Tucked into Midtown Manhattan in an area that spans no more than a few blocks, Koreatown proves that ethnic neighborhoods don’t need to be big to capture the essence of their foreign-inspired communities. Serving as the focal point for New York City’s Korean-American immigrant population, Koreatown stretches down 32nd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. But what the district lacks in size, it makes up for in cultural connection.
As soon as I step foot on the neon-coated midtown pavement, the smells and sounds take me back to my post-grad year in Seoul. When walking past most buildings in New York, you need only peek into the ground floor window because our stores exist at eye level. This is not the case in Korea, a relatively small nation where the dearth of space requires building upwards. Some of Seoul’s best restaurants, shops and bars are located on the 5th, 7th or 13th floors within the mega skyscrapers dominating the city’s skyline. This tradition of setting up shop high is mimicked in Manhattan’s Koreatown, where you’ll most likely find what you’re looking for by looking up.
Luckily, once you’ve trained your neck to remain craned, it’s easy to find most things. K-Town’s buildings are decked out in signage so bright that spotting what you’re after is a matter of skimming a bunch of key neon symbols. You might feel as if you’re in some kind of Korean-Disney theme park, but trust the lights to guide you from one end of the 32nd street corridor to the next.
It’s easy to spend the day within the confines of Koreatown’s main block, which is so densely populated with Korean goods that city officials have formally dubbed it “Korea Way.” Korean bookstores, extreme electronic shops and video arcades playing the latest version of World of Warcraft are all incessantly packed. Meanwhile, at Face Shop, bright-eyed, smooth-skinned, eager 20-something Korean girls are eager to tell me about the latest products and cosmetics imported straight from Seoul.
But as enticing as beauty, clothing and tech stores may be, the main appeal of most ethnic enclaves is edible. Just as in the capital of the Asian motherland, many K-town restaurants remain open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
Stopping by Paris Baguette is one of my favorite ways to start the day. This New York outpost of a popular Korean chain carries all the unusual breakfast treats I grew accustomed to while living in Seoul—namely, a delectable cheese-filled bread I can never resist. And just like at any Paris Baguette in Seoul, the service is brisk.
After, I make my way across the street to Han Ah Reum Supermarket (H-Mart to locals). In the narrow aisles of this perpetually busy store, I find my favorite foods and Korean brands. Even when I’m not planning on making a purchase it’s fun to explore H-Mart. Dozens of kimchi, gnarly root veggies and pounded rice cakes in every imaginable form line the overcrowded shelves. From anyong-haseyo to the home-cooked savory noodle japchae and freshly rolled kimbap, H-Mart has it all.
Perennially popular with locals and thus packed no matter what time or day you show up, Worijip is an absolute must try, too. Homesick residents form a queue to fill their plates from a buffet of pungent dishes that can be smelled from beyond the restaurant’s constantly revolving door.
When seeking a more extravagant, sit-down affair, New Wonjo offers the very best in Korean barbecue. From the endless parade of banchan to the perfectly balanced sweet and savory marinades, it’s hard to order wrong. In typical Korean fashion, I start every evening at New Wonjo by ordering a round of celebratory Sojo. This is the only thing I remember how to say in Korean, and the request reliably shocks my waitress into a round of laughter.
The night in Seoul never ends, and the same goes for the city’s small but authentic New York counterpart. From the moment the sun sets until it’s on the rise, young Korean Americans can be heard bellowing from raucous pubs, or hofs, and the latest pop tunes can be discerned ringing from the crowded karaoke noraebongs.
Whatever the hour on whatever the day, a visit to Manhattan’s Koreatown is a worthwhile journey for a taste of Seoul. With its 24-hour nonstop action, you’re bound to want to experience it all.
Featured image courtesy of Panda Cave Drawings