3451 West 6th Street (in the Chapman Plaza)
Los Angeles, CA 90020
We were going to a 10 o’clock show at the Wiltern, so we planned on eating somewhere nearby. Newly opened Opus Bar and Grill was on our short list; since the restaurant and the venue are in the same block, we could park, eat, and walk to the concert. But for some reason, Opus Grill, a classy Manhattan style steakhouse, sounded a little too stuffy for our mood that night. We were feelin’ a little rock & roll. Wilshire and Western is the heart of K-town. Because I very rarely get to eat Korean food these days it’s a great opportunity to get in a good dose of kimchee. Not wanting to annoy our concert-mates with noxious barbecue fumes in our hair and clothes (as if the kimchee wouldn’t knock them over), we opted for a café.
Though the word is “café,” Korean cafés are very different from American cafés. The American version is either a coffee house that serves a few pastries and maybe sandwiches, or it’s a very broad category of restaurants that go from the higher end like Café Pinot within the Patina empire to the lower end like Café 50s, a diner and soda fountain that serves you free if you wear pajamas on your birthday (or something like that). No, the K-café’s American counterpart is really the restaurant/lounge. While they do serve food, cafés are more of a liquid lounge, where alcohol is purchased for the entire table by the bottle, and food is merely an afterthought.
Waaaaay back in my younger days, cafes were an oft-visited place once I moved to LA and sort of re-discovered my Korean-ness. But going to cafes and clubs week after week for an entire summer in order to make up for “lost” time was actually doing myself a disservice – overdose. It reversed itself to somewhat of an extreme “West” Supremacism: not only did I reject all things Asian, but I wouldn’t even physically go east of the 405. Accordingly, I swore off Koreatown unless it was absolutely necessary (read: family gatherings only).
But this leaves me at a bit of a loss when it comes to picking something Korean for food. Koreatown goes through ownership changes, remodels, re-namings, closing, and openings faster than a new mother schedules an appointment with a plastic surgeon when she sees her baby girl without sahng-kah-puhl (eyelid crease). So having to choose a cafe in my old ‘hood that has an extreme makeover every few months, I resorted to the only cafe I could remember and that I had heard was still around, Bohemian.
It’s on the corner of 6th and Alexandria in the fairly well-known Chapman Plaza that has several other restaurants and cafes, cosmetics and CD boutiques, and a no-rae-bahng. If the Chapman Plaza also had a nightclub, then it could possibly be a one-stop nightlife destination. Like all things Korean, even the nightlife has customs. Similar to a proper pub crawl, a whole, long evening out on Koreatown is like a “ghee-cha,” or train of spots strung together, becoming increasingly hazy with each “cha.” Each car represents a different type of night-time spots, that unfold in a specific order. The evening kicks off relatively early at il-cha, the first car of the train, which is a cafe. Now becoming more popular in L.A.’s Koreatown are westernized bars (still Korean, though) that serve as il-cha.
After a bit of food and proper marination at an il-cha spot, the move is to ee-cha, “second car,” where the pace accelerates at a “nah-ee-tuh” (that’s “night” with a Korean accent, but is also the word that Koreans use for nightclubs) or a high-energy bar. At about two or three a.m., it’s off to sahm-cha, third car, to sober up with some yook-gae-jahng or suh-lung-tahng at a late- or all-night restaurant. If you still have juice, then sah-cha is no-rae-bahng to let the food soak up all that alcohol whilst belting out either 15-year-old Korean love songs or Summer Lovin’ from Grease. I’ve never made it beyond sah-cha in Koreatown. Now a proper pub crawl in Hollywood or Santa Monica – uh, that’s another story ;)
Only our il-cha, Bohemian, has food worthy of a post. Detail about subsequent chas is reserved to post on another day.
Bohemian has gone through an ownership change in the the last year, and thankfully, it underwent some fairly extensive re-modeling. They have now divided the space with a glass wall draped with small white Christmas lights and doorway into a back bar and front lounge. It's sort of sexier, clubbier, more updated and modern. When we walk in, it still has the extreme low-lighting typical of cafes, but now it has *oooooh* black lights around the perimeter of the ceiling. But, you wouldn’t notice the black lighting if it weren’t for the tennis-playing ski bunnies. Oops, I mean servers. Girls, who can’t be more than 21 or 22 years old are dressed in all-white – flirty, ruffled micro mini skirts, tiny tops, white hair adornments, glitter on their faces in all the right places, and of course, knee-high white boots. Upon closer inspection (because I’m a girl and I’m Korean, so of course I fully checked the girls out), they’re not really boots – they’re sort of like leggings that flare at the bottom to cover their little white tennies. Kind of skanky, but in an innocent ski bunny sort of way, I guess.
