimamoto now has a brick-and-mortar of sorts, offering The Original Ramen Burger at a take-out window in Los Angeles’s Koreatown. Tonight, he’s hanging out at the adjacent Lock and Key bar with his fellow night market veteran friends, Phillip and Carol Kwan of Mama Musubi (who specialize in a gourmet version of onigiri rice balls, a popular Japanese snack) and Matthew Hui of Fluff Ice (a Taiwanese-inspired snowflake ice that takes flavored ice blocks and shaves them into what they call “frozen cotton candy”). They’re celebrating the end of another busy and successful night market season.
Since 626 debuted, night markets have opened up in other areas of Southern California, like Koreatown and Little Saigon in Westminster. Hwang himself was contacted for advice or collaboration requests from groups who wanted to start their own night markets in San Jose, San Diego and St. Paul. There are now night markets in Seattle, Honolulu and New York, and the list goes on. Even the team behind Studio City’s Sportsmen’s Lodge 1st Thursdays Night Market, who Hwang remembers jokingly called themselves “the white night market,” wanted in on the action. Now, you might be thinking, isn’t a Caucasian night market just … a fair? Like every single county fair in America? But this was just an indication of how the term “night market” was catching on. It had looped back into the mainstream.
Benjamin Kang, one of the organizers of the KTOWN Night Market and the MPK Night Market in Monterey Park, California (both debuted in 2014), believes it’s a good time for night markets because Asian culture is trending more than it ever has in America. “All my white friends want to come to Koreatown,” he says, laughing, citing the Koreatown episode of Anthony Bourdain’s CNN show Parts Unknown, as well as the numerous Asian American chefs on mainstream TV cooking shows. “They’re always asking me what the best Chinese or Japanese restaurants are in L.A.”
“I think the food industry revolves around the Asian population,” says Hui of Fluff Ice. “When all the Asian people think it’s cool, then the non-Asians flock to it. Because all the foodies on Yelp are Asian girls named Grace or Nancy.” He laughs. “The Yelp elite start reviewing all these places, and they become the definitive source.”
While 626 Night Market also had creative entertainment to go along with the food — Asian American performers, live art battles, eating competitions and the unveiling of the new Guinness World Record for the largest cup of boba milk tea — KTOWN Night Market made use of their Korean American showbiz connections, bringing together high-profile food celebrities, like the guys behind Seoul Sausage Company, who won Season 3 of the Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race, as well as musicians like rappers Dumbfoundead and Shin-B. Six months later, KTOWN Night Market also hosted a Halloween Food Fest, where there were costume contests and carnival rides.
“Night markets in Asia are open all the time, so they don’t make a festival out of it,” says Shimamoto. “But here, they turn it into a big event, and that’s what makes it fun. We have concerts and beer gardens. And that’s why we get so many people concentrated at one time.”
The Kwans launched Mama Musubi at the first 626 Night Market in 2012. The brother-and-sister duo wanted to test the market and see what people thought about fresh Japanese rice balls. Would people get their gourmet version — with 24-hour braised Berkshire pork belly — or would they assume it was the same as the refrigerated kinds you can get at Mitsuwa supermarkets? Turns out, there was excitement for rice balls not only in the night markets but in non-Asian markets like the Altadena Farmer’s Market, where they are regulars. But though they work these markets and also cater, their ultimate goal is to launch their own store.
Similarly, The Original Ramen Burger started participating in night markets in Los Angeles because California foodies were asking for it. They do pretty well, but they see night markets as a transition into eventually running four to five restaurant franchises.
“There are two crowds of vendors at the night market,” says Phillip Kwan. “Vendors like us who have long-term visions of opening up brick-and-mortars. And others that make a comfortable living for themselves doing festival-type events.”
Some vendors may have a full-time job on the side. Others might be there just for fun. “On the last day of the night market, there were these 15 Vietnamese ladies from Orange County [in the booth next to us],” remembers Shimamoto. “They showed up four hours before everybody else, and they were all perky and ready to go with all their juices. And they said, ‘We all go to the same church, and we decided we were going to come out here and try and sell some lemonade!’” He laughs. “And that’s great! Maybe they’re just doing it once a month for a little money. Or maybe they could become the next Mrs. Fields Cookies. Either way, they were just so happy to be there.”
