COMMENTARY: Koreatown, USA, a little closer to home
Submitted to The Union
According to the Los Angeles Times, Koreatown, Los Angles, is the most densely populated district in Los Angeles County, with some 120,000 residents covering almost 3 square miles (about twice the size of San Francisco’s Chinatown).
Koreatown, established in the 1800s, had historically been mostly Koreans, but recently, the Latino population there’s been booming. This Latino influence is partly what sent me dashing to L.A. last month to chase Korean barbecue taco trucks, like the one pictured.
Having eaten in many Korean restaurants in Northern California and New York, I felt like I had a beat on traditional Korean food, but I’ve been reading all about hot new Korean food trends in L.A. popping up faster than B movies in Hollywood and I wanted in.
Strip mall after strip mall in the neighborhood is covered with stylized Korean pictograph signage that is seldom graced with English translations. Add to this the faces and the voices on the street, and I felt like I was in Seoul. Looking at websites of restaurants didn’t help much. Almost all the menus are exclusively in Korean.
I started the first day at noon with a pocketful of meter quarters, a AAA map, a list and a plan. That lasted about as long as my first quarter.
Some places didn’t open till 5 or 6 p.m. Some seemed to emulate modern restaurant chain trends with slick interiors and snappy Korean signage, but they didn’t have what I was after. Others were dark karaoke caves where Korean businessmen in Saigon suits could drink soju and find a “date” for the night. In most places, they spoke little or no English; luckily many menus had pictures.
I was hot on the trail of two new trends in Korean food. The first is the new Mexican/Korean food truck taco scene, a product of the melding cultures, that could only develop in the cultural petri dish of L.A.
Hunting down the popular Kogi Korean BBQ Taco Truck took a bit of sleuthing; it is a moving target.
Finally, I spotted it, stuffed the meter and waited in line while a dozen office workers from a nearby talent agency texted and chatted Hollywood biz talk in line.
These fusion tacos were definitely more interesting than the office talk with a mash-up of corn tacos, spicy Korean barbecue fillings and lots of Sriracha for amping up the heat.
We’ll have a few of these on the Korean menu this November at the Old 5Mile House.
The second trend I was after is called Bul Dak, literally translated: fire chicken. Bul Dak is a traditional Korean dish that’s been re-invented, and it’s generating buzz all over the Asian world as the best way to start off a night out drinking with friends. I tried about five renditions.
One place had heat levels available from 1-10. I chose No. 3 thinking, ‘I wanna be able to taste this.’ Glad I didn’t go to 4. Can’t even imagine 10. Sweat beaded on my face, but I couldn’t stop eating.
I’ve hashed out a sparkling fire chicken wings recipe that’s sweet, succulent and zippy, but it won’t burn your tongue off. Definitely awesome with a cold beer.
Winner of the James Beard award, chef David Chang of Momofuku in my hometown of Brooklyn is another inspiring source I’m drawing upon for Old 5Mile House’s Korean menu, that includes Korean mussels, Korean clams, short ribs, a seafood soup and bossam, which is traditionally a slow-roasted pork dish.
I slow-smoke our pork for 16 hours, then serve it up on a platter with oysters, rice, kim chee, house pickled veggies and sauces to use in building lettuce wraps. I’ve developed a Korean Brussels sprout dish with toasted rutabagas.
So if you can’t make it to Korea or Koreatown anytime soon, come check out the unique food at the Old 5Mile House this month.
We take you there!
Robert Smith is the chef owner of the Old 5Mile House where they serve roadhouse food from around the world.
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