One of the advantages of working in the ESB is that it is close to Koreatown. Koreatown is still a very hidden area even to locals, through which tourists wander when they make their way from Herald Square to the next sightseeing spot. Unlike its bigger brother, Chinatown (see post here), to which large amounts of people swarm daily just to experience the highest population of Chinese speakers outside of China and to dwell on some exotic (or disgusting) cultural experiences related to this, Koreatown has been more of a stumble-upon spot for tourists running through the streets of Midtown. The heart of Little Korea is also significantly smaller than its Asian counterpart – reaching only one avenue block from Broadway to Fifth Avenue, where it abruptly ends. It is located on one street only – 32nd Street that is. Once you make a turn to 33rd or 31st, the magic of Korean culture slowly disappears (even though most descriptions characterize Koreatown as reaching from 31st to 36th Street). Therefore, the more surprising it is to land in this exotic world when crossing streets and taking a short cut through Manhattan.
Since the Empire State Building is only a good 2 minute walk from this Asian beehive, I’ve had the chance to experience its wonders more than a few times. I now frequent its streets not only every other morning but also for an occasional lunch hour or two. My coworkers and I have started trying out the restaurants offering lunch deals. One of interest is the Shanghai Mong, which offers great lunch specials from 11 AM – 3 PM (just as the other places on Koreaway do). The best thing about this conventional Asian fusion place is that the portions are decent-sized and that the cooks decorate the plates in an appetizing way that will surely surprise you when least expected. I once ordered a shrimp appetizer and a veggie bowl with rice. The dish was pretty big and I don’t think I was able to finish it all up. While the amount of bustle in this place may seem like a turn-off to you at first, I still advise trying it out. It doesn’t take very long until you are seated, so do not get discouraged by the seemingly overwhelming waiting line. I went there by myself once and was seated at a single spot within minutes. I found it quite fascinating to be surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the Asian servers and Mexican busboys (what a contrast in cultures!) and to overhear conversations held in every foreign language possible (not only Chinese). It sort of gave me the feeling that I was in Asia myself and gave me reason to dream of visiting an exotic country. You can see how that feeling can be carried on when stepping out of the door and witnessing a good amount of Asian faces walking by.
Another joint worth mentioning is Pho 32 & Shabu, which is truly Vietnamese. It caught our attention because we only saw Asian people sitting inside. This is a good sign, as my coworker explained to me, because mostly fellow Vietnamese would know where to find their authentic cuisine. While they don’t offer a lunch special despite advertising for it outside, the menu options are equally fantastic and you will leave with a filled and happy stomach at a small price. Shanghai Mong is the busy and hectic counterpart to this restaurant, which respects long conversations and values a peaceful atmosphere. It is quiet and non-disturbing, and it therefore makes out a great dining spot in between working hours.
Of course you can find a variety of other restaurants on Koreaway. The approximate figure is 12 restaurants. When walking past all the delightfully prepared windows and comparing the offers, I witnessed two Korean women making their own dumplings. Right next to it was a promising-looking bakery called Paris Baguette. Do not let its name deceive you, this is just an allusion to the baking skills of the French. The brand is a chain store that has originated in Korea. Their pastries reminded me of the ones found in the Chinese bakery in Boston (read more here). They offered many products at a low price, so I went ahead and tried two different things. I have to say the filled chocolate cone was not as good as it looks, as it contained a butter filling and I wasn’t prepared for that. It leaves an awkward taste in your mouth, especially if you were expecting a sweet filling. However, the egg pastry was convincing enough for me to return to this place a couple more times. There is another bakery on the other end of Koreatown with similar baked goods, which are worth trying out as well.
Oddly enough the food described above has been running from Chinese over Vietnamese to French imitations – anything but Korean. I guess this has a pretty good reason, as Korean food in Little Korea can be quite pricy.
Usually Koreatown is more on the upscale side when it comes to food and culinary experiences. You have your share of four star or five restaurants here – a fact that differentiates this part from the “cheap” Chinatown. Some restaurants open up at night time, being the only ones open in that area. I still have some vivid memories of a night last year when my roommate and I were dining at a pricy Korean restaurant at 4 o’clock in the morning. What an event that was! Involving a good share of Korean shots and appetizers. Korean alcohol can be dangerous, I’d say, as it tastes sweet and doesn’t appear to be strong at all – a tricky misconception! Eventually you will wake up in your bed hours later and fight a terrible hangover or wonder what you’ve been doing during those hours before.
All in all, Little Korea is a nice change from the rest of the area, which drastically symbolizes the business epitome of Manhattan. It is chaotic in its own little way. Take for example that one truck driver who wanted to back into a parking spot designated for a different truck. All the yelling and threatening going on for five minutes were quite an entertainment for fellow passerbys. The poor guy eventually ran out of words to speak in English, as he was Asian, and backed off.
Koreatown in New York – definitely worth a visit if you are in the area!