Many metropolitan areas have Chinatowns, but not many have a Koreatown. Lakewood Koreatown, or K-town as it is known locally, can be found in the International District on South Tacoma Way. Conveniently parallel to Interstate 5, it is very easy to access with plenty of parking. It has a special place in my heart as I lived in South Korea for 2 years while stationed in the Army. I met my husband there and we both enjoy visiting K-town to experience all the food we grew to love while living there.
There are a variety of things to see and do in the area. It is not a tourist zone but a place where Korean-Americans live and work. You will run into many U.S. military service members who grew to love the country while stationed there. I enjoy going to eat there as well as shopping at the unique stores. There is even an authentic Korean woman-only spa.
Pro Tip: If you aren’t familiar with Korean food, read the book, Crying in H Mart. It is about a Korean-American woman who connects with her Korean heritage through the food her mother prepares. The Boo Han Market is where she purchases Korean ingredients in the U.S.
1. Korean Barbecue
While stationed in Korea, I would frequently go to barbecue places where a hibachi grill with hot coals was brought to the table and beef bulgogi or other meats were grilled right in front of you. Served with lettuce leaves, hot sticky rice, bean or red pepper paste, and a variety of banchan with kimchi; a fermented cabbage being the most familiar. Americans refer to the dish as “Beef and Leaf.” You take a lettuce leaf and layer it with rice, a sauce or paste, kimchi, and top it with hot, grilled meat. Fold or roll up and eat it like a taco. It is so good and fresh tasting.
There are quite a few Korean barbecue restaurants in the area and my favorite is the New Gangnam BBQ. It’s located in the same strip mall as the Boo Han Market. This restaurant serves an all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue. There are three prices, each with a variety of meats. My husband and I get the basic one as it has the meats we like. You will be seated at a table with a built-in gas grill. Pick which meat you’d like to try, and the servers will bring it out. Each meal comes with eight different side dishes known as banchan: a bowl of sticky white rice, chopped lettuce (ask for leaves), a soy-type sauce, and bean paste. If you are following a low carb or paleo type diet, it is a good meal for that, just skip the rice. We stick with bulgogi, which is a marinated sliced beef and a thinly sliced Angus beef.
Pro Tip: Americans are usually handed the all-you-can-eat menu, but ask to see the larger menu which also has a large variety of Korean specialties. Popular dishes include a variety of soups and stews.
2. Shin Shin
I love Shin Shin. It has such a cool variety of everything including Korean skincare, appliances, cleaning products, clothing, blankets, and dishes. You might be disconcerted when reading the reviews, but this is due to a misunderstanding of Korean culture. When you begin shopping in the store, an employee will come up to you and make suggestions. They are not following you because they think you are shoplifting. These ladies are masters at sales and I will often purchase something they suggested that I had not planned on buying.
Take time to explore the whole store. There are so many interesting products. I like to watch videos that demonstrate some of the small cooking appliances. If you need a rice cooker, this is the place to purchase one. Who knew rice cookers came at such a range of prices. There are high end ones, though, unfortunately, I am not sure what warrants the price as I can’t read Korean. Another must-purchase product here is the skincare, especially if you like facemasks. You can find them for 50 cents, which is a true bargain. I enjoy cooking Korean and Asian food, and Shin Shin has all the utensils you need, especially items to make sushi. I also love all the serving dishes, with perfect little bowls for sauces. I also find things I can use when making a charcuterie.
Pro Tip: When stationed in South Korea, I was in charge of the Korean security guards. When the head guard found out I was going home to visit my parents, he brought me some ginseng tea to bring home to them. He said it was good for healthy aging. My mother enjoyed it and I made sure to bring it home on future visits.
3. Boo Han Market
This is a fun place to visit if you enjoy cooking Asian foods. My most recent book club read Crying in H Mart and the person leading our discussion that month went to the Boo Han Market, aka “H Mart,” to purchase the refreshments. There is a great variety of interesting snacks and beverages to try. The fresh produce section has all the vegetables you need to make your favorite Korean dishes. I also like to try new condiments, everything from bean paste or chili sauce to flavorful soy sauces; and lots of spicy stuff as well. Bo chan is the Korean side dish served with every meal and the market has a nice selection of prepared kimchi and other pickled vegetables for purchase. Located near the Gangnam BBQ, Boo Han is a convenient stop after your meal if you want to recreate it at home.
4. Olympus Spa
The Olympus Spa is a wellness spa for women only. It offers a variety of services and day passes to soak in its therapeutic pools. It is known locally as the “naked spa” as no bathing suits are allowed. Guests are issued robes, but you enter the pools naked.
The spa offers a variety of Korean facials and peels, massages, and traditional Korean body scrubs to exfoliate the skin. A day pass includes the use of all the spa’s facilities which include an herbal hydrotherapy bath, hot whirlpools, a cold waterfall, a mugwort herbal well, a mugwort steam & herbal dry sauna, and far infrared heated rooms. Also on site is a tea café offering traditional Korean green tea.
5. Pal Do World
I first visited Pal Do World with a group, Lunch Bunch, to go to the food court. Pal Do World is a large building with a huge Asian grocery store, a variety of small shops, a bakery, and a food court.
The food court offers Japanese sushi, Korean Food, Chinese food, and the House of Mandoo which sells only Korean dumplings. These large fist-sized dumplings are fluffy clouds of yumminess. The dough is freshly made by hand throughout the day. You have a choice of three varieties — pork, spicy pork, or bean curd. I like to purchase a pork dumpling to eat while waiting for my food from one of the other vendors. The dumplings are so fresh and delicious they have a cult following. When you order food from the other vendors, they prefer you sit in the seating in front of their restaurants.
Explore the market where you can purchase fresh fish from tanks. If you happen to luck out, the vendor may be there selling fresh Bungeoppang, which is a Korean name for a fish-shaped pastry filled with a sweet filling. They are so good.
Next time you are in the area, plan a visit to K-town for a cultural experience you won’t easily forget.
For more things to do near Tacoma and some Korean-based destinations, check out these articles: