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Take a video food tour of Koreatown, Los Angeles

I was born and raised in Culver City, but my mom took me to Koreatown almost every weekend while I was growing up. It’s where we went grocery shopping, got our hair done, and where I made my mom spend a lot more money than she probably wanted buying me K-pop albums.

Today, I think of Koreatown as a hot spot for really delicious (and authentic) Korean food. Here are a few Koreatown restaurants I checked out in a video partnership with Westways, the Auto Club’s member magazine.

Park’s BBQ

955 S. Vermont Avenue, Los Angeles

“It’s something that I really love to do,” says chef Jenee Kim, who as a single mother started Park’s BBQ in 2003. “I didn’t work for a while. … I just came back to L.A. with my two kids. I just put in everything I had. I was kind of brave because I didn’t know anything.”

What Kim did know was how to cook. “I did major in food and science at Korea–Seoul Women’s College. I just wanted to open up a restaurant, which was something I can do best.”

Kim’s customers, many of whom happen to be celebrities, frequent her restaurant to get a taste of Korean home cooking. 

“You can’t get kimchi like this anywhere. This is homemade kimchi,” she says as she pointed to some side dishes. “And this is my favorite—garlic stem. My mom used to cook for me when I was little.” Kim serves up to 16 free side dishes per table, some of which change with the seasons.

Park’s BBQ has an extensive menu of countless traditional Korean dishes. But the restaurant is best known for its barbecue. “I really want you to try brisket with this,” Kim prompts me when our table grill filled with chadol (beef brisket) is ready. I try the meat with a side dish Kim recently created. “Cilantro is not really Korean food, but cilantro kimchi makes all this  barbecue really special,” she explains.

We then grilled another type of meat at our table. “This is our signature barbecue,” Kim says proudly. “Galbi. The famous galbi, Park’s galbi.” She watches as I take a bite and smile widely. “I like the smile on your face,” she comments.

Each dish took a lot of care and time to make, Kim explains. She says she pushes herself to continue growing as a chef. “We do a lot of studies,” she says. “I still go to Korea twice a year to develop new dishes, side dishes.”

Kim’s passion apparently has rubbed off on her daughter, too. “My daughter is a chef. She’s been a chef at Mozza  for 10 years … so I feel really proud,” she says .

Papa’s Chicken

3003 W. Olympic Boulevard #103, Los Angeles

Papa’s Chicken is a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that opened in July 2018. It serves only Korean fried chicken, a dish that became popular during the 1980s and can be considered a trendy version of American fried chicken. 

“Everyone cooks it with flour,” says owner Min Kang Song. “I was wondering if there was another way to do it, so I started cooking it with rice.”

I asked Song why his business is named Papa’s Chicken. “My daughter named it for me,” he explains. “She said, ‘Dad’s chicken is delicious.’”

The former sushi chef took a year and a half to develop his secret recipes. “I started really confidently, but as I tried, I realized how difficult chicken was to cook with,” he says. “I almost gave up because it was so difficult. … But then, the time I invested and all of my efforts … I really didn’t want to waste all of that. So, I kept going until the end.”

It takes two days to get the chicken ready to serve to Song’s customers. “Dressing it and frying it, you have to do it very carefully,” Song explains.

He also makes corn salad and radish as side dishes to complement the chicken. Radish is commonly served with Korean fried chicken to help cut the greasiness of the chicken. 

To make everything, Song works long hours six days a week. “I want to hire people,” he says. “But I’m afraid they’ll miss something. ... I get nervous. It’s my personality.”

Knowing that his daughter likes his chicken motivates him, especially during the difficult days, Song says. “The feeling of ‘Papa’s,’ is ‘Dad’s chicken.’ I get the feeling that you can trust and eat it,” he says.

Sul and Beans / SomiSomi

Both on the 2nd floor at 621 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles

Sul and Beans and SomiSomi are a couple of popular dessert spots that got their start in Koreatown. “The reason I decided to have a dessert place was to make people happy,” says owner Matt Kim. “Sul and Beans opened about five years ago, and SomiSomi about 2-1/2 years ago.”

Sul and Beans specializes in bingsoo, or Korean shaved ice. But instead of ice, Kim uses milk as the base; the bingsoos come in more than a dozen flavors. 

Sul and Beans also serves Korean-inspired toast. Kim brings me a dish of cheese injeolmi toast and says it was made with cheese, honey, almonds, injeolmi (rice cake with bean powder) and bread. I thought it looked like a grilled cheese with rice cake. It’s a trendier version of the traditional injeolmi rice cakes that my grandma force-fed me as a child. I am glad there’s now a tastier version I can enjoy as an adult.

SomiSomi sits next door to Sul and Beans. It specializes in Korean-inspired soft-serve that goes inside the mouth of a fish-shaped cone, which Koreans call boong-uh-bbang and Japanese call taiyaki. “Every Korean liked boong-uh-bbang,” says Kim. “And then everyone likes ice cream. … Combine both together? ... That was the idea.”

Customers can select various toppings on the soft-serve including rainbow sprinkles and Fruity Pebbles. While he prefers Sul and Beans because it’s like his first child, Kim says SomiSomi reminds him of a smarter second child. “It’s expanding much faster,” he explains. “The busiest location right now is Cupertino,” Kim says.

SomiSomi currently has 12 locations, but Kim plans to have about 30 stores (including corporate stores and franchises) by the beginning of 2020.

Christine Lee (@kimboptv) is an Emmy-nominated TV reporter turned #girlboss based in Southern California.

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