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A Los Angeles Primer: Koreatown


“So they put chapulines in their kimchi?” a friend in Mexico City asked about my neighborhood. I do hold out hope that eateries in Koreatown, the district of Los Angeles it makes the most (and the least obvious) sense for me to live in, will one day offer its fermented cabbage topped by roasted grasshoppers. For now, the dish remains one we prepare at home. The Chilango’s half-joking expectation came in response to my explanation of Koreatown’s demographics: a sizable wedge of Koreans, as you’d expect, but an even larger one from the chapulin-rich southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Yet these groups, despite living at the highest population density the entire city, seldom mix. If I want my kimchi sprinkled with chapulines, or my street-grilled sopes topped with kimchi, or my bulgogi served in mole, I’ve got to do it myself.

Looking over the Los Angeles map in search of a home, I understood only in the abstract how much the city would, for better and worse, ask me to do myself. But I did know full well that few if any other cities in the world have blocks that put busy makeshift sincronizada griddles right up against coffee shops pouring six-dollar sweet potato lattes with equal briskness, or utilitarian panaderias against bass-leaking, quasi-legitimate noraebang (that is, Korean karaoke bars). This occurs without much of a normalizing flow — or diluting flow — of what the purely theoretical average American might recognize as average Americans. All this sprouted in the remains of what the 1930s called the Ambassador District, which former resident and well-known food critic Jonathan Gold describes as a place “when the old ballroom around the corner hosted big bands, when a romantic night out in the neighborhood might have involved a show at the Cocoanut Grove, big steaks at the Brown Derby, maybe cocktails afterward at the Town House or the Cove.”

Read the whole thing at KCET Departures.

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