Los Angeles’ Koreatown has lots of mini-malls, and it is, therefore, fitting that our tour should begin in one. We’re 20 kilometres east of the beach, and it’s hot at 9 a.m. I’ve forgotten sunglasses. I’m handed a spare pair, enormous goggly things flashing with gold, but clearer vision proves only slightly helpful. Pretty much everything is in Korean. Is that a travel agency? A kennel? A tuba store? As we head west on Olympic, our tour guide, Namju, reads my mind: “Who came on this tour because they’re curious about Koreatown but have no idea what to do here or what to eat?” Lots of raised hands.
We stop in front of – yes – another mini-mall. Namju points to its bottom west quadrant and says, “Jeonju is a very good restaurant.” She continues, telling us that Jeonju is a city in Cholla province and that this place is inexpensive and popular for dolsot bibimbap: rice topped with meat, vegetables and a fried egg, served sizzling hot in a heavy stone pot. I’m half-listening because I’m thinking it’s amazing no one thought of this idea sooner: neighbourhood tours given by the people who actually live in them. I love Los Angeles, and I want tourists to love it, and it occurs to me this is a way to make it more accessible. Koreatown is a perfect example. It’s a neighbourhood I’ve driven through 1,000 times without touching my feet to its ground, and Namju’s simple tip of a good place to eat seems like a revelation. Who knew? Jeonju!
What my ignorance rendered flat and featureless continues to burst into three dimensions as Namju talks. She points out Kim’s Home Store, a good spot for electronics, bedding, underwear and more; Dragon, a famous Korean-Chinese restaurant; and a huge supermarket called Hannam Chain. At the famous (news to me) Wien Bakery, I have a Korean pastry: an improbably soft, silky combination of pastry chef expertise and Hostess ridiculousness – which is to say, addictive.
Now Namju leads us to the kind of experience a certain type of off-the-beaten-track tourist salivates over. King Bahn Ah Rice Cake Shop sells rice, beans and rice cakes, a starchy Korean staple. The owner, James Kim, tells us stories of his grandfather, who came to the country when he was 67 and, instead of retiring, opened this business.
Suddenly, food appears in a sort of careful-what-you-wish-for way. Ma Dang Gook Soo is tucked into a bright, clean, plain corner, and Namju tells us it is one of the most popular places in the neighbourhood for noodles, hot or cold. We are brought family-style dishes of bibimbap which I have had, and kongguksu (cold soybean noodles) and kalguksu (chicken noodle soup with potatoes and zucchini), which I have not. One dish, tteokbokki, features rice cakes in a cylindrical shape.
Palsaik Sampgyeopsal is next (same mini-mall!) and is a perfect example of saving the best for last. Their specialty is pork belly, the single most delicious food known to man. We grill it ourselves at our table while, energized by food, my tour mates, like Koreatown, begin to slowly reveal themselves and then overshare. One woman just dumped a pathological liar; a young man confides that his friends are pressuring him to marry young; one man fears I’m going to use his name in my story even though he has told me precisely nothing. Someone chimes in that everything in the world is perfect because God is perfect, and when our waiters make fried rice on our grills right in front of us with leftover pork, kimchee and broth from a fish soup we were all a bit afraid of, I am inclined to agree.