Urban Adventures ethnic food tour in LA

"Pace yourself," warns Sabrina. "We have a lot of food to get through today." Reluctantly, I put down the pork rib and nibble a radish instead. It's tasty – well, as tasty as a radish can be – but it's no pork rib. 

Sabrina gets up to visit the bathroom and I have my chance. Like a flash I'm back into the sticky red rack, slicing off a rib and gorging on the tender barbecued pork smothered in spicy sauce. I gulp it down before she returns but it's no good – the evidence is smeared all over my face.

Korea is the first instalment in this afternoon's globe-trotting culinary adventure. During the next few hours we'll also sample dishes from Armenia and Thailand, despite being in a city known more for its burgers and breakfasts. "Today is all about going beyond the Hollywood sign," says Sabrina, our enthusiastic guide from Urban Adventures. She explains that this part of central LA used to be one of the city's wealthiest neighbourhoods but in the 1950s people started shifting to Beverly Hills and an influx of Korean immigrants moved in. Despite the area being referred to as Koreatown since the 1960s, it was officially designated as such in only 2010.

It's one of 10 ethnic neighbourhoods scattered across the city, each full of authentic restaurants and stores that most tourists never go near.

We start in Ham Ji Park, a traditional Korean barbecue joint where our ribs come with a toolkit of tongs and kitchen scissors. There are side dishes of salad, sweet potato, cabbage and radish plus a jug of pale-yellow barley water (an acquired taste). It's a Saturday afternoon and the place is reassuringly full of Koreans.

Next we stroll to a local supermarket where the aisles are full of mysterious brands and unfamiliar products. Staff enthusiastically spruik free samples, shouting out across the store in bursts of rapid-fire Korean. A lady dressed head to toe in protective clothing shovels great handfuls of bright-red fermented kimchi into bags.

Sabrina buys us each a walnut-shape pastry called a hodo kwaja. Filled with red bean paste, it's a curious mix of savoury and sweet. The supermarket's confectionery aisle also reveals some unusual flavour combinations, such as lollies flavoured with ginseng, green tea and pumpkin.

To reach our next stop, we hop on a bus and head north into Little Armenia. The other couple on the tour have lived in LA for six years yet this is their first time on public transport.

In the space of a few blocks, everything changes. The Korean stores and signs disappear, replaced by shops with a more Middle Eastern feel. Sabrina tells us this area has the largest Armenian population outside Armenia, fuelled by waves of immigration since the early 1900s.


We visit Sasoun Bakery, a simple, no-frills store in Santa Monica Boulevard with only eight items on the menu. It was started by David Yeretsian, who was born in Turkey but whose family moved to Los Angeles via Syria and Lebanon in the 1980s. He now has six bakeries in the city, all selling traditional Armenian and Middle Eastern baked goods. 

Sabrina orders a cheese borek, a seasoned flatbread filled with cheese. It's tasty, filling and a bargain at only $US1.75.

As we walk north towards Thai Town, we pass Carousel, an unremarkable-looking Lebanese restaurant that has a surprise celebrity following. Apparently, it's a regular haunt for the Kardashians, and Sabrina once saw Beyonce and Jay Z having dinner there (complete with glaring bouncer). 

Given the quality of the Asian cuisine in Australia, I'm sceptical when we approach a restaurant with a sign proclaiming "Thai Food – spicy & BBQ". But, of course, I'm proved wrong. This small, family-run eatery specialises in northern Thai cuisine and the chicken and egg noodle curry I try is one of the best Thai curries I've eaten. Deliciously fragrant and sweet with just enough spice to make my nose run.

We finish with a stroll along Hollywood Boulevard to Silom, Thai Town's largest supermarket. Eventually, this famous thoroughfare delivers you to the Hollywood Walk of Fame but out here it's a gritty mishmash of tyre depots, strip clubs and beauty salons.

I manage one last bite of a crisp, coconut-filled Thai taco before conceding defeat. I may not need to eat for a week but when I do, I'll know where to come.

Rob McFarland was a guest of LA Tourism.





Qantas flies to Los Angeles from Sydney and Melbourne. See qantas.com.au 


The hip and trendy Line Hotel is the perfect base for exploring Koreatown. Rooms from about $320. See thelinehotel.com  


Urban Adventures' four-hour Ethnic Neighbourhoods food tour costs $106 for adults, $53 for children. See urbanadventures.com