California Girls: Koreatown

I’ve never spent a lot of time in Koreatown in Los Angeles or in New York City.  The k-town I know in NYC is just a few blocks lined with Korean restaurants and karaoke bars centered around 32nd street.  I’ve heard of underground bars and clubs that are also in that area but I’ve never been to one.  I usually go to k-town with friends for something quick to eat.  Koreatown in Los Angeles on the other hand feels like a mini version Korea with endless shops and businesses.  Los Angeles Times estimates that it is about 3 square miles with 43,000 people per square mile, making it one of the most densely populated areas in LA as well as the U.S.  Ethnically speaking this roughly 20 block by 20 block section of the city comprises of 54% Latinos followed by 32% Asians, and demographically 22% are Mexicans and 21% are Koreans.

In the 70s a large influx of Korean immigrants settled around Wilshire Center and with a growing number of Korean businesses opening in the surrounding neighborhood the area became known as Koreatown.  During the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992, the heaviest violence and damages occurred in Koreatown with hundreds of stores looted, burned down, and attacked.  In its aftermath a large number of Koreans never returned, preferring to move to Orange County or to the San Fernando Valley.  It left the area poor, littered with abandoned buildings for many years.  Finally about 10 years ago new buildings began to go up again and with several metro stations offering public transportation in and out of the neighborhood, the entire area has been revitalized.

When I visited this time around, there were modern and clean Korean shopping malls, restaurants, bakeries, hospitals, and banks proudly displaying their signs in Korean.  The streets were clean and all the stores were busy with customers.  We made a point of stopping at a store called “Kim’s Home Center,” a well-known one-stop shopping center where you can find almost anything.  It’s a mash up of Bed, Bath, and Beyond, Sears, Target, and Pier I with a Korean flare.  You can select the perfect kimchi refrigerator, pick up a Korean moisturizing lotion, a cotton T-shirt, and as well as a set of knives under this one roof.  It’s the kind of place where you can spend an afternoon buying things you never thought you needed.  Even if you don’t buy anything it makes it for an interesting window shopping experience.

Since we were visiting K-town we had to spend a few hours at a jjimjilbang, a Korean spa/sauna.  They are everywhere in Korea but I never got a chance to go to one when I was there, so on this trip we went to the newest and the largest one in K-town.  After trusting our car with the Wi Spa valets we walked downstairs to check in (no reservation necessary unless you are getting spa treatments).  We were each given an electronic bracelet, a set of clothes to wear (T-shirt and shorts), a large towel, and sent on our way.  It was a large facility; I saw that there was a fitness center you could use and a large lounge with huge TVs where people were just relaxing.  The women’s public bath area was downstairs where you can bathe or shower, can soak in hot and cold Jacuzzi tubs, and use the regular sauna facilities.  But the main event at a jjimjilbang is where you go after you’ve washed and put on your spa clothes.  We went upstairs and saw that they have a large room where you can lie down and relax.  Along the walls there were doors that led to various rooms where the floors and walls were made of different materials such as salt or jade.  The rooms are heated up to varying temperatures from 125 degrees to the hottest one, which was well over 200 degrees.  There are pillows you can take into the rooms and you go from one room to the other (with breaks in between in the large lounge area) and sweat out all the toxins in your body.  There is a restaurant/snack area for refreshments and TVs all around with Korean programming.  No cash is needed while you’re using the spa; you simply swipe your electronic bracelet when you buy a bottle or water or need to open your locker.  As you leave the bracelet is scanned and your total gets calculated.  Jjimjilbang(s) are usually open all day and this one was no exception.  You pay a little more if you stay overnight and I’ve heard that some people use it as cheap means of accommodations.  Wi Spa even offers a shuttle bus service to LAX twice a day;  that, I thought, was hysterical but what a fabulous idea!

We ended up spending over three hours at Wi Spa trying out all the jjimjilbang(s).  I could understand how people can spend so much time there and want to go back regularly.  I had read about a very large Korean spa in Queens from a New York Times article a few years ago.  It said that the one in NY is like a water park and it’s become popular with families with children (Spa Castle/Inspa).  That’s one thing about jjimjilbang(s)- it can be crowded and noisy, and there were children running around when we were at Wi Spa.  It’s a fun place to go with a group of friends or with your family, but if I’m looking for some peace and quiet it wouldn’t be the first place I’d think of.

There was one more Korean restaurant in Koreatown we tried while we were in Los Angeles.  My aunt raved about their spicy kalbi stew, which I have never had or even knew about.  The place was open 24 hours a day and as the name of the restaurant suggested, Keungama (big pot) they had at least three huge pots with steaming liquids in a windowed kitchen where everyone could see them.  They had an extensive menu but since emo liked the spicy stew so much that’s what I had.  Their portions were generous and with each order we got a hot stone bowl of rice.  The stew had a nice kick of spiciness in the back and the meat was so tender, that you could really tell that it was slowly cooked over a long time.

You can easily spend a whole day shopping, eating, getting spa treatments, and going out clubbing at night in Koreatown.  If I want to feel as if I’ve gone to Seoul but can’t make it all the way over to Korea, I think it’s the next best thing.

Wi Spa: 2700 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA (open 24/7)

Keungama (Big Pot) Restaurant: 3498 W. 8th Street, Los Angeles, CA (open 24/7)

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