Perhaps one of the reasons I started hating Koreatown back then was that I was treated so poorly for using English. But the times, they are a’changin’ and business owners have wised up to the potential of a growing non-Korean clientele. Just before we left the cafe for the concert, a group of clubbish sort of guys speaking Spanish sat down at the table next to us. Our server has massive attitude as she prances back and forth like a second-rate runway model, but when she comes to our table, I realize it’s all an act – she’s quite friendly. I don’t feel stupid asking her in English where the soju is on the menu, especially since her English is as good as her Korean.
Yes, I couldn’t find the soju, because it was hidden on a menu that looked like it had been home laser-printed on pages ripped out of Maxim - half-naked girls with half-hanging-open mou
ths in high heels. It’s probably cheaper than hiring live models in bikinis giving away Bohemian imprinted bottle openers and peddling Hite (a Korean branded beer). I don’t know; maybe it does it for the guys, but the girls on the menu definitely didn’t make me want to unroll a wad of cash for $250 bottle service of Crown Royal.
If I were with first-timers, I would have ordered what I call the sissy soju. It comes in a carafe mixed with 7-up, some sort of juice or other sticky sweet drink, and is basically diluted down to the strength of kiddie cough syrup. They come in flavors like strawberry, lemon, watermelon, cucumber, and yoguet (mixed with a Korean soft drink that probably has no yogurt in it at all). Honestly, I’d rather do shots of the cough syrup than subject myself to a concoction that gives a hangover worse than straight shots of no-name tequila. If, also, I were with a larger group of people, I would have ordered a bottle of Ketel One (which, if I remember correctly, costs $25 at the store, but is marked up to $250 in the cafe), but no, it was just us, so we stuck with a small bottle of Chamisul.
Chamisul? Stupid. Stupidstupidstupidstupid.
The reason soju is mixed with all that stupid crap is that served straight-up, it tastes like alcohol. No, not like crisp and delicious vodka alcohol. Like crisp and disinfecting rubbing alcohol. Soju is not known for purity in distillation. It’s the Korean equivalent of moonshine, and it is harsh. I will go on to say that while sissy soju gives you a bad hangover, straight up soju will put you into a walking coma for two days. No wonder there are at least four chahs in a night on the (Korea)town to sober up.
Bohemian’s menu, aside from the barely-legal porn, is fairly typical. Given that we had a whole bottle of poison, we needed a little more than ahn-joo, things that are meant to be snacked on while drinking. Where Americans pop beer nuts and pretzels, Koreans nosh on platters of fresh cut fruit or mahl-eun ahn-joo, all sorts of dried things like oh-jing-uh (strips of dried squid), gim (toasted seaweed), or rice crackers. There was one page of Asian fusion-y items that were named after signs of the zodiac, with no rhyme or reason to it. I don’t remember exactly now, but something like “Aquarius” was a tuna burger (aqua equals water equals fish?) and “Aries” was calamari. Didn’t get that one.
We ordered Korean bistro foods. Tong-dahk is a whole rotisserie chicken. There’s no batter coating, and it’s not deep-fried, but somehow, unlike American rotisserie chickens, it has extra tasty crispy skin, and Bohemian’s was perfect. This is how good the skin is: I don’t eat the chicken meat. My poor poor narrowing arteries. But that’s okay, it comes with a vegetable – prench pries. LOL! Bohemian serves krinkle-kut fries (with a “k” since that’s probably what’s on the bag they pull from the freezer) and slaw. Alright, so there’s the vegetable – drowning in sugared mayo! The dish is typically also served with moo (pickled white radish) and a salt and pepper mixture for dipping pieces of the chicken. *phew* No fat there, just pure sodium!
The other thing we ordered was the kimchee tofu, simply for the fact that it’s one of my all time favorite dishes. Oh, and also to show, by comparison and contrast, how absolutely atrocious that pathetic excuse for kimchee tofu was we had a few weeks before. It was Zip Fusion’s in West LA, and it was almost embarassing that people might think that was a representation of real Korean food. Bohemian does theirs well – kimchee stirfried with pork (some may use bacon, others use *ahem* Spam), sesame oil, a few other ingredients, and maybe, just maybe the tiniest touch of sugar to accentuate the spicy heat of the kimchee. It was nothing like that sickeningly sweet mess of kimchee that was sugared to the point of dessert at Zip Fusion. But hey, I’m not bitter – LOL! The tofu was, well, tofu. But I will note that unlike Zip Fusion, who used extra soft tofu that couldn’t be picked up with chopsticks, Bohemian uses regular, maybe even firm, tofu. The triangles were perfect beds for a fat slice of pork, the whole thing to be wrapped up in a piece of fried kimchee. Awesome. The pork was slightly dry from bing overcooked, but hey, at least I know I’m not going to get trichinosis.
Two dishes doesn’t sound like much, and the total bill doesn’t either. But the platters are huge, and lubricated with intermittent shots of chamisul, which subsequently requires a Hite chaser (you know it’s very bad in a very good way when you have to chase it with beer), it was plenty of food to fuel the evening. Er, at least until sahm-cha.