How Oaklandish Can You Be?

How Oaklandish Can You Be?

Of kimchee, ethnicity, and the mental state known as Koreatown.

For a young Korean-American growing up against the backdrop of Midwestern cornfields, a chemical factory, and, of course, white people, Koreatown wasn’t even a glimmer in the distance and wouldn’t be for at least a few decades. I don’t think I’d be wrong in saying most people in America circa the 1960s didn’t know anything about Korea. (Even though Americans had just fought a war there. But no one talks about that one.)

Back then, the humble and slightly embarrassing food of my youth—barbecued carefully on the back patio of our Michigan ranch house on a Farberware electric grill, or kept in big glass jars in our two-car garage—was secretly loved yet, for the most part, publicly secret.

But that was then.

Now, not only does the United States encompass a number of Korean communities, large and small—Los Angeles having the largest concentration of Koreans outside of Korea—but Korean culture has leaped splashily onto the global stage. Known worldwide for its addictively popular soap operas, box office–smashing films, and K–pop stars who tour with the likes of the Jonas Brothers, the Korean wave—hallyu—is reaching all corners.

And then there’s the food.

In 2009, The Wall Street Journal called Korean “the new hot cuisine.” From Korean-influenced entrées at The French Laundry and the upcoming PBS television series, Kimchi Chronicles, to Roy Choi, the L.A.-based king of the Korean taco truck phenomenon, Korean food has been making its way onto menus high and low. There’s even a new Korean steak special at California Pizza Kitchen.

Comfort food: Chicken wings and soju cocktails at Dan Sang Sa on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland. Photo by Lori Eanes.

“You could say that Korean food is trendy right now, but to me a trend is something that comes, gets really popular, and goes away,” says celebrity chef Chris Cosentino of San Francisco’s Incanto, in a recent interview for the YumSugar website. “Korean food isn’t going to go away. It’s like bacon. People aren’t going to stop eating bacon. Ever.”

Koreatown is here now. Not only in actual places but also in the cultural consciousness, unforeseen by me as a girl when the largest group of Koreans I ever saw was at Korean picnics in Detroit’s Kensington Park, where—from all over the state—we gathered to play softball and consume Ruffles, watermelon, and Pepsi alongside our kimchee, rice, and bulgogi. Today in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Koreans are also few, we still have our own distinctly Northern California version of Koreatown—funky, down-home, and Oaklandish.


the evolution of Korean pop culture and the growing craze for Korean food parallel the slow but steadily quickening rise of an ad hoc Koreatown—aka K-town—in Oakland, mainly in the newly happening parts of the city.

The officially designated neighborhood extends on Telegraph Avenue from 20th to 35th streets, home to Koreana Plaza’s supermarket and housewares store, Korean bars, restaurants, wig shops, and a combination bakery and print shop, all cheek by jowl with a vast multiculti spectrum: Cory’s Adult Superstore, the Yagerbet Ethiopian Market, Braids by Betty, Marwa Halal Market, House of Soul, Zion Market, and Sami African Imports, not to mention the hip art galleries that have made Art Murmur (the sprawling monthly street party) a genuine scene.

Stoneware staple: Pyung Chung Soft Tofu House’s bibimbap, a mixture of sizzling hot rice, vegetables, and meat or tofu. Photo by Lori Eanes.

Unofficially, Koreatown expands beyond these borders to more upscale territory: Temescal abounds with Korean restaurants near favorites like Pizzaiola and Doña Tomás. There are also outposts on Broadway, Grand Avenue, and 14th Street. A delicious irony is that it’s not the new, hot Korea taking Oakland by storm, but old-school mom-and-pop Korea. Oakland’s Korean culture—mainly food—is completely unlike the glittery Korean renaissance happening elsewhere. It’s low-key, regular, and real.

During a recent Art Murmur at Rock Paper Scissors Collective at 23rd and Telegraph Avenue, Director Ara Jo, who is Korean-American, and Jen Zoom, previous director and current “wild card” (meaning she fills in wherever she’s needed), banter about the one and only large Korean grocery store in the East Bay, which is right down the street.

Jen Zoom: “We go to Koreana Plaza.”

Ara Jo: “When we’re desperate, we go there.”

Zoom: “We still go there.”

Jo: “I’m from L.A. I’m really spoiled. I know how lacking the Korean scene is here.”

When Zoom protests, Jo admits she prefers the Korean food in Los Angeles, but then backs off: “We love the people. In L.A., you don’t have to leave California to be in Korea. [Here] it’s different from L.A. because it’s a smaller community bordered by other cultural communities so we have to work together more.”