Hwang encourages it all. “In the beginning, most of our vendors had stores, but we really encourage the ones who don’t,” he says. “It’s such a good platform for people to try new ideas for cheap. Just do it for one weekend. If it’s good and you like it, then do it again. Those are the types of food you can’t eat anywhere else. You have to go to our event to find them.”
“Phil and I think that the model for starting a restaurant is going to start changing,” says Shimamoto. “In Los Angeles, you see a lot of restaurants come and go. But [working the night markets] is a way you lower your overhead and costs, and it’s a great way to get some exposure while retaining flexibility to work on other things, like food trucks or developing your brick-and-mortar.”
Even Fluff Ice, which already had a store in Monterey Park when 626 first opened, found that attending night markets is just a good way to network, advertise and grow your business. “There’s just so many layers of income you can get with a business like this, whether it’s night markets, school fundraisers or Hollywood catering,” says Hui, who has catered for How I Met Your Mother, Parks & Recreation, The Office and the upcoming film Paranormal Activity 5. They now have four locations in Southern California.
But these Asian American night markets aren’t without its skeptics. In Taiwan, you go to the night market because you’re craving certain foods, whether it be oyster pancakes, ba-wan (Taiwanese meatballs wrapped in gelatinous dough) or aiyu jelly drinks. You’re also expecting a certain atmosphere — makeshift stalls where you see and smell the food being prepared right in front of you — and a certain experience, a.k.a. cheap stuff, whether it be food, shopping or games.
In the beginning, that was the source of some of the disappointment for night market goers in America. It didn’t look right — health codes in the U.S. require covered canopies so it looked like a typical fair. It’s not cheap: there’s usually a cover charge of $5 to $10 just to get in, and everything, even a tiny plate, usually costs at least $5 (which adds up!). And there was a random mix of foods, both Asian and non-Asian, that weren’t necessarily what you thought of as “street food.” (One vendor at a recent KTOWN Night Market was serving up 100 percent grass-fed, organic, pasture-raised Australian bone-in lamb.)
“But I think that’s what makes us different in a good way,” says Hwang. “If you think about the night markets in Asia, it’s all the same foods. We always get a good amount of vendors that are new or tweaking their menu, and it’s exciting to see people experimenting with new things — whether it’s fusion foods like the ramen burger, pho tacos and new types of guabao [Taiwanese pork belly buns] — or if they’re bringing in traditional stuff that we never had before, like yam balls and chicken sausages. It’s a competitive marketplace, so you have to be creative. Don’t do the usual things, or if you do, figure out how you can do it differently.”
“You can’t be stale,” agrees Carol Kwan, who recently collaborated with the Shimamoto brothers to create a one-month-only specialty mash-up: the Mama Musubi 24-hour Pork Belly Ramen Burger. “It’s the same even if you’re in a restaurant. You have to innovate and keep creating something new to keep people coming.”
That said, for every food item that’s worth waiting for in the night market lines, there are many, many more that are underwhelming and overpriced. It’s also hard to tell whether something is innovative or just gimmicky, and with so many copycat renditions of almost the same idea (there’s a reason Ramen Burger changed its name to The Original Ramen Burger), it’s tempting to assume the latter.
But one can only hope that the truly tasty, fusion or not, rises to the top — that the prevalence of night markets are giving those gems a place to grow and a community of like-minded food fans a place to gather.
“One of the major pluses [of the night markets] is how it impacts the current and hopefully the next generation of Asian Americans,” says Christine Chiao, a food writer who’s contributed to LA Weekly and Sunset. “A regular or seasonal night market can be a platform for more than just the vendors. It can become a channel, too, for young Asian American attendees to seek and express their identity.”
So did Hwang ever imagine that the 626 Night Market he created would become such a cultural touchstone?
