LOS ANGELES, April 2013—Good Korean kids grow up to be doctors or lawyers. There are expectations—but what if you’re a bad Korean? What if you become a chef or an artist?
We traveled to Los Angeles to explore Koreatown and what it means to be Korean-American. I meet up with a “bad Korean,” Roy Choi, a chef who managed to harness the strange and terrible power of social media to alert customers where to find his much-loved food trucks. He dropped out of law school, trained at the CIA and Le Bernardin, and then started his ever-growing empire with a purely LA invention: Korean tacos.
Dave Choe, an artist and another “bad Korean,” introduced me to Sizzler, which holds an unexpectedly cherished position in the collective memories of many second-generation Korean-Americans. It is a world to explore incongruous combinations without shame or guilt. Free of criticism from snarkologists, because there are no snarkologists at Sizzler. It is Choe who introduces me to a strange and wonderful invention: the meatball taco.
It’s in part bad Koreans who are changing the face of LA’s Koreatown, which had to be rebuilt after the riots of ‘92, when the area was left to deal with the violence on its own, with no help from local police. When the riots were over, only a quarter of Korean-American businesses were left. What we see today is mostly new, and incorporates not just Korean culture, but Filipino, Thai, Samoan, Central American, Mexican, and Bangladeshi.
From a traditional Korean restaurant that’s stuck in the 70s to halo-halo at Filipino chain restaurant Jollibee, to the Mexican and Korean dishes Dave Choe’s mother, Jane, was kind enough to make for me, I don’t know if I’m any smarter about what it means to be Korean-American than I was when I came to K-town to discover a strange and fabulous and delicious slice of America I had never known was there, but I’m trying to figure it out.