LA Restaurant Dan Sung Sa Is Closed Till Indoor Eating Can Resume,
Getting into by the wood door of Dan Sung Sa looks like a step right into a time machine. With wooden paneling, dim lighting, and partitions plastered with vintage film posters and pale newspapers, it embodies a really completely different Korea.
Through the years, Koreatown’s Dan Sung Sa has grow to be a quintessential spot in Los Angeles, garnering acclaim from guests and locals who’re fascinated by the transcendent nature of the pub. However maybe better of all, Korean immigrants itching for a way of dwelling can discover nostalgic consolation after they enter. To many, the dimly lit sections present the possibility to let free over soju pictures and bottles of Hite whereas taking down some skewers, corn cheese, and different common Korean bar meals.
That is the setting that Caroline Cho aspired to create when she began Dan Sung Sa in 1997, calling it “a house away from dwelling” for immigrants like herself. Earlier than Dan Sung Sa made its debut, sports activities bars and suljips had been Koreatown’s solely consuming spots. However Cho aimed to seize the essence of Korea’s tented road pubs, known as pojangmacha, or pocha for brief. Bringing one of many first-ever actual pochas to Los Angeles, she constructed Dan Sung Sa as a chunk of Korea based mostly on her very personal recollections.
The identify of the pub might ring a bell to these aware of a former Seoul. Earlier than Dan Sung Sa took form in LA, it was the identify of the primary movie show in Korea, established in 1907 in Jongno — a once-bustling road in Seoul similar to as we speak’s Gangnam district. The theater is a spot that Cho holds expensive, although she visited solely as soon as previous to emigrating in 1986. “Earlier than I left Korea to immigrate to the U.S., my finest good friend and I went to Dan Sung Sa to observe one final film, known as Sunflower, an Italian movie that was taking part in on the time,” she remembers.
Earlier than she opened Dan Sung Sa, Cho was a property supervisor in Los Angeles. “I spotted that many fellow Korean immigrants had nowhere to go and have fun,” she says. “There weren’t many locations in LA that they felt actually comfy. It was a chance to launch the idea of a pocha right here, however I needed to create that place for them.” Definitely, there was a danger in launching a eating idea that was unfamiliar to non-Koreans, however like American dive bars, Korean bars served as a spot for individuals to congregate on in any other case lonely nights. Cho, wanting to ascertain a spot for Korean immigrants to unwind with pals and coworkers, vowed to maintain Dan Sung Sa open each single day of the 12 months, together with all main holidays.
For many of its 22 years in enterprise, Dan Sung Sa has fulfilled its promise, with largely the identical menu of over 90 gadgets arrayed in tiny Korean textual content on tablet-sized wood blocks. Many purchasers bask in rounds of meat skewers, ready over the flames of the grill within the middle of the eating room, together with different dishes that recall to mind the streets of Seoul, like Korean fried hen and spicy rice desserts. The menu additionally consists of extra conventional anju — reasonably priced, flavorful bites shared with the desk to assist absorb the booze and lengthen the evening a bit longer, like simmering pork-bone stew and bai top-shell salad, a candy and spicy seasoned medley of greens and chewy shellfish.
One of the crucial common dishes, unmistakably formed like dumbbells, is a enjoyable spin on gimmari — seaweed rolls full of vermicelli noodles, fried to a crisp and doused within the fiery home sauce. The meals and recipes haven’t modified, however Cho admits she needed to make an English model of the menu, which is used greater than she ever anticipated.
“I can’t imagine that non-Koreans even find out about Dan Sung Sa,” she says. “I created this for the Koreatown neighborhood, again when [the neighborhood] actually solely had Korean residents. I may have by no means imagined a day that folks from everywhere in the world could be fascinated about visiting Dan Sung Sa.” Although Koreatown has all the time had a various neighborhood of Koreans, Latinx, and Bengalis, Dan Sung Sa now brings in guests from far and broad.
Cho factors to a singular second that propelled Dan Sung Sa into the highlight. Although she was not aware of Anthony Bourdain on the time, she marks his go to with Roy Choi in 2011 as a turning level. “Unexpectedly, we had been getting all this sudden publicity in a single day,” she says.
But, even with the heightened consideration, Cho has remained dedicated to her authentic imaginative and prescient. Whereas most pochagoers would possibly anticipate fashionable Okay-pop or high 40 hits, Dan Sung Sa’s audio system solely know outdated Korean pop songs — romantic ballads from the ’80s and ’90s which are noticeably slower than the high-volume BTS and Blackpink sounds of as we speak. The excessive cabinets above the bar boast rows of soju bottles from discontinued manufacturers. To this present day, a now-defunct payphone stays by the lavatory, which might invite a line of late-night drunk dialers again within the day.
