If you missed the Los Angeles Korean Festival, don't worry. You can still catch the Garden Grove Korean Festival coming up on October 11 & 12. Cat and I will be there too!)
Every year, Los Angeles' vibrant and eclectic Koreatown holds a festival celebrating Korean culture and cuisine. Its purpose is to bridge the gap between the tightly-knit Korean community and the city's other diverse ethnic groups. Wildly popular, the event regularly draws tens of thousand of visitors, clogging the area's already congested streets and turning a normally placid park into a bustling open-air market.
(Bin after bin of glorious pickled vegetables.)
Tempted by tales of the fiery delights that awaited me, I ventured from behind the Orange Curtain to take part in the 35th Los Angeles Korean Festival with local friends Kimchee, Kare Bear, and Kare Bear's vivacious girlfriend, Debian. The food alone was worth the two hour drive through LA's twisting freeway system.
Aisle after aisle of crowded stalls, each spewing forth clouds of fragrant steam and smoke, met my traffic-glazed eyes. Giant pots bursting with juicy mussels and whelks tempted me with their marine aromas. Bubbling vats of Ddeokbokki, a lurid fish cake and rice dumpling stew, promised fiery-sweet delights in their crimson depths. Row after row of crackling brown chickens turned over glowing embers as numerous grills and griddles seared Bulgogi (Marinated Pork) and Kalbi (Cross-Cut Beef Ribs) to charred perfection. Hooting like a cranked up hamster, I dashed from one vendor to the next in a frenzied quest to try every tasty treat.
My frenetic meanderings soon tried the patience of my companions. Feeling the need to sedate me, Kimchee took me to an entire section of the festival devoted to alcoholic beverages and began my treatment. He started with Bek Soju, a ginseng and herb-infused spirit whose gentle trip down my throat culminated in a firebomb in my stomach.
When the Bek Soju failed to dent my food-fueled enthusiasm, Debian gleefully suggested trying the Makgeolli, an unfiltered milky rice wine served in deadly portions.
Deceptively smooth, my 20-ounce cup of Makgeolli surprised me like a 20-pound lump hammer to the head. Happily woozy, I quietly followed the others around as they foraged for dinner.
(Behind the scenes at a food stall.)
According to Debian, who lives just a few blocks away from the festival site, the food stalls at the Los Angeles Korean Festival are mostly run by families who can pull in over $10-20k per night. The food reflects its home-style origins. Many of the dishes are easily prepared, yet delicious, drinking snacks.
(Kare Bear and I were reminded of roadside food stands and night markets in Taiwan.)
Laden with our treats, we found an out-of-the-way spot and dug in. Soondae, a pork blood and noodle sausage, was surprisingly mild. A liberal dash of rosy shrimp salt kicked it up, along with the intestines and liver that accompanied it. Thick skewers of Odeng (Simmered Fish Cake) were heartier in texture and flavor than their Japanese counterparts. Rice cakes brushed with Gochujang (Sweet Chili Paste) and roasted over coals, were delicate and chewy beneath their savory shells. A variety of grilled meat and corn, Ddeokbokki, and other sinful treats all met their ends on our rickety folding table.
After our food frenzy was satisfied, we set out to explore the rest of the festival's shops, demonstration stalls, and exhibits. In addition to vendors selling beauty products and foodstuffs, we also found jewelry, comforters, imitation designer handbags, and water purification systems. The selection of goods was bizarre and fascinating.
There was a huge stage featuring musical acts and what I think was a karaoke contest. There were also speeches I couldn't understand from people I assume were organizers and dignitaries.
I stopped to have my picture taken with Koreatown celebrity and Kollaboration producer, Paul Kim, who was giving out CDs from one of his shows. He was also selling cotton candy.
As the night deepened, we decided it was time to head home. While the festival was still in full swing, we were done. The human body can only consume so much.
But, Los Angeles wasn't quite through with us. As we hiked back to the car, we were distracted by an unmistakable smell wafting from a dark street corner. A lone Mexican woman labored over a makeshift cart, frying up the city's signature Bacon-Wrapped Hot Dogs on an old sheet pan. A crowd of fellow fairgoers stood by, eagerly wolfing down the porky tubes. Try as I might, I just couldn't muster up the stomach space.
You win, Koreatown. You win. This time. But, I'll be back.
Los Angeles Korean Festival - The closest I've come to real Asian street food in the States. When the sun has set, and the only lighting comes from the muted yellow glow of streetlights and halogen bulbs, I can almost believe I'm enjoying hawker food back in Taiwan. However, the sweat on my brow and the fire in the mouth can only be the taste of Korea. It hurts so good.
Los Angeles Korean Festival
(Last weekend of September annually)
3250 san Marino St.
Los Angeles, CA 90006