The key to Koreatown is to look up. In this vertical neighborhood, many of the signature spas, lounges, fried chicken joints, and bookstores hide well above street level.
This stacking of storefronts began in 1965 when changing immigration laws caused an influx of Koreans to make their way to New York, moving mostly to the outer boroughs like Queens. The success of Koryo Books‘s opening on 32nd Street in 1980 (its prime location near the Empire State Building didn’t hurt) encouraged other Korean entrepreneurs to set up shop above and around it. This stretch between Sixth and Madison Avenues became known as Korea Way. Today, the 100-plus small businesses lighting up Hangul signs there offer an authentic slice of Seoul.
Take off your shoes and loosen your belt!
The best way to experience Koreatown’s full range is, of course, through its diverse and traditional food. Start on the less-buzzy eastern edge of the neighborhood at the veg-tastic Hangawi. Growing up, I loved coming here for dinner: The food was a draw, but I pined for it most of all because taking my shoes off in a restaurant felt naughty. (It’s a requirement before wiggling into your subterranean table.) Sizable portions are perfect for sharing, particularly the spicy mushroom kimchi pancake, steamboat soup (rice cakes and vegetables harmoniously swimming in a hearty broth), and an avocado hot stone rice bowl. (Do we dare say they are trendsetters?) Beware of the complimentary, extremely potent ginger tea served here; it can send the unexpected sipper into a coughing fit!
Moving further west down Korea Way, you’ll inevitably crash into globe-spanning crowds clamoring for a grill at the Jonathan Gold (RIP)–approved Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong. Butcher-quality beef and pork is cooked in front of you, accompanied by an unlimited assortment of banchan (Korean appetizers), including cabbage kimchi, pickled radish, and bean sprouts. If you don’t have any New York minutes to spare, head to New Wonjo or Jongro BBQ for an equally delicious authentic Korean barbecue experience.
Nudge your way up the street to where 30-minute work breaks are made: Food Gallery 32. You know you’ve arrived when all you hear is K-pop and the hurried slurping of noodles. You can find every bit of Korean cuisine in this triple-decker food hall, from bibimbap to bings.
For a sweet pick-me-up, go next door to Grace Street Coffee and Desserts. I could swear this coffee shop is charmed like Perkins’s tent in Harry Potter: The outside is deceivingly quaint, but the space is shockingly large and sleek. The O.G black sesame shaved snow with mochi, red bean, condensed milk, and strawberries is the stuff Amortentia is made of.
Korea Way Shopping
K-pop, K-beauty, and K-books!
The Hogwarts inspo undoubtedly came from my favorite find at Koryo: the Harry Potter series divided into 30 parts. Back in Seoul, thin books are decidedly more popular—thus the chopping of this favorite into very, very small pieces. The shop is also a popular spot for K-pop goodies like BTS posters (Korea’s version of the Backstreet Boys), a clothing line called LuvLuv selling one-of-a kind pieces, and Korean skincare products.
For more K-beauty potions and salves, head to The Face Shop for the latest innovative selections. Although the Volcanic Lava Pore Serum and the “Snail Therapy” face mask sounded intriguing, I left with a natural face sunscreen (made with nutmeg and sunflower extracts) with Bart Simpson on it. The heart wants what the heart wants.
Want to bring some of the nabe’s culinary goodies home? Explore H-Mart, a grocery store filled with every Korean specialty you can imagine. Want some radish kimchi? Check out the fridge in the back. Desperate for delicious late-night snacks? Grab some Samyang instant ramen in aisle 5. Preparing your own K-town–inspired dinner party? Sift through the little banchan delights piled high like stir-fried hot spicy anchovy, seasoned sesame leaf, and salted seaweed.
Korea Way Nightlife
Karaoke, of course!
The Japanese may have invented karaoke, but the Koreans have mastered it. And while drunken sing-alongs are fun no matter what, some of the neighborhood karaoke joints have seen better days. The Turntable Chicken group, however, will never force you to choose between singing and sanitation again. Head up its freight elevator to the fifth floor to a most definably cool space, designed with exposed wood beams, vintage turntables spinning vinyl, and retro private karaoke rooms. Feast on the full bar and food menu (a platter of hot and spicy fried chicken wings is a must) while singing along to “Mr. Brightside.”