Seoul treatment: Acupressure foot massage at PSY Health Town Korean Spa in San Leandro. Photo by Lori Eanes.

“I go to Dan Sung Sa [a Korean bar on Telegraph],” says Adam Hatch, owner of Hatch Gallery on 23rd Street. “When people go in there, they don’t know what’s going on. People don’t normally order dried fish as an appetizer. I always order the special: kimchee pancake and a bottle of soju [the traditional Korean liquor typically made from rice]. And the corn cheese is amazing! Whatever genius Korean mind came up with that—put Velveeta, corn, and a shit ton of butter together? Amazing.”

Corn cheese, it seems, is emerging as a Korean super food. Basically, it’s a snack to go along with alcoholic beverages. Many of the Yelpers talking about Playground, a new, cool Korean eatery and bar in San Francisco, are all about the corn cheese.

In fact, Korean food is how most people interact with Korean culture. “It’s the food, that’s where it starts,” Zoom says.

When Oakland sculptor Jeremiah Jenkins comes to Art Murmur, he goes to Koreana Plaza. “I get seaweed salad and meat for BBQ. It’s delicious. [Korean] is my favorite kind of food. It’s simple, flavorful. I like the meats.”

The myth: Korean food is all about the meat. True, bulgogi and kalbi, marinated beef grilled to a savory, charbroiled deliciousness, are generally the main event. But Korean food features a multitude and magnitude of vegetables. Corn cheese notwithstanding, it is quite healthy and vegetarian-friendly.

For instance, Korean restaurants traditionally serve panchan to accompany a meal—small plates of cooked or marinated vegetables and kimchee, but also tofu, dried fish, and bean dishes. At my birthday dinner last month at a Koreatown restaurant, I warned a friend, who had never had Korean food before, to go easy on the panchan: “The food is coming. These are just the condiments.”

California cuisine: A customer checks out the kimchee case at Koreana Plaza Grocery Store on Telegraph in Oakland. Photo by Lori Eanes.

“Right,” she said. “Like ketchup.” And kept eating.

It’s not unusual, in fact, to have a dozen or more of these little plates on the table, leading another friend trying Korean food for the first time to murmur, “Wow. I feel sorry for the dishwasher.”

An aspect of Korean food that challenges some novices is the smell of kimchee. The staple pickled cabbage dish is a pungent blend of garlic, ginger, scallions, and sometimes fish sauce. When I was growing up, many Koreans, if they could afford it, kept their kimchee in a second refrigerator in the basement or in the garage. Korean friends of ours had a sticker affixed to their basement refrigerator: “Fight Air Pollution. Ban Kimchee.”

But this stinky side dish is a nutritional powerhouse. A health-conscious friend of mine grills me: “These are fermented, right? They have beneficial bacteria? They’re good for you?” Yes, yes, and yes.

Another myth: Korean food is excessively spicy. Yet as restaurants cater to more mainstream tastebuds, that no longer seems to be the case—and Americans aren’t the only ones who prefer milder meals. “Korean food today in Korea is not like it was 20 years ago,” says Kyu Hyun Kim, associate professor of Japanese and Korean History at U.C. Davis. “Young people don’t eat kimchee anymore. If you ask any Korean who immigrated to America before the 1980s, they will tell you an anecdote about how they miss kimchee. That is completely untrue of young people today. Subjectively speaking, the food is not as hot, much blander, and less salty.”

One of the most popular Korean dishes is bibimbap, roughly translated as mixed rice. Traditionally served in an earthenware or stone bowl, sizzling hot if you want, bibimbap is a mixture of rice, various seasoned vegetables, and meat or tofu topped with a fried egg and served with a hot and sweet red pepper sauce (kochujang).

Then there are some surprises. “Believe it or not, the black goat soup [is popular],” says Ryan Yoo, manager of Sahn Maru restaurant in the Temescal neighborhood, featured on Check Please, Bay Area last year. “Really. Once people taste it, they come back for more.”

Hot stuff: Kimchee (pickled cabbage) at Koreana Plaza Grocery Store. Photo by Lori Eanes.

Koreans are also big drinkers (I can say that because I’m Korean), and many appetizers are made to accompany beer or soju, the traditional Korean liquor typically made from rice. A favorite tastes-good-with-spirits treat: Korean pancakes, crispy-on-the-outside mung bean or rice flour pancakes with vegetable, seafood, or oyster filling, served with a soy dipping sauce.

Fruity or yogurty soju cocktails are all the rage at Korean bars and restaurants, although beer may trump these fancier drinks. Most places serve the two Korean varieties of brew: Hite and OB, both of which go well with spicy, salty food. Or, vice versa.


