As we continue introducing readers to Oakland neighborhoods, we explore a rather controversial neighborhood on the rise. What we refer to as Koreatown now wasn’t Koreatown two decades ago, or even one decade ago. In fact, most [neighborhood] maps of Oakland still refer to the area along Telegraph Avenue between 20th and 35th Streets as Northgate or Pill Hill, and all refer to the area north of I-580 as Mosswood, but the Korean influence spreading through all three is undeniable.
Koreatown is then probably best defined as a neighborhood within a series of neighborhoods. Within a 14-block stretch on Telegraph between 20th and 35th, there are over 150 Korean owned and operated businesses alone, while many others are also scattered north of I-580 through Mosswood and Temescal.
The influx of Korean immigration into the neighborhood began formally in 1987 when the Korean Community Center of the East Bay bought 44th Avenue’s Koryo Mall and brought in several Korean businesses. In 1995, the defunct Sears Tire at 27th and Telegraph was purchased and converted into a small strip of Korean-owned businesses that included the still-operating Samwon BBQ. In 1997, Pusan Market Plaza (now Koreana Plaza) moved to the neighborhood and boasts nearly 10,000 Korean products and attracts over 3,000 shoppers throughout the Bay Area each weekend for everything from daenjang [fermented bean paste] to live sea cucumbers fresh from Seoul (and free samples!).
Today, nearly 200 Korean-owned businesses call the stretch of Telegraph Avenue between Uptown and Temescal with businesses that run the gamut from hair salons and restaurants to accountants, real estate brokers, two Korean banks, and even a Korean Protestant church, and a Chinese Buddhist temple. In the very same stretch, you’ll also find plenty of other diverse businesses, including an Eritrean cafe and a slew of Middle Eastern markets.
The influx of business capital has strengthened a blighted area into one that many now go out of their way to visit. Others see the transition as just the beginning – expecting growth similar to that in Los Angeles – namely, one that is much, much larger than it is now. “Koreans in Los Angeles look five, 10 years out and see Telegraph Avenue will be a booming Koreatown,” said Steve Ro, local resident and business owner in the area. With approximately 120,000 Koreans living in Northern California and many in Los Angeles and in Seoul viewing Oakland’s recent development, it’s likely that those predictions might just be a reality.
Korean B.B.Q. 101
Oakland’s Koreatown has two establishments where you cook your own meat right at your table: Samwon B.B.Q. (2600 Telegraph) and Koryo B.B.Q. (4490 Telegraph). The difference between each is negligible; both provide a similar level of service and selection with Samwon B.B.Q being larger and better for big groups while Koryo feels a bit more homey and friendly.
If you’re new to Korean BBQ, I recommend ordering BBQ for two and having the option of cooking the meat yourself to enhance your experience.
My typical order consists of kalbi or galbi – marinated beef in a ganjang-based sauce (Korean soy sauce) – which comes with roughly 8-10 side dishes (banchan) to enhance your meal (pictured above). The side dishes arrive before the meat/coals; you can choose to eat them now or wait for the meat. The side dishes are bottomless – if at any time you want more, just ask.
Typically, the selection is comprised of steamed rice, seaweed soup, caramelized anchovies, pickled jalapeno and garlic, steamed broccoli, lettuce, raddish kimchi, cucumber kimche, cabbage kimche, seafood/egg/veggie pancake, red bean paste, spinach salad, and glazed potatos.
My favorite way to eat it? In a Lucas Gates-style lettuce wrap!
Cook the meat to perfection and place a slab of kalbi in your large leaf of lettuce, add some kimche, pickled jalapeno and garlic, spinach salad, and red bean paste. Wrap it up tight and eat it! (This post is making me really hungry).
Finish off with a Shik-Hae (Sweet Rice Drink) and you’ve just experienced your first Korean BBQ!
If a less hands-on approach is more your style, there are plenty of places along Telegraph to try. Enjoy!
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