“Not really,” he says. “At first I really did it for fun, as a side thing, because I knew it’d be something that people would enjoy. I never thought I’d end up working full time to produce night markets.” He laughs. “Who goes to college thinking that? It’s surreal.”
When Lakshmi Ramakrishnan was growing up in Amarillo, Texas in the 1980s there were just a few Indian families in the area. So jumping in the car was the only way to get their cultural fix: they would drive as far north as Canada to shop, eat, visit with friends and visit Hindu temples. In a memory familiar to many Asian Americans who grew up far from established ethnic neighborhoods, they’d fill their car with food and new clothes before heading back to Texas.
Little did the Ramakrishnans know that they were early adopters of “culture and heritage travel,” which in 2013 contributed over $171 billion to the U.S. economy, according to a study partially commissioned by the U.S. Department of Commerce. As the Asian-American population grows, experts say, so does their contribution to the travel industry.
“According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Asian-American market is projected to grow 31 percent by 2020, just slightly less than the 34 percent grown in the Hispanic market,” said Laura Mandala of Mandala Research, whose firm carried out the study. More than half of all Asian Americans — 51 percent — have taken a domestic plane trip in the last 12 months, according to Nielsen, and families generally shape trips around interest in culture, history, community and food.
“Finding the tastes of ‘home’ is often part of the Asian-American travel experience”
Elson Park is an extreme example on the front end of this trend. The 74-year-old retired computer programmer from Salt Lake City spends 200 days a year backpacking around the world, sharing his adventures via a Facebook fan pageand a Korean-language photography site. He often travels by bike, planning out his trips with a bicycle computer and squeezing in regular marathons between cycling trips.
The National Parks Service (NPS) seems to be catering to travelers like Park and the Ramakirshnans with their recent introduction of the Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Travel Itinerary.
The NPS now lists nearly 70 historic sites in 16 states and throughout the Pacific — a mix of monuments, museums and historic neighborhoods.
“It’s funny how little people know about the history of the U.S. We hope people will visit these sites and understand the tremendously important role that AAPIs have played in the development of our nation,” said Carol Shull, the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places in Washington, D.C. “These places define and give special identity to communities, and heritage tourism is a huge economic generator.“
Los Angeles chef Roy Choi has been convinced of that fact, and building businesses based on it, for years. Starting with his hybrid-Korean taco truck business and now expanding into the hospitality industry, Choi has made a point to promote and bring dollars to LA’s diverse ethnic neighborhoods.
Chef Roy Choi
The Line Hotel, his new venture in Koreatown, pointedly encourages visitors to invest in the neighborhood, offering free bikes to borrow, a list of nearby Korean restaurants and discounted tickets for the Metro, which stops just across the street. Multiple worlds are encouraged to mingle: a ground-floor panaderia and café opens to the street, offering $1 pastries, Hello Kitty cakes and piping-hot congee for breakfast.
Choi explained his philosophy in the hotel’s in-house magazine, appropriately titled “Here”: “If you feed people you find they start to open up a little bit. You can tap into their empathy, into their soul. You can go directly to people with food.”
Room service at The Line comes wrapped in a brightly patterned bojagi — a Korean wrapping fabric, festooned with Mexican cowgirls. Inside the cotton folds sits a Coleman thermos filled with hearty, spicy cabbage soup. The hotel seems to have tapped into what Asian American and other travelers are hankering for today: modern experiences seeped in local flavor — delicious food, wrapped in culture.
Like San Francisco’s Japanese-American families faithfully stopping at Ikeda’s California Country Market en route to Lake Tahoe, Mandala says modern travel itineraries are driven by cuisine as much as culture.
“Finding the tastes of ‘home’ is often part of the Asian-American travel experience, much like the Italian American searches for the best Italian food a destination has to offer,” she said.
While most of the Asian-American travel destinations on the NPS list can’t boast an architectural lobby with a thumping DJ like the Line Hotel, their quirky charm is cherished by generations of visitors. As a junior high school student, Julian Liu‘s parents took him to Locke, a small town outside of Sacramento known as the oldest intact Chinese farming community. Its Old West flavor mixed with Chinese pioneer spirit left a deep impression on him.
