A night out with the Ktown Cowboys, the tight-knit group of Korean-American actors, filmmakers, and friends behind the Entourage-like web series and feature film of the same name, begins and ends with a spirited soju toast—but then, dozens of soju toasts fly by during an evening of bar-hopping in Los Angeles’s fast-gentrifying but still impenetrable Koreatown.
In the tireless tradition of social drinking in Korea, nightlife here floats by on rivers of soju and Hite. A typical marathon itinerary includes hitting multiple rounds of restaurants, soju bars, and private karaoke rooms before someone dials a top-secret Korean taxi service (think: Korean Uber) that drives the inebriated parties and their cars home safely.
If you’re an outsider trying to navigate your way around the clubs, bars, hideouts, and customs of Ktown, it’s advisable to enlist seasoned guides like music video helmer-turned-director Daniel “DPD” Park and Ktown Cowboys stars Danny Cho, Peter Jae, Sunn Wee, and Shane Yoon, who took me along for a tour of Ktown before heading to SXSW this month to premiere their indie dramedy.
Ktown Cowboys follows the bromantic escapades of five legendary Koreatown partiers coming to terms with their mid-to-late-20s between after-hours benders and boozy karaoke nights. There’s Jason (Yoon), the corporate suit; Danny (Cho), the wannabe stand-up; Peter (Jae), the meathead fashion designer; Sunny (Wee), the son of a liquor store owner; and Robby (Bobby Choy), who’s struggling to connect to his roots after being adopted by white parents.
All five besties are chasing some kind of American Dream born of their Korean roots, sorting out life from the booths and bars of Ktown. The film also boasts appearances by celebrity Asians Daniel Dae Kim, Steve Byrne, and executive producer Ken Jeong (of The Hangover fame).
Our night begins in a strip mall in the heart of Koreatown at Ahgassi Gopchang, where barbecued intestines are the specialty of the house and the meat, Cho swears, is a cut above the countless AYCE joints in L.A. Raised in East L.A.’s Boyle Heights (“I grew up on the sauce from the original King Taco”), he quit his day job as a business consultant eight years ago to pursue comedy when an assist from MADtv’s Bobby Lee landed him an agent and appearance on the sketch show.
Cho created the Ktown Cowboys web series with DPD after watching Cho in drag impersonating the unmistakable lilt of a “Ktown girl” (“a combo of Valley Girl meets chola,” says DPD) in a video sketch. The web series earned a following for its comic glimpses into Ktown culture and how-tos, like what not to sing at karaoke, and the second-nature social rules of eating and drinking among Koreans. A chance introduction to a financier—over drinks, naturally—finally allowed them to turn the series into a film based on their life experiences and people they knew. That opened the door to expand the Ktown Cowboys into a full-blown feature with bigger character arcs and to highlight the Koreatown landmarks they knew on the big screen, many of which they were able to shoot in for free because they knew the owners.
“I was born in Ktown and grew up in the Valley, but my grandparents lived on Wilton,” says DPD, who met Wee when they played in a punk band together. “By the time we got to high school a lot of our friends lived in Ktown, so we spent a lot of weekends here. My heart’s always been in Ktown.”
For the uninitiated, Ktown Cowboys utilizes a handful of Zack Morris moments to break the fourth wall and explain certain concepts and phrases, like “FOB,” or “fresh off the boat,” an idea that coincidentally hit the mainstream this year thanks to ABC’s hit sitcom.
“I grew up hearing that all the time because where I grew up there was always a conflict about Koreans who were born here and Asians in general who were born here, versus Asians who emigrated here,” said DPD. “People throw that word around a lot and a lot of my friends are FOBs. But when we were going over the script with other people they’d say, ‘What’s a FOB?’ We realized we were going to have to make a point of it.”
As for romance, a subplot between Jae’s Peter and his female friend illuminates a social hierarchy instilled in second-generation Korean men and women. “There’s this whole thing about seniority,” explains DPD. “If you’re a guy and you have an older guy friend, there’s a respect and a whole culture behind it and how you treat your hyung (“older brother”). There’s a whole pay-it-forward kind of attitude. That extends to relationships older guys have with younger girls, which sometimes leads to romance.”
Ktown Cowboys’ Koreatown is a Koreatown most Angelenos don’t know: Establishments with signs marked only in Korean that, until recently, had remained exclusionary by default. Dotted with Art Deco architecture, the mid-Wilshire ’hood saw a steep decline after Bobby Kennedy was shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in 1968, which is when the gangs and crime started moving in, along with an influx of Korean immigrants who put down roots as small-business owners and began to change the local landscape.
The neighborhood made national headlines during the L.A. Riots in 1992, when racial tensions were at their height in the densely populated enclave. These days it’s one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the city and well on the come-up, filled with hipster eateries and bars that bring night owls from all over to the neighborhood. In recent years, non-Koreans armed with Yelp reviews started infiltrating the bunker-like walls of watering holes like DGM (DwitGolMok)—our yi-cha, or “second round.”
“This is such an OG Koreatown spot, look at the menu—nothing’s in English,” Cho remarks as another line of soju shots is filled. “When I started seeing non-friends here often, I realized Ktown’s getting gentrified. And I’m glad it is, because businesses were dying out here.”
Ktown Cowboys acts as a greatest-hits drinking map of the guys’ favorite spots, from the second-floor soju lounge on Vermont to Sonagi Korean BBQ to Café Bleu, “the Ktown hometown bar, where everyone knows each other,” according to DPD. It also features a glimpse into one of Ktown’s more curious cultural oddities: The booking club, where waiters bring young women around to meet booths of dudes, like matchmakers.
“Back in the ’90s and early 2000s there were booking clubs in Koreatown,” DPD explains. “Maybe the girl gets offered a drink and they talk, or maybe she leaves because she doesn’t like the way these guys look. Or maybe they get a conversation going, people hang out, numbers get exchanged. It’s like aggressive speed dating.”
Nowadays the booking club has all but died out in L.A. “I think in America, people born here didn’t know the concept and didn’t like it,” he laughs.
As a few revelers tap out and head home, we make our way down the street to the third and final stop of the night for private-room karaoke at Palm Tree L.A. Yoon, a gregarious actor and writer who plays the group’s ringleader onscreen, drops an expert version of “Forgot About Dre” as an elaborate fruit platter lands alongside more bottles of Chamisul soju.
Numerous episodes of Ktown Cowboys are set in rooms like these, answering age-old philosophical questions like, “What do you do if the n-word pops up at karaoke?”
“The story is about these guys, in their late 20s, still acting like they’re in college. It’s time to grow up,” says DPD. “It’s not too far from how I felt watching the characters in Knocked Up. We have people nearing 30, but they’re still rooming together and the bong’s the biggest piece of furniture in their living room. ‘I’m about to turn 30, why am I acting like I’m still 23?’”
With Ktown Cowboys, DPD hopes to put Koreatown and its culture on the cinematic map: “You see a group of friends truly be a group of friends. I’m hoping that people might think of it as a Korean-American Swingers.”