The largest Koreatown in the Pacific Northwest is not quite where you’d expect to find it. It’s in Lakewood, Washington, a 23-year-old city of 60,000 people just outside of Tacoma. There are frankly few worthwhile stops off the I-5 corridor between Portland and Tacoma — fast food, gas stations, car dealerships, and maybe a diner or two — so when you turn onto South Tacoma Way, the sea of strip malls blanketed in Korean signage seems to appear out of nowhere, like a mirage materializing in the desert sun. Stretching out over the next four miles, Lakewood’s Koreatown contains dozens of restaurants, multiple bookstores, travel agencies, several warehouse-sized grocery outlets, and department stores, all serving a population of around 17,000 Korean Americans in Pierce County, according to the American Community Survey, more than the entire tri-county area surrounding Portland or the Seattle metro area.
For both new immigrants and established residents alike, community enclaves have long been important spaces. The dozens of Chinatowns spread across the country, many of which date to the late 1800s and formed in response to racist and segregationist policies, are perhaps the best-known example. The country’s original K-town, in Los Angeles, came together in the first half of the 20th century around churches, bringing businesses, restaurants, and other services to the area because racial covenant laws and discriminatory housing policies drove them there.
By the end of the 1950s, a few thousand Korean immigrants had moved to America, many of them women and students resettling after the Korean War. But it was a federal law that transformed the neighborhood. In 1965, the Immigration and Naturalization Act, or the Hart-Celler Act, was passed, easing immigration restrictions on Asian countries. Tens of thousands of immigrants flooded into the country to join friends and relatives, or leave behind war-torn homes. Throughout the 1970s, LA’s Korean population boomed, solidifying the foundation of the city’s now-massive Koreatown.
Lakewood’s Koreatown is perhaps unique in that its formation was largely spearheaded by a group of women in response to a specific set of community needs and desires. Sulja Warnick was part of that group. A former high school English teacher raised in Daegu during the Korean War, Warnick married a third-generation Tacoma native, whom she met in college in South Korea (he was teaching; she was a student), and moved back with him to the U.S.
In 1972, as LA’s Koreatown was booming, a small group of Korean women in the Lakewood area started a social club called the Korean Women’s Association, meeting monthly to share food, sing songs, and provide the fellowship and inclusion they were missing after moving to the States. Most had married American soldiers in the aftermath of the Korean War, leaving their homes to settle with their husbands at one of the two military bases in the area. According to Warnick, who joined the group in 1976, many had difficulty adjusting, struggling with English and the use of daily appliances like dishwashers and washing machines.
As the years went by, a problem surfaced in the community: A number of women who had married American soldiers found themselves in dangerous domestic situations, and unable to communicate to officers at the base what was happening. In the late 1970s, while working as a translator at Fort Lewis, Warnick recalls meeting a young woman who had been beaten by her husband. Warnick had been brought in to clarify to an officer what had transpired, but became so distressed that she took the woman back to her house instead, and begged her not to return to her abusive husband. For Warnick, that was the final straw. “That’s when we thought we really need to get serious about [the association],” Warnick said.
By then, the Korean Women’s Association had already morphed into something like a social services agency, providing the growing number of Korean women moving to the area with ESL classes, driving lessons, and skills like resume-writing and household appliance usage. In 1979, the association registered as a nonprofit, expanding throughout the 1990s to include affordable housing initiatives and senior caretaking facilities. Today, it’s one of the largest nonprofits in the state, employing 1,400 people across 11 counties and managing more than $40 million a year, according to Warnick, who is now the last remaining founding member still working with the association.
“Tacoma is a small community, you feel it when you get involved, you want to make a difference,” Warnick said. “You get involved, you see the difference, that’s what I found out. Because I was volunteering for the Korean Women’s Association, I learned so much and built such a network.”
In late March, I spent two overcast days zigzagging up and down the four-mile stretch of Lakewood’s South Tacoma Way, as well as Tacoma’s Federal Way, where a smaller, adjacent Koreatown has formed more recently, bouncing from compact, homestyle restaurants to expansive fluorescent-lit grocery stores. Where the sunny skies of LA bring charred, grilled meats to mind, Lakewood specializes in soups and stews like soondubu, sullungtang, and budae jjigae that take the chill out of the Northwest’s drizzly, gray days.
During my first trip to Lakewood, two years earlier, I beat the seasonal chill by spending almost the entire visit inside Olympus Spa, the women-only jjimjilbang, or day spa. This time, I used it as a central geographical reference point as I set out to eat as many things as possible in 48 hours.
In the parking lot adjacent to Olympus, Ho Soon Yi is a small, bright-yellow soondubu house with a Smurf-blue roof that specializes in spicy, soft tofu stews. The expansive menu of soondubu features a dozen varieties, which can be filled out with everything from bacon to fish roe. I chose simple ham and sausage to accentuate the custardy tofu, cracking a raw egg into its roiling, anchovy-spiked depths as it arrived. The stew was lightly spicy with salty flecks of pork, perfect with a bowl of rice on that cloudy day. Ho Soon Yi was also home to the best barbecue I ate in Lakewood — a $13.95 galbi special that arrived as a hefty pile of hard-seared, sesame-studded short ribs that were sweet, savory, and smoky, with a flush of pink inside.