“I remember thinking it looked a lot like one of those towns in a western movie where a shootout might happen, ” said Liu. “For Chinese Americans, places like Locke are vital to connect newer immigrants with the experiences of people who came much earlier.”
Ramakrishan, whose Little India trips with her parents evolved into her own pilgrimages with college friends to Chinatowns along the west coast, is now planning trips for her two small children.
“I think it’s true that people, especially those that grew up here in the U.S., are more interested in finding these Asian-American historical sites,” she said. “When I was young, there weren’t many Indian people around. But now I live outside of Houston, where you can’t go half a mile without running into some Indian people.”
The famous Ramen Burger has hit LA several times now, most recently at the DTLA Night Market, but it looks like Keizo Shimamoto is looking to make his signature creation a staple here in SoCal.
Ramen Burger LA’s new location will take over a walk-up window in K-Town currently known as Stall 239. The stall serves fusion style grub to night owls wandering the streets of LA but will serve favorites from Shimamoto’s menu, including his new Ramen Fries, during two soft opening events on July 5 (1:00PM-6:00PM) and July 13 (2:00PM-8:00PM) ahead of its August 1, 2014 official soft opening.
The location is fairly small so we’re assuming lines these next two weekends will be pretty long for the East Coast transplant. Hopefully Shimamoto gauges how to deal with the crowds before the first Ramen Burger LA location opens.
Koreatown in Los Angeles used to be like an inside joke: if you were in on it, you felt undeniably cool, and if you had no idea what this sprawl of urban life was about, the town was somewhat befuddling and unwelcoming. The neon diaspora of foreign Hangul signage has generally produced more confusion than curiosity, and so Koreatown, with its all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ joints, secret after-hours nightlife, and the pockets of Latino and Bangladeshi communities was, until recently, not the easiest place to navigate without the help from someone on the inside.
The Next Frontier
“EVERYONE ON THE OUTSIDE OF THIS ETHNIC HUB IS CLAMORING TO BE ON THE INSIDE.”
“Koreatown is like the next frontier in Los Angeles,” says Ted Vadakan, half of the husband-and-wife duo that founded the LA-based shop/gallery, Poketo, which just opened its second location at the new Line Hotel in Koreatown. “It has a great nightlife, delicious food, and a lot of hidden gems—but, it’s also a bit of the unknown for a lot of Angelenos.”
Now, it has slowly come to the attention of many an Angeleno that the joke has actually been on them for some time. “We’ve been special. Everyone just took their time figuring that shit out.” says chef and Kogi Taco master Roy Choi, who was approached by the Sydell Group (the guys behind The NoMad and Ace New York) to head the eats and drinks program at the Line Hotel. Now, in true spirit of true “fomo” (fear of missing out), everyone on the outside of this ethnic hub is clamoring to be on the inside. Lucky for them, they’re being ushered into an era where this town is embracing and abridging the onslaught of attention, all thanks in part and parcel to the flood of cultural PR—from the globalization of kimchi to the phenomenon of Korean pop culture.
However, what these outsiders are initially drawn to is not what they’re discovering. This town isn’t only about the dank and pungent fermented cabbage or people that look and have moves like the ubiquitous ‘Gangnam style’ star: instead, they’re being introduced to a trilingual community—where you can hear English, Korean and Spanish, and sometimes an amusing blend of all three—and a new creative and cultural force spurred on by this diversity.
The Line Hotel Lifestyle
“SYDELL GROUP FOUNDER, ANDREW ZOBLER, SET OUT WITH THE IDEA OF CREATING A GATHERING PLACE WHERE THE LOBBY WOULD BE AN EXTENDED LIVING ROOM FOR THE ENTIRE NEIGHBORHOOD.”
The Line Hotel is the first lifestyle hotel of its kind to draw upon the social fabric of Koreatown, intentionally translating the quirky and unfamiliar aspects of this metropolis into a community experience that pays homage to the Korean and Latino communities. Sydell Group founder, Andrew Zobler, set out with the idea of creating a gathering place where the lobby would be an extended living room for the entire neighborhood. It’s where you’ll witness the intersection of worlds: old Korean men brandishing copies of The Korea Times traversing paths with hordes of horchata drinking hipsters (who are mentally jotting down a few fashion pointers or two from their elders).
