While the world got a glimpse into South Korea for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, a taste of Korean culture is within easy reach for Los Angeles locals. Koreatown is a center for traditional Korean cuisine that continues to evolve and embrace innovative food trends, including some of these latest arrivals.
Mr. Song at Sol-Lip Tofu comes in every morning at 5am to make tofu. It’s a process done by hand that takes several hours, using a technique so specialized that he holds a patent. Song is new to Los Angeles, but a familiar face in Daesan, South Korea, where he made tofu for more than 40 years. Sol-Lip translates to “pine needle,” which evokes the spirit of the mountainous southwest region from where Song hails.
The tofu is firm on the outside while soft in the middle, making it easier to grip with chopsticks and dip into sauces. Served on a platter, the tofu comes in three styles: plain, pan fried, or braised in a red pepper sauce.
Variations of Song’s tofu find their way into other menu items such as soups, stews, and hot pots. And with a flourish of resourcefulness, Sol-Lip offers Biji Stew, a hearty soup made with the pulp that’s left from making the tofu.
Enabling the city’s insatiable appetite for saucy, spicy fried chicken is former movie director Kil-chae Jeong. Jeong is most known for his 2001 guilty pleasure Korean horror flick titled Hera Purple, earning him the nickname “Monster Director.” Gol tong is the Korean word for monster, which lends to the name of his restaurant, Director Gol Tong’s Chicken.
At age 65, Jeong hopes to follow in the footsteps of another career hopper who at age 65 began making a fortune selling fried chicken: Colonel Harland David Sanders, founder of KFC. To help matters along, like his new idol, Jeong’s menus feature his own friendly cartoon likeness, complete with glasses and mustache.
Jeong’s signature creation is the boneless chili chicken plate with sweet potato wedges and chunks of pineapple to temper the heat. The soy sauce garlic flavor is also popular. Other options on the menu include sausage and several seafood dishes. “It’s like making movies,” said Jeong, of his chicken. “Food is art.”
When you’re fishing around for a snack, you can find your catch at Curious Goldie. Their fish-shaped pastry pockets with sweetly satisfying fillings are known as bungeo-ppang (carp bread).
The shop offers three flavors: custard, sweet red bean, and Nutella. Instead of using pancake or waffle batter, Curious Goldie uses a croissant pastry dough with sugar crystals. The result is a flaky, buttery pastry with a crispy glaze. Boxes with handles are available for large catch orders of six and eight.
Curious Goldie, located in the Square Mixx food court above California Market, is a franchise from South Korea where the company goes by the name Fboong. It joins a handful of Koreatown cafes already selling this historic street snack, which dates back to the 1930s, making many appearances in historical Korean TV dramas. It also has a counterpart in Japan called taiyaki.
The phenomenon known as “cheese tea” has arrived in Koreatown after first proving itself in the San Gabriel Valley. This Taiwanese import isn’t exactly what it sounds like. The floating white cap that gives the glass the appearance of a draft beer is made of a whipped cream cheese that tastes like ice cream with a hint of salt.
White & Brown puts a healthy spin on the new drink by using real cream cheese instead of powdered milk. Plus, they import high-quality teas from China. The shop’s name comes from the two dominant colors of the cheese tea. They also make smoothies with no sugar added and a minimal amount of ice.
Shop manager Ben Cheng sees his cafe as a change of pace for a neighborhood that’s heavy on bars and all-you-can-eat barbecue. “It’s very refreshing,” he said.
Among Koreatown’s dozens of coffee shops, Sharp Specialty Coffee meets the growing demand for space and caffeine among laptop warriors and lingering loungers. Sharp aims to upgrade the experience with premium coffee and sweets and appropriately mellow tunes in the background. Look for the musical “sharp” symbol (#) on the shop’s signage, which easily doubles as their social hashtag.
Coffee hunters will appreciate the chance to try espresso from Stereoscope Coffee, a new micro-roaster in Buena Park. You can drink it in a number of flavored lattes—vanilla, caramel, lavender, honey cinnamon, Spanish, and mocha—or have it as an affogato over vanilla or green tea Thrifty ice cream.
Pourover coffees are done with beans from Sightglass (San Francisco) and Coava (Portland, Oregon). Loose leaf teas are also available. All drinks would go well with something from the pastry case, courtesy of Cake Monkey.