Two blocks south, I came across a well-liked budae jjigae joint and wanted to eat at least one bowl while in Lakewood. Budae jjigae, or “army stew,” developed out of using leftover surplus goods like ramen and Spam shortly after the end of the Korean War, when food was frequently scarce. The version at Tacoma Cheong Guk Jang was the biggest I had ever encountered, in a metal cauldron large enough to bathe an infant, and brimming with ramen noodles, kimchi, enoki mushrooms, green onions, and fat slices of Spam, hot dogs, kielbasa, tofu, pork belly, and Lit’l Smokies in a molten red broth. I only managed to make it through two spicy, sweat-inducing bowls before I had to embarrassingly request to-go containers. When I asked the server if anyone had ever finished the entire thing, she laughed.
Across the street is Saritgol, which serves an excellent yang ji sullungtang, an ultra-rich noodle soup with a milky-white broth made from long-simmered ox bones, and the throat-blazing yukgaejang, a spicy ox bone soup with shredded beef and white radish. The sullungtang arrived with a smattering of green onions floating atop thick-cut brisket and chewy wheat noodles; spoonfuls of salt should be added from the well on the table, in addition to black pepper, red pepper, and green onions, depending on personal preference. Saritgol’s version also came with a small bowl of a vinegary soy dipping sauce for the chewy brisket. By then, I had consumed close to five bowls of spicy, meat-heavy soups and stews and was in desperate need of a sugar break.
Lakewood’s premier destination for cold novelty treats is the year-old T-Town Cafe. A dark, wood-lined space with a perennially packed parking lot, T-Town features a pan-Asian assortment of sweet and savory items with a heavy Korean influence, like soft serve-stuffed taiyaki (Japanese fish-shaped cakes typically filled with red bean paste) and injeolmi bingsu, the feathery shave ice topped with sweet rice cakes, and bulgogi cheese fries.
The taiyaki can be ordered in multiples of two, stuffed with red bean, custard, sweet potato, or Nutella, or as the crispy-chewy cone for your towering green tea, vanilla, or ube soft serve. Hotteok, the Korean sweet pancakes filled with cinnamon sugar and peanuts, are also available plain or filled with soft serve. I ordered the first taiyaki cone spread with red bean paste, filled with vanilla-green tea swirl, and topped with sprinkles and Pocky; the second was filled with Nutella and set atop the ube-vanilla swirl with Fruity Pebbles, sprinkles, and Pocky in a cup.
T-Town’s wispy “snowflake” bingsu substitutes milk ice for the traditional water; it’s so finely shaved it almost doesn’t register as cold on first bite. I ordered the black sesame injeolmi, which arrived with lightly sweet layers of snow, red bean paste, and vanilla ice cream.
Though I arrived earlier than any other diner, I could only imagine the kind of night one might have at Momo Cafe/Hof, one of Lakewood’s three chimaek spots — Korea’s beloved late-night meal of fried chicken (“chi” from chicken) and beer (“maek” from maekju). Individual tables and booths separated by vinyl-coated partitions draped with Korean liquor ads created an illusion of privacy inside the chicken house, whose decor is dominated by beer caps and soju bottle tops, hot-glued to the pillars inside or hanging as a garland from the ceiling.
Its party-fallout decor paves the way for the main attraction: fried chicken and “Korean radish coleslaw” — a crunchy, sliced Napa cabbage tossed with pickled radish and a creamy vinegar dressing — paired, of course, with your preferred beer or soju. My “half and half” wings — half plain, half tossed in a sticky spicy-sweet sauce — arrived crisp and lightly breaded. Even better was that vinegary coleslaw, a crisp and refreshing palate cleanser between bites of fried chicken, and some of the only veggies I had eaten all day. After a jam-packed afternoon of eating, I managed to find room for a couple of wings and took the rest to go, in desperate need of a long walk and a fridge big enough to contain my growing number of takeout containers.
In 1973, around the time the Korean Women’s Association was growing, a rice cake and tofu maker named Boo Han and his family immigrated to the Tacoma area from Seoul. Han noticed a lack of Korean foods and produce in the region, so he began saving money from his jobs at the Lakewood General Hospital and a meat processing plant with the goal of opening a small rice cake and tofu factory. The eponymous factory, which started out in the family garage in 1975, became so popular that Han only slept for three hours a night. By 1978, the business expanded to include a small grocery store, also named after Boo Han, run out of the family living space, sourcing ingredients that were difficult to find at the time, like medium-grain rice, as well as local seafood and dry and frozen goods. “My dad had the idea of creating a place where Korean Americans could go to feel like they’re back in Korea for a bit,” said Boo Han’s son, Jae. “I think it’s mostly come to fruition in that area.”
The next year, the Han family moved the store out of the family carport to a building in what is now the current store’s parking lot. As more Korean families moved into the area in search of foods and wares they could previously only find back in Korea, the store, and the community, continued to grow. In the 1980s, Boo Han expanded beyond retail and started supplying the growing number of Korean-owned stores in the area. At one point, there were 17 other small Korean grocers, Jae Han said, all of them supplied with rice cakes and tofu by Boo Han.
