K-Town, 3 A.M.: Where Do the Regulars Go?
Some Friday nights at 3 a.m. deserve more than a drunken slice of pizza, and as wish fulfillment in New York goes, a two-block stretch known as K-Town caters comprehensively to a bar-hopping crowd.
32nd Street's bevy of bar-cum-restaurants reaches optimal productivity between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., serving up anju, Korean bar food saltier than standard Korean fare, until the wee morning hours. The price points may be higher than other late night culinary options, but remember that the generous portions, like the bills, are made for splitting.
Who visits K-Town at this hour, and where do they go to eat? We talked to some regulars to find out.
Located immediately below Third Floor within an unmarked building, Soju Haus packs in masses enticed by the kind of trendy, low-key atmosphere long absent in the neighborhood. For the regulars who've worn out the confines of "K-Block"—and at this late hour, there are only regulars and friends of regulars—the six-month-old bar offers, above all, a change of scenery.
"Most places in K-Town are pretty old and everyone's been to them a million times," says James Moon, a K-Town regular since 2010. "So whenever a new one opens, everyone rushes there."
Blue lounge lighting bathes this space while round metal tables encourage the kind of cliquey, marathon socializing that is the hallmark of Korean drinking culture. Serving beer in mason jars and eschewing oriental woodwork, Soju Haus caters to the East-meets-West tastes of the modern K-Town aficionado.
On the food side, the menu includes little variations on the usual late night items: crispy seafood pancakes, sizzling bulgogi, and spicy barbecue chicken. More interesting is their pomegranate vinegar-infused Hongcho Soju ($17 for a kettle-ful), a candy-sweet adaptation that can either be taken as a shot or sipped as a dessert drink.
The post-Circle (Nightclub) rush is tidily contained by Take 31, a narrow restaurant which retains its endearing lunch spot personality in the evenings.
"It's not a city bar like Wa Bar. It's cozy, close to Circle, and the waiters don't push you to leave," said Will Kim, who's been frequenting the spot since its late 2011 opening and has since befriended the staff. "90% of the time I drink, I come here."
For NYU student Sue Kim, the cafe's "cute," all-in-the-family warmth provides an apt setting for her kind of late night, clubby conversation: "Americans drink to meet people. Koreans drink to socialize with who they're with."
Even the restaurant's assorted menu of stews attests to its window-fogging intimacy, During the colder months, every other order will include Honghap Jogaetang ($20), a clear, dashi-based, piping hot soup flavored with clams and chili peppers, then topped with Enoki mushrooms.
BCD Tofu House
A bi-coastal institution, BCD is the McDonald's of "late night, after-drinks, pre-hangover [Korean] food," says Sue Kim.
Pristine, bright, and packed even at 6 a.m., BCD converts into a watering hole for late-late nighters looking for the Korean manna known as Soon Tofu. Savory enough to quell larger-than-life craving5rked up over five hours of drinking, and rich enough to counter the probably effects of said alcohol consumption, the dish is the ultimate spicy Korean comfort food. For the homogeneously Korean crowd that survives beyond sunrise, the dish is a requisite for recovery. And where else to find the dish than the aptly named Tofu House.
The bestselling Seafood Soon Tofu ($15) is brought out as fast as it's ordered, in a stone pot simmering in a hodgepodge of chili powder, soft tofu nuggets, and chewy oysters, mussels, and shrimp. Unlike other anjus, tofu soup is served with the regular spread of banchan. Notable are a fragrant sesame zucchini dish and a cool, raw egg you can opt to crack and cook in your boiling soup.
Don't end your night without Nurungji (complimentary), a warm, nutty porridge made by pouring hot water into the crisp leftover crust of rice bowls. The basic, mostly tasteless soup will cleanse your palette and soothe your stomach for the morning to come.
For some Serious Eats K-Town recommendations, check out our late-night food and drink crawl, then tell us about your favorites in the comments.
About the author: Michelle No is an Italian native raised on equal parts bolognese and Korean barbecue. When she's not writing, you can find her evangelizing the only proper way to eat french fries (with ice cream) or eating unmelted butter on toast. You can follow her on Twitter, @Michelle_No.