Oakland Koreatown also boasts places like Kim’s Backyard, a dive bar on Telegraph Avenue, with sports-themed decor, a great jukebox, and no inkling of Koreanness except for the 60-something proprietess and her fellow bartenders. The bar used to be a great place for an impromptu dance party in the wee hours amongst the mostly African-American regulars who, as often as not, got the party started themselves. The owner would come out and join you, clapping her hands above her head and snapping her fingers to the tunes. Now, such nights of random frivolity aren’t as frequent because the Art Murmurers have discovered it. This, too, is Koreatown.

In fact, Koreatown may be more a state of mind than an actual place. Officially, Koreatown Northgate—the stretch of Telegraph from 20th to 35th streets—is a community benefit district (CBD). As in a homeowners association, the 167 Koreatown property owners in the district contribute money (in total, about $280,000 a year) to ensure the area stays safe and clean. But Koreatown is larger than the community benefit district, clarifies Alex Hahn, the longtime Oakland real estate developer whom most credit with singlehandedly and singlemindedly creating Koreatown in 2007. “The CBD is the CBD, Koreatown is Koreatown,” he explains.

After the Oakland City Council voted to approve the district in 2007, many residents and business owners were piqued about the designation of their neighborhood as Koreatown. How could this area with its many different ethnic groups including Middle Eastern, Pakistani, African-American, Latino, and other Asians be claimed by just one group?

Koreatown chow: Hip Oakland restaurants like Dan Sang Sa, above, cater to fans of trendy corn cheese snacks and soju cocktails. Photo by Lori Eanes.

“I know more Pakistanis than Koreans,” says Hatch, the gallery owner. He has Korean friends from the art world, he says, but “a lot of the local places, I don’t know how to access, like the [Korean] pool hall. I like to play pool but I never go in there.” Hatch says the neighborhood is multicultural and, in his view, the district is just trying to claim it because of the attention it’s gotten from Art Murmur. “You can’t say this neighborhood is this way, or that, because it’s so diverse,” he says. “That is so, like, in the past.”

Developer Hahn insists that the main reason for creating the community benefit district was to make the neighborhood safe. “I don’t like to make it only Korean people,” he says. “A lot of non-Koreans invest, have stores; that’s the uniqueness. It’s multicultural, rather than strictly Korean.”

However, he says, the Korean link was essential for funding purposes. “I try to promote Oakland, to promote Telegraph,” he says. “Oakland has perception of crime [so] we have to have safe streets, that’s why I create CBD.”

In fact, most agree that Oakland’s profile needed raising, and it’s happening now, with new restaurants, bars, galleries, and shops opening up with increasing regularity—perhaps partly due to Hahn’s efforts. There is now security at the extremely crowded Art Murmur, courtesy of the Koreatown Northgate neighborhood association. Hahn has even bigger plans for the future—he’d like to see Koreatown and related development extend to the whole of Oakland. When Jerry Brown was mayor, Hahn traveled to Los Angeles with him to attract Korean-American investors to Oakland.

Hahn is no fan of the typically downscale vibe of Oakland’s Koreatown. “We have to upgrade our Korean restaurants,” he says. “We cannot introduce new customers [if it’s] so old-fashioned. We have to have all different types. First of all, friendly shopping [and dining] free from the crime; then people will bring more investment to Oakland.”


“I love Oakland,” says Elaine Kim, professor of Asian-American studies at U.C. Berkeley. “It’s unself-consciously multiracial and culturally diverse—not for tourists, but for residents.” Kim has a unique view of the Korean presence in the community because she remembers it from back in the day—the East Bay BK or “Before Koreatown.”

“When I first came here in 1968, there were two Korean restaurants in Berkeley—the Korean Inn [on Gilman Street, where present-day Lalime’s is], owned by B.Y. Choy who wrote Koreans in America,” she says. “He was hired during the ’40s to teach Japanese at U.C. Berkeley. Because Korea had been colonized by Japan, Koreans of his generation were often fluent in Japanese. He offered to teach Korean, which was considered very marginal, for free around 1948. U.C. Berkeley offered the first Korean class in the U.S., I think. He was Red-baited during the McCarthy era and had to support himself with the restaurant.”

The one other Korean restaurant was Sorabol on Grand Avenue, operated by a woman named Young-ran Hong, who arrived with her husband in the early ’60s, according to Kim. They were international students—Korean immigration was restricted until the early 1970s, after discriminatory immigration laws were liberalized, Kim says. Hong was such a good cook that other students from Korea flocked to eat at her place. “She was so creative,” Kim says. “She started the all-you-can-eat buffets, marketed kimchee to Safeway, went to the Gilroy Garlic Festival with it. She opened the Korean restaurant at the food court in Emeryville; the Korean food there started with her.”