By 1990, the family had saved enough money to purchase neighboring properties to support future development. Boo Han also opened two satellite locations: in Portland, Oregon (now unaffiliated with the Han family, though it has kept the name), and in Edmonds, Washington, now run by Jae Han.
Fueled by the expansion of the Boo Han grocery chain and the growth of the Korean Women’s Association, Lakewood’s Koreatown coalesced into a coherent neighborhood as more Korean businesses and restaurants found support in the community. Large shopping malls of Korean stores began popping up along South Tacoma Way beginning in the late 1980s; Warnick’s husband built the first of the large shopping centers, called Koreana Plaza, in 1988. It housed 16 businesses, including a Korean bookstore, a Chinese herbal medicine shop, and a doughnut spot.
As more large-scale shopping malls began opening in the late 1980s and early ’90s, the Korean Women’s Association suggested to the city that South Tacoma Way become a designated Koreatown, with official signage. Lakewood ultimately decided to name the area the “International District,” but businesses remain overwhelmingly Korean.
Beginning in the late 1980s, Lakewood’s Korean population began spreading out further across the area, pushing north into Tacoma proper. A second, smaller strip of Korean restaurants and stores, about two miles long, popped up roughly 18 miles north along Tacoma’s Federal Way, creating a mini-Koreatown closer to Seattle. This restaurant belt is where many Seattle residents go for homestyle Korean food. I went on another soup crawl here, slipping from Youngwol Noodle, a kalguksu, or knife-cut noodle house, to Traditional Korean Beef Soup, a sullungtang shop, before stopping at Seoul Restaurant for a bowl of their haejangguk, or hangover soup.
Youngwol Noodle’s specialty is a dish I’d never encountered before: deulkkae kalguksu. Ground perilla seeds, whose leaves are often used in ssam, lend a barley-like flavor to the thick and milky broth. Paired with chewy, handmade noodles and several slices of acorn jelly, it’s a homey, comforting meal when accompanied by pumpkin porridge and steamed barley.
One of the restaurants I was most excited to try was one strip mall north, the aptly named Traditional Korean Beef Soup, whose streamlined menu is built around sullungtang, the house specialty. In all my research for the trip, I had asked several people about Lakewood’s Koreatown but had gotten only a single recommendation: for this spot, from Peter Cho and Sun Young Park, who own Portland’s Han Oak.
It’s hard to tell from the outside of Traditional Korean Beef Soup if it’s a restaurant or an aquarium, its windows darkened, the edges lined with condensation like old-timey vignettes. Inside, air heavy with the redolence of beef, guests sit at dark, high-backed booths. Bowls of the fiercely boiling, unseasoned soup arrived almost instantly after ordering, alongside both cabbage and daikon kimchi, dadegi, the fiery chile-powder sauce, an impossibly large bowl of sliced green onions, and rice. Truthfully, everything in the bowl is forgettable after a sip of the rich, tonkotsu-like broth. I loved the slick, hearty soup so much I drank straight from the bowl to get every last drop.
My last stop was Seoul Restaurant, a compact wood-lined space specializing in haejangguk and large-format dishes like bossam, thin-sliced pork belly to be wrapped in cabbage, and jokbal, sliced boiled pig’s feet. I ordered the ripping-hot soondae haejangguk, studded with thick slices of tender, noodle-stuffed blood sausage and chewy bits of honeycomb tripe. Beneath the meat and a tangle of mung bean sprouts lay a forest of garlicky, stewed greens, hidden at the bottom of the funky, chile oil-flecked soup.
Returning to T-Town for one more taiyaki cone, I wondered about the future of Lakewood’s Koreatown. Already, the area — like much of the Pacific Northwest — is changing. Many Korean Americans, Warnick said, are moving north from LA’s Koreatown in search of more affordable real estate. “I see a lot of new people when [the Korean Women’s Association] gathers,” Warnick said. “It’s not just new movers, it’s a lot of the second generation growing up ... they’re kind of the next force of the Korean community. That’s why KWA decided all the old-timers should move out and hand it down to the second generation.”
Those second-generation Korean Americans, Warnick said, are making their own mark on Lakewood’s Koreatown. Already, the KWA has amended its bylaws to restrict the terms of its board members to a nine-year maximum. Many first-generation owners of restaurants have handed the keys over to their American-born daughters and sons, resulting in more aggressively seasoned dishes and improvisation on traditional recipes, Warnick said. But even after 43 years of living in the Lakewood area, she is still surprised by everything the community has built.
“I think it’s amazing what Koreans have done in this community,” Warnick said. “Boo Han, when I first came they were a small family growing and selling bean sprouts, tofu, and rice cakes ... and see what they did? With KWA, we really had the heart and passion to help our own people, that’s how we started ... the need to help our sisters and brothers and provide justice and equity in the community.”
Samantha Bakall is a Chinese-American freelance journalist and photographer specializing in diversity-based food issues.
Edited by Matt Buchanan