Even the people in the Zoomak parking lot in Buena Park can hear the distant thump of music – K-pop to be exact – and the babel of cheerful conversations. Customers peering through the entrance can see an unassuming projector playing flashy Korean music videos, contrasting the dark interior barely lit by dim ceiling lamps. A tipsy euphoria swallows anyone entering the doors. An instant camaraderie exists between new faces and old friends.

“It feels kind of like a reunion,” said Andrew Park, an O.C. resident and recent graduate from Cal Poly Pomona. “I see everyone; from elementary school, church friends, high school friends, college friends.”

This is a suljip: the Korean word for a bar.

Ethnic enclaves are sometimes difficult to describe – like a slice of the motherland transplanted to an entirely different country. For Koreans in California – aside from the original Koreatown in Los Angeles – the more spacious and quiet suburbias found in Orange County are the perfect places for families. In fact, after Los Angeles County, Orange County is home to the second largest Korean population in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the nonprofit Korean American Center, based in Buena Park.  

Although the suburban areas in O.C. appear serene from an aerial point of view, looking a little deeper, a vibrant community and culture are just beyond the surface. 

And the Korean community in North Orange County is one of those glanced-over gems.

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What Brought Koreans to Orange County?

Starting in the 1960s, the original Koreatown in Los Angeles won recognition across the globe, drawing native Koreans (mostly from South Korea) to move to the United States. Sprouting further south in the suburbs of Orange County, Garden Grove was another popular place for Koreans to settle away from the bustling urban life. The city was even officially named O.C.’s Koreatown in 2019 by its city council.

Garden Grove became a local landmark that attracted Koreans due to Korean American icon Sammy Lee. Lee was an Olympic gold medalist, veteran and doctor who became a civil rights figure for fair housing ordinances, as he was a victim of housing discrimination in Garden Grove. Real estate agents denied Lee from buying a home in the city due to his Asian descent. After this rejection, it became a national news story and Lee was eventually able to buy a home in Garden Grove, according a KCET article. His historical significance for being one of the first Asian American homeowners in O.C. was enough to draw additional Koreans and ethnic minorities to the area.

After the Los Angeles riots in 1992, thousands more Koreans moved to North Orange County, so they could live in a more peaceful environment with good schools, yet still do business in L.A.

Suburban cities neighboring Garden Grove have since become substantially populated with Koreans, including Cerritos, La Palma, Fullerton, Buena Park and Irvine. Garden Grove’s once most-popular status has shifted to mom-and-pop shops and older crowds. Many younger Koreans have flocked to cities such as Buena Park, Fullerton and Irvine, which have more new and trending Korean businesses located in those areas. 

“Now with The Source and other establishments opening, you have a lot more Koreans now than before,” said Simon Kim, associate vice president of research and economic development at Cal State Long Beach. He has lived in Buena Park for 20 years and seen it bloom over the past two decades.

“There’s definitely more restaurants, more grocery stores,” Kim said. “Back when I was getting my Ph.D., I lived in L.A., and you had to be in L.A. Koreatown to experience all that. Now, you don’t have to. You can get a Korean fix in Orange County.” 

Buena Park is encircled by neighboring O.C. cities such as Fullerton, La Palma, La Habra and Anaheim, where Koreans have also settled. Many Korean businesses and establishments within North O.C. highlight the integrated culture of Korean Americans in this area.

How to Enjoy the Korean Scene in Orange County

Park, 23, a Korean American born in L.A. and raised in La Palma and Buena Park, is an almost daily frequenter of local Korean hot spots. Park said he likes to catch up with all his friends and acquaintances by going to popular suljips and Korean hot spots because running into them is easier than personally asking people to catch up. 

Park is one of more than 104,100 Koreans living in O.C., according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and he is a product of the unique community. 

His everyday lifestyle takes him to popular restaurants, cafes, shops, PC bangs (public internet cafes), noraebangs (karaoke rooms) and suljips (bars) to hang out with friends, get work done or run errands. 

OK 501 offers karaoke songs in various languages like Korean, Spanish, Chinese and English. Credit: JESSICA CHOI / Voice of OC

This unique microcosm may be a daily lifestyle for residents and locals who are familiar with the Korean community. 

“You don’t have to drive all the way up to Koreatown in L.A. for good Korean food,” said Sarah Sham, 28, a Singaporean American Buena Park resident and a frequenter of many Korean food and entertainment establishments. “I do anything I can to avoid L.A. traffic. There’s definitely a lot of Korean stuff here, and the people are here too. If you’re trying to move out of L.A. – this is a good spot for people to congregate.”

For those curious about the Korean cultural scene, here is a round-up of some places to start exploring North O.C.’s vibrant Korean community:

The Flourishing Food Scene 

Food is a pillar of culture. “As your appreciation of food grows, you start to normalize and appreciate the people where that food came from,” said Mayor Fred Jung of Fullerton, a Korean American who has lived in Fullerton’s District 1 since 1987.

One can experience Korean culture by trying the exciting and interactive dining experience of Korean barbecue, or take a more in-depth approach by trying the culture’s soul food filled with hearty stews and soups.