Back in Hong’s day, says Kim, “Most people didn’t know much about Korea, Korean language, Korean food. Hong introduced and helped popularize it in the East Bay.”


that unknown Korea was the Korea of my parents, who left their country by ship in 1959 after the Japanese occupation and the Korean War, in one of the first waves of Korean immigration to America.

Things are different now. When my family visited Korea several years ago, my mother couldn’t find even small traces of her old neighborhood in the maze of newness, and my father’s boyhood haunts in Seoul had turned into a fashionable shopping district.

Korea is experiencing an unprecedented period of wealth and stability, says Kyu Kim of U.C. Davis, and that has given young people more confidence. “[Korean] people born after the 1980s have a completely different view of what it means to be Korean,” he says. “They don’t think of themselves as victims of history, always vigilant of countries coming in and taking over even though they’re still taught that in school.”

Cruising through the streets of Seoul with my family, I could see aspiration in the names of the cars—Equus, Chairman, Executive.

“Koreans are not a bland people. Whatever they do, they have to put all their energy into it,” Kim says. “When they fight with each other, they do so with extreme vigor and hatefulness and don’t easily forgive enemies. But that’s all changing.”

Today, he says, Koreans have become more tolerant of diversity, and in many ways the difference between Koreans and Korean-Americans is collapsing.


“Koreans in Korea are becoming health-conscious,” says Kim. “They still drink too much, but it’s no longer the convention for people to hang around and go to barbecue beef places and stuff themselves. The most popular preference for younger women these days is fried chicken. Many varieties of fried chicken.”

So Koreans love fried chicken—who doesn’t? In 2007, The New York Times ran a story about Korean fried chicken that was at the top of the most emailed list for several days.

Oakland resident Rob Vincent, former owner of a paper recycling company, has traveled to Korea many times on business, and searches out good Korean food when he’s home. “A place you have to go is Oriental BBQ Chicken Town,” he tells me. “It’s a shady-looking building. There are double doors facing Telegraph but they’re locked. You have go in back where the parking lot is. They have fried chicken . . . to die for.”

Like Vincent, everyone who knows Koreatown has a favorite.

Kyu Kim: “Pyung Chang Tofu House. They don’t try to make food that is currently popular in Korea. They don’t make generic Korean food. Their panchan is excellent.”

Elaine Kim: “Sura. She does a lot of vegetables, a lot of creative, colorful natural ingredients, attuned to a vegan, vegetarian, health-conscious Bay Area crowd. No MSG. The panchan is very colorful.”

Jen Zoom: “The Casserole House. It’s family-run. The owner is always there and she mothers you. If you ask about her kimchee, she brings out all her kimchee to show you. Plus the food is really good.”

While Korean restaurants are popping up all over the East Bay, there is more to explore besides the food. Next to Koreana Plaza is a housewares store where a friend bought me plastic kitty slippers, a kitty apron, and a kitty throw pillow for my birthday. You can also purchase doggie slippers with a gingham background, and any number of kitchen and bath appliances and gadgets.

And don’t forget the Korean scrub mitts—Koreans are legendary for scrubbing. When I was a child, my mom vigorously rubbed all the dead skin off me at bath time, and my dad would recount childhood stories of being taken to the public baths where his mother would “peel all his skin off.”

The most notable of local Korean spas is PSY Health Town Korean Spa in San Leandro, where you can get the full-on scrub treatment. Be forewarned—it’s not glamorous or soothing. Recently, at a party, I met San Francisco resident Kelly Saturno fresh from receiving what she referred to as “the oil change of spa experiences.” But her skin was soft like a baby’s and she was glowing, a walking advertisement for one of the finer attractions of the East Bay’s burgeoning Koreatown.

When I was growing up, if you wanted kimchee, you had to make your own. My mom’s was a soft pinkish-orange because it was made from round cabbage and bright red radishes instead of Napa and white Daikon, which weren’t available. Now, I can get kimchee in a jar at Safeway. The manager at Koreana Plaza says 60 percent of his customers are non-Korean and at Sahn Maru restaurant, it’s 80 percent. My Korea is history—Koreatown is now. It’s happening in Oakland. Let’s eat.

The Koreatown Northgate CultureFest celebrates the neighborhood Saturday, May 14, 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., along Telegraph Avenue between 24th and 27th streets. For info:

Amy Moon is a writer, editor, and content strategist living in the East Bay.

Faces of the East Bay