Dan Sung Sa is clearly a mirrored image of the previous, however it’s additionally formed by the individuals who have visited through the years, even as much as as we speak, as is clear by the mounting graffiti that patrons have scratched on almost the entire wood partitions after a couple of too many drinks. “Koreans may be actually expressive and unusually cynical typically,” Cho jokes, studying a number of the slanted scribbles. In the present day, nearly each slab is roofed in professions of affection, vulgar notes, and absurd doodles.
Like many institutions in Koreatown, Dan Sung Sa resides in a commonplace strip mall, however its pale, eccentric mural hanging over the doorway catches the eyes of most passersby. To seize the essence of the Dan Sung Sa she knew as a baby, Cho commissioned a Korean film poster artist to color the art work operating throughout the highest of the constructing’s exterior. Some could also be perplexed by the stark depiction of Kim Jong Il, the previous dictator of North Korea, however for Cho, the main focus of the mural is the determine on the opposite aspect of the Korean flag. It reveals Kim Dae Jung, former president of South Korea, and the one Korean to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize, which he was awarded in 2000 for his reunification efforts.
“To me, the portray is an emblem of delight. I felt very proud to be Korean when he obtained that award,” Cho says. Even from midway internationally, she paid homage to the nationwide milestone in her personal manner.
Since opening Dan Sung Sa, Cho has launched into different enterprise ventures in Koreatown, establishing plenty of espresso outlets and karaoke bars. But Dan Sung Sa is the one one that continues to be in operation. She sees it as an emblem of the life that she’s constructed within the U.S. as a self-made entrepreneur and a mom of two sons.
Regardless of her efforts to protect Dan Sung Sa, it has regarded markedly completely different over the previous 9 months, with out the everyday lengthy traces, crowded cubicles, and smoky haze which have all the time been core to its distinctive allure. After closing in March, she supposed to reopen in Might after which once more in July, however her plans had been repeatedly foiled by shifting COVID-19 eating laws. Initially, indoor eating at a lowered capability was allowed in late Might, with the town selling out of doors eating with its Al Fresco program. Nevertheless, growing charges of COVID-19 instances led the town to close down indoor eating simply six weeks later.
In October, Dan Sung Sa launched a brand new look, with vibrant crimson parking-lot tents, plexiglass dividers, and area heaters — investments that Cho made to regulate to out of doors eating. Nevertheless, that was shut down on November 23, after simply 40 days of operation, resulting from one more surge in COVID-19 instances that has now put the whole county beneath a stay-at-home order. Although she tried a takeout menu in early December, Cho made the tough resolution to shut the doorways till out of doors eating is permitted once more.
“Dan Sung Sa simply isn’t meant for takeout. You need to be right here to expertise it. To assemble collectively, to mingle, and to chuckle. It’s that type of place,” she says.
Jae Han, considered one of Dan Sung Sa’s servers, shares related sentiments. “We by no means put in name buttons on our tables [a typical feature of eating in Korean barbecue spots, bars, or karaoke spots], which meant we needed to go test on every celebration each couple minutes or so. I felt like that basically allowed us to actually get to know the individuals we had been serving and construct connections with our prospects,” Han says. “It’s so unhappy that we misplaced that this 12 months, however I’m wanting ahead to the day we are able to come again.”
Because the starting, Dan Sung Sa has relied on sturdy neighborhood assist, with round three-quarters of enterprise coming from Okay-City locals. Regardless of the monetary hit from this 12 months, Cho has been particularly grateful for supporters and is bound that Dan Sung Sa will return. “I really feel like my legs and arms have been lower off resulting from all of the restrictions, however I’ve nonetheless skilled a lot love from the neighborhood,” she says. “Koreans have a manner of taking good care of one another, even in powerful instances.”
Nicole Um, a long-time patron who had her first date together with her husband at Dan Sung Sa, designed and started promoting T-shirts that includes a photograph of Dan Sung Sa’s storefront, pledging to donate the proceeds to native nonprofits. “I’ve made so many superb recollections right here. Though 2020 has been so tough for therefore many individuals, it’s inspiring to see somebody like Caroline, a Korean feminine position mannequin, persevere by all of it,” she says. Through the pandemic, Um launched an initiative, known as Ktown Fanclub, which goals to carry consciousness to small companies, like Dan Sung Sa, which have served the Koreatown neighborhood for many years.
“It’s heartbreaking that Dan Sung Sa is closed in the interim,” says John Min, one other loyal fan. “I’ve been visiting because the late ’90s, and it’s like a second dwelling to me. However I’m wanting ahead to going again to assist it after they reopen. It’s a spot that has actually been there for everybody.”