Korean BBQ

Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong, 5171 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (657) 443-6328

Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong is a lively Korean BBQ hot spot that serves authentic, rich flavors with a contemporary touch. Its interior design takes inspiration from Korean night markets and utilizes a unique tabletop grilling experience – a grill that cooks steamed egg and corn cheese around the circumference. The restaurant chain has seven locations in California and New York and is a top competitor in the California KBBQ game; note the high energy and K-pop music blasting inside. But be warned: The wait time on a weekend night could take as much as two hours.

Baekjeong’s unique grill design cooks fluffy egg and creamy corn cheese around the circumference. Credit: Photo courtesy of Baekjeong Korean Barbeque

Saemauel, 5471 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 562-0900

Another popular restaurant franchise from Korea is Saemauel, which was started by famous Korean chef and TV personality Paik Jong-won. This KBBQ spot has a traditional vibe that focuses on delivering the basics with quality. It has a few menu items that stray away from the essentials, but Saemauel is the simple, authentic KBBQ experience.

Eight BBQ, 6681 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 522-0888

Pork belly, samgyupsal, is a Korean staple cut of meat. Eight BBQ started in L.A.’s Koreatown in 2008 and specializes in unique flavors of samgyupsal – eight flavors, hence the name. Although they offer beef options, the eight-flavor combo is a unique and delicious take on the classic Korean pork belly. 

Korean Soul Food

Han Yang, 7152 Orangethorpe Ave., Buena Park, (714) 228-0046

Earthenware pots and plates contain the sizzling rice dishes and bubbling soups that Han Yang is known for. The small shop with limited parking specializes in Korean comfort food: soup, rice and noodles. Its menu with less than 15 items attracts a loyal and growing fanbase with over 1200 Yelp reviews due to its authentic taste.

Myung In Dumplings, 6771 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (657) 529-1068

A Korean-Chinese fusion dumpling store that started in Koreatown, L.A., gained recognition from the late Anthony Bourdain’s visit, which was featured in his food show “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.” The shop features fluffy steamed and bouncy boiled dumplings that are handmade.

Yoko, 4566 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 739-4353

In the corner of a seemingly dated plaza, Yoko sits at the very edge. Another quaint Korean restaurant with a substantial Yelp following, Yoko specializes in donkatsu: fried cutlet. Although donkatsu is a Japanese dish, this Buena Park favorite incorporates Korean flavors throughout its comforting foods.

Korean Fried Chicken

Korean fried chicken is a delicious product of American cuisine blending with Korean flavors and preferences. Chef, author and Food Network mainstay Alton Brown credited African American soldiers for teaching Koreans how to fry chicken in an episode of “Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend.” Korean fried chicken has a fame of its own and is often paired with beer; this legendary food duo has a nickname: chimaek (chi for chicken and maek for maekju, beer in Korean).

BBQ Chicken, 5260 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 994-1004

With its own Chicken University – teaching and perfecting the craft of Korean fried chicken – in Seoul, South Korea, BBQ Chicken has restaurants worldwide and three are in O.C. The location on Beach Boulevard has been a popular destination for late-night fried chicken and drinks. 

Love Letter, 1180 S Idaho St., La Habra, (714) 446-9904

Love Letter Pizza and Chicken features another famous food couple in South Korea: fried chicken and pizza. Although the combination of chicken wings and pizza is famous in America, Korean pizza is much sweeter and incorporates famous Korean meats and fillings like bulgogi and sweet potato.

Kokos Chicken, 8532 Commonwealth Ave., Buena Park, (714) 994-1004

Kokos Chicken is a local Korean fried chicken shop with all of its locations in O.C. Its red interior becomes more comforting with the smell of fried snacks and much less daunting as first-comers may assume. Its approach to Korean fried chicken is offering variety through fun creative flavors. 

Cafés 

Smoking Tiger Coffee & Bread, 600 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (657) 239-0651

Korean cafe culture has constantly tried to mimic and perfect the Western approach to coffee; however, Smoking Tiger focuses on integrating traditional Korean culture in a modern approach through its flavors and aesthetics. For instance, matcha sourced from Jeju Island, South Korea is used in various drinks, trending Korean pastries such as garlic cream cheese bread are recreated for customers to try, and the interior is decorated with Korean-themed art. Smoking Tiger’s name pays homage to an old Korean folklore introduction “back when tigers used to smoke,” which intends to evoke a sense of nostalgia for the “good old days.” 

Veronese Gallery Cafe, 419 W. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 578-8265

A home turned art gallery turned cafe, Veronese Gallery Cafe is tucked into a residential neighborhood next to the Fullerton Library. This eclectic home utilizes its interior and backyard space as a creative coffee shop. It is owned, operated and lived in by the Kim family. Veronese’s coffee is good and has food on the menu for the many college students that stop by from down the street. 

Drinking and Nightlife

An undeniable part of Korean culture is drinking; the drinking culture in Korea has kept its tradition with Koreans in America. For Koreans, the purpose of drinking is primarily social and there are specific drinking customs and etiquette involved in the practice. The hand-sized, green bottles of soju (a clear alcohol distilled from rice, wheat or barley) are the nation’s iconic alcohol. 

