To Bike or Not to Bike: Dinner in Koreatown

In most cities, walking and driving give you entirely different perspectives of a street. In Los Angeles, most of the stores are geared to attract the motorists, the signs in colors and heights for the driver to want to stop. Most people drive to wherever they need to go, even if it is under a mile, so there is little need to make the pedestrian aware. If a person is on the street, chance are, they just got out of their car and already know where they are going.
Some friends of mine and I decided to have dinner in Koreatown one evening. These friends are urban adventurers—earlier that day they had taken their bikes on the Metro and then ridden something like 20 miles to give their visiting Portlandfriend a tour. They constantly are asking me to join them on bike trips, but I always decline—there is something about bicycling in LA that is on par to swimming in a bayou known to have alligators. Not that I am against biking, it’s just that the drivers are too unaware and there is not enough room on the actual street for the bikers to make it safe. To make it worse, most bicyclists (although not these particular friends) refuse to wear helmets and having once lived in the land of moralistically aggressive bicyclists (aka Berkeley), I saw too many near fatalities due to the bicyclists’ disregard for traffic laws.
Of course, I shouldn’t paint all bicyclists this way, but given the option, I’d much rather walk. I enjoy the pacing of walking—the sidewalk somehow in my possession—and the brisk momentum it creates. I don’t really stroll—I learned early on to be a fast walker, a trait inherited from my Navy officer grandfather passed on through my father—and once I start, I become quickly lost in my thoughts. As long as I don’t have to carry anything or am wearing difficult shoes, I’ll almost always choose to walk as short distance rather than drive or take public transit.
But that evening, walking was not an option—I live over 20 minutes away from Koreatown if driving—so I borrowed my dad’s truck and headed over. “What? You drove a truck?” proclaimed the Portlandfriend, “You know I have to hate you because of how much energy it wastes.”
We were sitting in this little “gastro pub” called Beer Belly off of Western, watching all the strange dates unfolding on that Saturday night. I had a nasty cold and didn’t feel like drinking beer, but several of the guys we were with were already downing their second and third. They were waiting anxiously for their duck fat fries, that had a bit of “duck confit” thrown on top, although it was more like shredded duck that somehow had missed the sandwich or other vehicle it would have gone better with. I went to try one and was told to make sure to avoid the raspberry mustard—it was “sickenly sweet”.
For a place that was lauded for its menu not being typical Korean food, they owners must have decided that the only other option was to deep fry everything. The portions were small from what we could see and overpriced—apparently the table next to us had order one of everything from the menu before I had arrived.
My one friend and I decided we should go somewhere else for a proper dinner and as she looked up somewhere more suitable, we noticed her boyfriend draining all the duck fat from the paper the fries had been on. The little drops glistening on his beard, we realized how drunk he’d managed to become. Somehow that third beer must have been the fifth. We decided on a restaurant and it being a mile away decided to walk, hoping it would take the edge of some of the guys’ drunkenness.

It wasn’t as if the neighborhood was dangerous or what not, but I quickly realized it was not suitable for walking. We had headed down 6th Street and found all sorts of interesting people on the sidewalk. There were the people walking home from the Metro stop, the older Korean couples out for a stroll, and the random people like us who had decided to walk to their next destination. They were not the problem. Instead, it was our favorite of course–the homeless man on the corner without any pants on. As we walked by, we realized he was talking to two other homeless guys with questionable pants statuses. We all ran across the street just as the light was turning red to avoid finding out more.
The next several blocks were dimly lit and we started to realize it was going to be a cold night. We finally came to the next few blocks with more restaurants and shops. It took us awhile to find the one restaurant, Ham Ji Park, the signs mostly in Korean and difficult to read from the same side of the street. At last we found it, only to have to wait half an hour for a table. We settled into the weird hallway where the bathroom was to wait along with several Korean families and a Mexican family. Two of the guys, included the drunk one, wandered over to Ice Kiss, the boba/ice cream shop next door, to watch the end of a basketball game and grab a coffee.
When we finally got our table, we settled down and started to look at the menu, only to have the guys be distracted by the girls in the Soju ads. “Give me a menu so at least we can order. Then you can look at whatever girls you want,” I said. I was hungry and impatient, quickly devolving into a state of hanger. “You might as well order for all of us,” one said, “since you seem to know the most about Korean food.”
I quickly stated that Korean food was one of the ones I was least familiar with—despite all the great places in LA, it is not something I normally gravitate towards for dinner–but I would do my best. However, I had had a few strange experiences in Koreatown over the years thanks to some of my Berkeleyfriends going to bars and clubs there. There was one particularly memorable night when we had gone to Bohemia, ironically across the street from Ham Ji Park, and when asking for a table, the waitress assumed we were with the only other non-Koreans in the restaurant. She suddenly was pushing tables together with theirs to add space for us. It took us a second to realize what was going on, but we joked about it with the guys at that table. The guys invited us to go to a party, but eventually ended up at what and was really some USCkid’s dorm room.
Ham Ji Park is one of those fairly typical Korean barbeque places where there is the grill on the table for certain items and a little buzzer at an end, used as a signal to the waitstaff you are ready to order or need their attention. Of course, ours didn’t seem to be working—“It’s because we’re white,” one of the guys joked—eventually we got the waiter and I listed off what we wanted—an order of spare ribs, the spicy kimchi stew with pork, octopus with noodles, and a salad. They brought out the various pickles, rice, and some iced barley green tea for our table as well.
We dove into the food, which was remarkable good—it was simple, but the mixtures of sweet, salty, sour, and savory somehow all was perfect together—I’ve had a lot of mediocre to bad Korean food and it was nice to be somewhere where they made up for it. Unfortunately the service was not very good—“It’s because we’re white” was the joke over and over—but we noticed the other tables seemed to be having some trouble as well. We finally paid our bill and headed out into the cold, searching for our next adventure, the pirate-themed bar, The Crazy Hook. But I took a turn too soon and besides, my cold was beginning to hit me full force. We walked back to where the bikes and my truck was and I drove off into the LA night, recklessly burning fuel while driving a hulking beast that was way too much fun. I remembered why I didn’t bike—why would I when I could drive?
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