From the outside, it’s nothing, just a dead strip mall at three in the morning. Still as a tomb in the pale piss of the street lights.
But knock on the black door and a little slit opens up, a pair of eyes appear, darting from left to right like a painting in a Scooby Doo haunted house. The door opens briefly and a man pulls you in, closing up again quickly afterwards. And that’s it – you’re in. No cover charge. You’re an outlaw now.
I love an afterhours. A pub lock-in, whatever. The way it turns grown men into sneaky little kids, trying to get one over on Johnny Law. But I’ve never seen anything quite this flash. Because up the stairs, it’s all K-pop and drunk people chucking back soju and double fried chicken, about 30 of us in all. We’re talking full menu service till dawn – just buzz the waiters with those nifty little buttons on the tables. And you can tell it’s dodgy – the soju comes in Dixie cups, so that they can pretend it’s water in case of a raid. That, and everyone’s smoking indoors because why the fuck not. In for a penny etc.
Koreatown has long been the afterhours capital of Los Angeles. It’s like prohibition out here. It’s a wonder they’re not running whores out the back. But no one talks about it, because unless you’ve got a Korean mate, you’re not getting in. I wouldn’t be here now if I wasn’t with Danny Cho, a stand-up comedian who lives around the corner. One of the ugly truths about K-town is that non-Koreans are often non-grata, even during regular hours – they get turned away from restaurants and charged double at the bar. Racism, basically. But I’m Danny’s friend today, so all is well. He hands me a menu and laughs. “See anything you like?”
The whole thing’s in Korean.
Danny’s part of this 2nd generation cultural wave out here in K-town, the largest Korean population outside of Korea. There’s the band Far East Movement, the chef Roy Choi, the artist David Choe who did the Facebook offices, and the DJ Tokimonsta. Danny hasn’t made it yet, not like the other guys, but you never know – he’s making this project about K-town, and all the shit he got up to in his twenties. And you know he pushed the boat out. He’s only 31 and he’s already got a touch of gout. That’s fast work.
“Hey you mentioned whores,” he says, lighting up a Marlboro red. “It’s all possible in K-town, it just depends how much you want to spend.”
I’ve been up at 3am in LA before. And I wouldn’t recommend it – LA closes shop at two sharp. In fact, good luck finding a decent table after 10pm. I’m serious. In the early years, when I had the stamina to make a proper night of it, I can’t tell you how many times I roamed the streets in the zombie hours, for mile after fruitless mile looking for a snifter – the Grey Goose chase.
The only place I found was this rough old shack called Ducks out in the hood run by some ranting coke dealer – “I’m Duck, what the fuck you want?” He’d chop out the nonsense right there on the table – that kind of place. Two brands of beer, both out of a can, and that’s your lot.
But K-town’s another level. The full nine. Ten, even. And it was always the way, according to Danny – this whole world was right under my nose all along, I just didn’t know where to look.
That’s why Koreatown captures the essence of LA. It’s hidden in plain sight. When I first passed through it left me cold – it’s so foreign and vast, it feels unknowable. There’s the language thing, the disorienting scale and the overwhelming indifference to just how lost you actually are.
And that’s LA – she doesn’t reveal herself so easily. New York’s all cleavage and brass, she’ll pull you into her energy and carry you along her currents. Look at my skyscrapers, my bustle and flow, my yellow cabs. It doesn’t matter if you’re lost, or new in town, you can just stumble around and have a great time by accident.
LA’s not nearly so easy. She’s more your femme fatale, mysterious and full of secrets. Who knows what she’s really up to? There’s cleavage there, no doubt, but you’ll have to work for it, and it might take years. It’s all part of the glorious paradox of a city where even in the permanent sunshine so much remains obscured.
K-town’s close to the center of the city, geographically. And it’s new, like the city as a whole. Still finding its identity. When the Koreans started arriving in droves in the late sixties and seventies, they recreated a version of Seoul here, and they did it for themselves, not as an attraction for Americans. So yes, there’s a lot of driving ranges and 24hr spas and blaring Korean shop signs everywhere instead of trees – no one said this place was pretty.
But it also means no end of red meat, liquor and girls till dawn. “Korea’s basically a country built by men for men,” says Danny. “So you get some of that flavor here.”
Hence his point about money. Because there’s this full-on geisha spot close by, but that’s a tad spendy. Then there are the karaoke rooms for hire all over town where they provide a menu of escort girls to party with – “domi girls” they’re called (it means “helper”). Domis come in every varietal these days – not just Asian girls, but Russians, African-American, Hispanic…. United Colors of Domi. And if that’s all a bit much, there are the “talking bars” where if you buy a bottle, the barmaid in the micro mini will come and have a chat. I’m told that’s as far as it goes, but in K-town who knows?
Another time, Danny. This old dog needs some kip. So just as the sky starts to lighten, the first inklings of dawn, we leave. The door guy opens the slit again, to make sure the coast is clear, and quickly bundles us out where suddenly, all is silent once more. We’re just two guys standing inexplicably in an empty car park wondering what just happened.
“Don’t tell anyone the address,” says Danny.
Not a peep, hombre. Not a peep.