Social drinking has sprouted suljips where gatherings among friends and colleagues can take place in a fun environment accompanied by food. Noraebangs are Korean karaoke spots that are also often used for social drinking purposes. Whether having a catch-up with old friends or continuing the party with some singalongs, these Korean nightlife establishments can be experienced typically until midnight or later in O.C.

Suljips

Misoolkwan, The Source, 6982 Beach Blvd., Suite C-320, Buena Park, (657) 436-3966

Before the bright, photogenic city landscapes, Korea in the ‘70s and ‘80s had streets lined with wooden storefronts and handmade signs. Misoolkwan captures this time period through its beautiful retro design. Soju, beer and other Korean beverages can be enjoyed with various street food-inspired dishes. Misoolkwan also features an extensive outdoor patio, with DJs and musical entertainment on the weekends. 

Haus Lounge, 14740 Beach Blvd., La Mirada, (657) 239-0522

Although technically part of L.A. County, Haus Lounge sits right past the edge of O.C.’s border line, even though it is located on Beach Boulevard. Haus Lounge’s dark interior is decorated with neon lights, signs and table lamps that set a trendy, youthful tone inside. The ample space is able to accommodate groups of friends and colleagues, a full bar and a private event room. At first glance, the suljip can appear cold, but the relaxed atmosphere tends to garner intimacy between parties.

Haus Lounge’s dark interior contrasts with its collection of neon light signs, table lamps and accessories. Credit: Photo courtesy of Joseph Jeong

Noraebangs

OK 501, 887 W Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, (714) 220-2501

If someone has never experienced Korean karaoke, OK 501 is a great first stop to get a feel for what this form of group entertainment is like. Cheesy twinkling lights reflected off a mirror wall capture the authentic noraebang aesthetic. OK 501 operates well through the night – right before the sun starts to rise – and has a friendly, homely atmosphere. 

EKO Lounge, The Source, 6920 Beach Blvd., Suite K-223, Buena Park, (714) 752-6314

Forget the feelings of home, EKO Lounge is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Its upscale karaoke experience can be enjoyed through purchasing bottle service, cocktails from the bar and food items from the kitchen. Sixteen luxury rooms feature state-of-the-art karaoke sound and audio equipment, and songs can be selected in English, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese and Spanish. Rates start at $40 per hour for a small party (1-4 people) and $100 per hour for larger parties. There is a $50 minimum food and beverage purchase requirement on weeknights, $100 on weekends.

Shopping and Entertainment at The Source OC

The Source OC (6940 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 521-8858) is an outdoor/indoor shopping mall that focuses on Korean businesses and attractions, and some might say it’s a focal point for Korean culture in North O.C. Some days the mall looks barren – dare to say a little eerie – and other nights the crowds are bustling and alive. The eccentric mall is not fully occupied as there are many vacancies throughout the three stories. However, there is an array of well-known Korean and Asian restaurants and shops like Myungrang Hotdogs, Ding Tea and Coway. Also, there are two expansive food courts, a 4D cinema, PC bang, the Olympic Golf Zone, drinking spots and plenty of food options.

CGV Cinemas, 6988 Beach Blvd., Buena Park

This immersive movie theater offers 4D and multi-screen projection experiences that change the average movie-going experience. Along with its luxury viewing experience, the theater shows Hollywood blockbusters and popular Asian films with subtitles. 

Ultimate ESport, 6982 Beach Blvd., Suite C-211, Buena Park, (714) 916-9888,  

Gaming can be a pricey hobby due to the cost of technology, equipment and high-speed Wi-Fi; but with PC bangs, accessibility becomes easier. This innovative shared gaming environment offers pros to amateurs a place to play trending PC games like League of Legends, Fortnite and Valorant. 

Olympic Golf Zone, 6988 Beach Blvd., Suite B-208, Buena Park, (714) 228-9900

You knew that Koreans love golf, didn’t you? All the Korean pro golfers on the circuit – especially female – should have told you something. Well, Olympic Golf Zone is a sports bar where you can get your swings in with virtual video ranges. There are also batting cages with virtual pitchers, pitches and game scenarios. OGZ also features a full bar and food menu, and is amenable to parties and events. There are actually four other Olympic Golf Zones in Orange and Los Angeles counties. 

K-pop albums line the walls and shelves of K-Place, the Korean goods and stationery store located in The Source OC. Credit: JESSICA CHOI / Voice of OC

K-Place, 6920 Beach Blvd., Suite K-140 Buena Park, (714) 553-1053

A corner store blasting K-pop has a diverse customer base all eager to get their hands on some K-pop merchandise. The rows of colorful album covers from famous K-pop groups like BTS, stationery with band members’ faces and signed collectibles auctioned in the front of the store exhibit the intense and unconditional love fans have for Korean music celebrities – referred to as idols. K-Place is filled with diverse customers from any age and ethnic background, again showcasing the far reach Korean culture has made across the world.

Jessica Choi is an intern for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at jessica2678@gmail.com.

Richard Chang is senior editor for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at rchang@voiceofoc.org.


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