Koreatown

180s

Anthony Bourdain went to Koreatown and dined at Sizzler. Sure, he visited several other establishments, but that does not erase the fact that Anthony Bourdain, one of the world’s most famous chefs, sat down in a Sizzler to eat meatball tacos with a red-suited Dave Choe.

The second episode of “Parts Unknown” focuses on Los Angeles, specifically Koreatown. As with later episodes, Bourdain chooses to spend his first domestic episode highlighting immigration, the resulting culture blend, and the delicious results. As with ethnic neighborhoods throughout America, Koreatown is the result of generations of change and upheaval.

Here is a shamefully brief timeline of just a few of the events that led to Koreatown’s current manifestation as an artistic and culinary mecca:

  • In 1882 the United States reached a treaty with Korea, establishing mutual friendship and assistance. Notably, the treaty also paved the way for the first Korean immigrants in the USA.
  • Korean immigrants began arriving in Hawaii throughout the 1880s and in Los Angeles by the early 1900s.
  • Once in Los Angeles, Korean immigrants ran into RACIAL COVENANT LAWS….a pesky American tradition where communities bar property owners from selling or renting to anyone of a particular race
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  • Due to restricted housing, Korean-Americans were forced to remain in low income areas. This led to a uniquely Korean neighborhood, but also restricted the profits of Korean-owned restaurants, grocery stores, and other businesses.
  • In 1948 the Supreme Court ruled that racial covenant laws were unconstitutional and Korean-Americans spread out into surrounding areas.
  • The next two decades brought a sharp economic decline to the areas around Koreatown. Wealthy South Koreans seized the opportunity to buy cheap storefronts and Koreatown’s reach expanded once again.
  • Oh, I almost forgot to mention another great American tradition: immigration quotas! In 1921 the United States passed legislation to curb the number of newcomers in America. The law put a by-country quota on the number of immigrants accepted into the United States. Great, except, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, this system was rigged so the United States would welcome a high number of immigrants from Western and Northern Europe (what an uneducated person may refer to as “the good kind of immigrants”), fewer from Eastern Europe, and practically none from Asia and Africa (or as our uneducated friend may label them, “bottom of the barrel.”) This was, of course, fucking racist, and in 1965 immigration quotas were overturned as Americans focused on legislation more in tune with the movement for Civil Rights. Once again, Koreatown’s boundaries grew.
  • Oh hey, another fun note on immigration law. Those enlightened politicians from 1965 still didn’t have it in them to remove the ban on permitting gay immigrants, or as the language of the actual legislation put it “sexual deviants.” Also banned: the “mentally defective.” They would have to wait until 1990, when I was in fourth grade.
  • Koreatown was significantly effected by the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Many saw it as the culmination of rising tensions between Korean residents and African-Americans in surrounding communities. Most Americans became familiar with Koreatown from images of heavily armed shop owners on rooftops prepared to defend their lives and livelihoods. The riots left Koreatown forever altered, both physically, as much of the neighborhood was left in shambles, and philosophically, as residents grappled with issues such as Koreans’ place within the city, their relationship with the police, and their role in the greater story of America.

This is America. Look at the history of any vibrant neighborhood and you will find a similar story. Our story is slavery and genocide and segregation. For every action…a reaction. Progress is achieved, often at a seemingly glacial pace, as we react in horror to our worst moments. We scream THIS IS NOT WHO WE ARE with each injustice. But all progress is met with growing pains as the old guard kicks and screams….for every Obama, a Trump. Along the way we create places. Vibrant places where we exchange ideas, art, and food.

Anthony Bourdain took us to many of those places and introduced us to the innovators behind them. More often than not, these are people who do not fit the expectations of mainstream society. To American traditionalists, they are outsiders, not REAL Americans. To their families, they are traitors to their history, too influenced by the multi-ethnic trappings of America.

Roy Choi did not invent Korean tacos, but his Kogi food truck certainly popularized the concept. Choi is now considered an innovator of the gourmet food truck revolution and Mexican-Korean cuisine. Much of his truck’s success can be traced to his expert use of social media in promoting its location and menu. Choi would go on to open brick-and-mortar establishments and be featured in the TIME list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

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David Choe was 16 when his parents’ real estate business was burned down in the LA riots. He subsequently dropped out of high school to wander the world, hitchhiking, stealing, and creating street art along the way. By some fantastic combination of good fortune and ingenuity, Choe was commissioned to paint murals for Facebook’s start-up headquarters and accepted his pay in stock that was valued at 200 million in 2012. A portrait he painted for Barack Obama’s grassroots campaign even found its way to the White House.

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Bourdain lumps Choi and Choe into a group he labels “Bad Koreans.” They have turned their backs on the lives their families envisioned for them when they moved to this country. They are not doctors or lawyers. They are not even accountants. Roy Choi discusses how, even as a wealthy celebrity, he still struggles to explain his profession to older Koreans who cannot comprehend his life choices. But Choi and Choe were not content to settle for a stereotype of what it means to be American. They preferred to help evolve the definition.

The American Dream pursued by the Choes and Chois is real, but it is not a static one. What it means to be American changes with every upheaval, social movement, and racial interaction. We are a nation without a national language. Without a national religion. We are not one culture, we are many, endlessly reacting with one another, creating something new and unique. We are A-Frame, Roy Choi’s award-winning Hawaiian soul-food restaurant built in a converted IHOP. We are Anthony Bourdain and David Choe, two equally brilliant and troubled souls, sharing meatball tacos and 40’s at Sizzler. THIS is the REAL America.

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