The Hammer Museum’s Nancy Lee, a K-town native, shares her choice spots for coffee, rice cupcakes and Korean BBQ — plus what she skips in the ever-evolving neighborhood.
Worth the Hype/Not Worth the Hype is a regular series on what L.A. spots are — or aren’t — worthy of a line, long wait or Instagram following, neighborhood by neighborhood, according to a savvy local.
Nancy Lee is a Koreatown native; when she’s not at work at the Hammer Museum, where she works in communication, Lee is often bopping around to arts events or dining out in her hood. The latter is a habit she picked up from her parents.
Lee’s parents immigrated from Korea to the U.S. in 1985, settling in the northernmost part of Koreatown. Throughout her life, Lee has lived across what she calls the major arteries of Koreatown – along Western Avenue and near Normandie and Vermont Avenues. Over the years, she’s watched Koreatown change as new luxury apartment buildings rose up and took the place of beloved eateries. Newer — and trendier — ones emerged, particularly after the 2014 arrival of the Line Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard.
Growing up, Lee helped run her family’s business, a cleaning company. Because her parents worked hard to support their family of five, they often ate out. She says that led to “a lot of strong opinions about restaurants,” which has led her to become her friends’ go-to resource for recommendations in the neighborhood.
Below, Lee shares places in K-town that are — and aren’t — worth the lines, press and Instagram frenzy.
“I love Alchemist Coffee,” Lee says. “I saw that there was another one opening on Olympic. I think they do really good drinks and food, which is so crucial. I feel like coffeehouses often just think about the drink, but you know, we gotta eat too. I really like their kimchi avocado toast.”
As for drinks? Lee regularly orders their cold brew.
Dong Il Jang
3455 W. 8th St., Los Angeles, CA 90005
“I think that place Dong Il Jang is worth the hype,” Lee says. “It’s a Korean barbecue place on 8th and the same waitresses have been there forever.” She says sometimes there’s a wait to get in but it’s always worth the wait.
“They do this kimchi fried rice that’s the bomb,” she says.
“They make these beautiful little cupcakes and they’re made out of rice. And on top, there are really elaborate flower decorations that are made out of white or red bean paste, and they have these food colors in them that make it incredible to look at,” Lee says, adding that their baked rice cakes are gluten-free and not too sweet. “I started following them online and then that led me to their location. And they do custom cakes a lot, but you can also go to the store.”
For Lee, Cheong Won Buffet evokes all her childhood nostalgia. “It’s in this corner of a strip mall. It’s been around forever and it kind of has a little bit of everything, so that’s the place we went to the most … If it’s someone’s anniversary or someone’s birthday, then we still go there because it has all the delicious foods,” she says.
Lee says that while many Korean restaurants specialize in one type of dish, at Cheong Won Buffet, she can get pretty much anything she wants. “It’s such a relief that the restaurant is still around because K-town is changing so fast,” she says.
“Soon Tofu is this dish where it’s spicy tofu soup, and I don’t know why people are so obsessed with it,” Lee says. “It can be vegetarian, but it’s mostly served with different meats or seafood. I think you can customize it to being vegetarian. But there’s a place called Beverly Soon Tofu that’s in all of these food TV shows. Anthony Bourdain went there … And it’s good, but I just don’t understand why that dish is so hyped.”
Sun Nong Dan
3470 W. 6th St. #7, Los Angeles, CA 90020
“There’s another soon tofu place that’s also very hyped called BCD and it’s a category of Korean food where I wonder ‘why?’” Lee says. “This is not that special … there’s a lot of hype around a dish called galbi-jjim … Sun Nong Dan is another place you can’t really go to anymore. It’s so hyped. That whole plaza it’s just busting out. The waits are incredible, the crowds, the food articles. Again, I think wow, galbi-jjim, OK?
“I wonder if it’s because some people don’t have a full view of Korean cuisine so then it’s easy to fixate on the thing they saw in a show or they heard about in an article, which is fine as an entry point, but I think then if you over-focus on it then you become so limited in what you think Korean food is or what Koreatown is.”