The Poketo team, Vadakan and his wife, Angie Myung, were tapped alongside Choi to join the impressive roster of LA creatives that are converging at the Line Hotel. “We considered it an amazing opportunity to acquaint people to this part of LA,” says Vadakan. “The Line is a true collaboration [between] Roy Choi, Sean Knibb, the Houston brothers, and Poketo. It nurtures an environment where we are collectively brainstorming and collaborating on things together. The synergy alone between us all, there’s no stopping us.”
The Koreatown Comeback
“THE TOWN NOW BOASTS THE HIGHEST CONCENTRATION OF RESTAURANTS AND NIGHTCLUBS IN ALL OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, AND A BIG PART OF THAT COMEBACK HAS BEEN THE CULTURAL GRIT IN EMBRACING OF ONE OF THE MOST MULTIRACIAL CITIES ON EARTH.”
Choi, who has founded his success on the Korean Taco, shows another feat of cultural symbiosis at his new hotel restaurant, POT. It’s food that is markedly Korean, but the nuances are Choi, through and through. The mood is set by ’90s hip-hop music, and hipster servers donned in floral prints usher you into a no-frills space. On the menu, you’re faced with a picture of a Korean grandma nonchalantly puffing the magic dragon, priming you for what’s to come in the pages to follow. There’s the standard fare of banchan and galbi, and then the signature dish whose moniker has become a 420-friendly innuendo: the spicy Korean hotpots. The most popular of these is “The Bootknocker,” a hotpot which includes instant ramen, Spam, corned beef hash, pork sausage, rice cakes, fish cakes, tofu, and a sprinkle of greens on top–a literal melting pot of everything in Choi’s pantry. He creates a space for outsiders in this cuisine to explore with ease without forgoing the culinary narrative at hand. And besides, you can’t get more Koreatown than eating kimchi and instant ramen accompanied by uncensored Tupac lyrics.
However, this open door policy was not always the norm. If anything, the same diversity that inspires so much of Koreatown today was actually the bedrock of violence during the Los Angeles riots in 1992. What started out as a reaction to police brutality violently spun out into a free-for-all that drew the participation of all different ethnic groups; Korean small businesses were robbed and burnt to the ground, and with the LAPD and National Guard unwilling and unable to control the chaos, the community was wrecked by the emotional and financial damage. Today, all of that seems like a distant memory.
The homecoming of The Line hotel leaves no trace of a town that was once devastated by anarchic mayhem a mere 20 years ago. Its introduction serves as a subtle reminder of the redemption and progress that has culminated into this creative expression of community, an expression that finds significance in the differences of its people. “As long as the Koreans, Latinos and Bangladeshis live here,” says Choi, “it will always be K-town.”
The town now boasts the highest concentration of restaurants and nightclubs in all of southern California, and a big part of that comeback has been the cultural grit in embracing of one of the most multiracial cities on Earth. “Change mixes things up, it can enrich a community, it can increase diversity,” says Vadakan. “Koreatown will continue to be a melting pot, not unlike Los Angeles, not unlike this country.”
So, without further delay, welcome to a town where cultural collisions run as deep as they run high. Koreatown has finally arrived, and it’s about damn time.
Check out this link:
Douglas Kim previously released his “I’m Asian American” music video and now he (and a bunch of friends) are back with “Forever Hyung”, a parody of the Jay-Z song “Young Forever”.
It’s a satire of recent media that has been released by Koreans about Koreatown, LA, serving as a sort of music video mockumentary. It features cameos of Joe Jo and Bart Kwan of JK Films, Yuri Tag, James Kyson Lee, Jun Kim, Peter Jae, Elizabeth Sung, Alexis Rhee, Nikki Soohoo, Christina Lee, Allura Lee, Steve Huang, and Lianne Lin.