NEW YORK - Located on 32nd Street between Fifth Avenue and Broadway, New York`s "Korea Way" is the center for Korean cuisine, shopping and culture.
Though only one block long, the street adjacent to such tourist attractions as Madison Square Center, Herald Square and the Empire State Building features almost every aspect of modern-day Korean life, from Korean banks to "noraebang."
Until about 10 years ago, the street at the center of midtown Manhattan was not even as globalized as Seoul`s Itaewon area, as this bustling street didn`t attract many non-Korean New Yorkers. Recently, though, the street has been changing as an increasing number of ethnic non-Koreans are frequenting due to heightened interest in Korean culture, especially the food.
In fact, quite a few of Wall Street`s young financiers have their hangouts in "K-town." Walking along the street in the evening, it is easy to spot all sorts of folks in Korean restaurants chatting with their friends over glasses of Korean liquor.
"About half of our customers are non-Koreans. Although Chinese and Japanese customers account for much of the foreign customers still, I see more and more Americans come here recently," said Cho Min-chul, the manager of Gahm Mi Ok Korean restaurant at the entrance of the Korea Way.
Cho, who has been working for the well-known "seolleongtang" place for the past four years, said such changes are thanks to the continuous efforts by the Korean community in the Big Apple to make the country`s culture better known in the world`s hub for business, fashion, and the arts.
Every year, the association of Korean residents in New York City hosts the "Korean Parade and Festival," featuring floats, marching bands, Korean traditional dances and costume parades.
Cho said that there are other reasons. "Korean restaurants are known for quick service and good food. And they open until very late," he said.
Sometimes, quick service leaves customers with an impression that Korean food is slightly overpriced. "The food was great but I wish it was cheaper," said an American customer who introduced herself as Elizabeth, after finishing a bowl of bibimbap at the restaurant.
Though Gahm Mi Ok is best-known for seolleongtang among the city`s Koreans, Westerners rarely order the Korean delicacy. "It seems like they (Westerners) don`t like the idea of pouring a bowl of rice into the soup at all, with an exception of Russians who have similar recipes," Cho said.
Instead, a dish like bibimbap is much more popular among Americans who come to the restaurant. "I love it. It is yummy with good nutritional balance," said Elizabeth, a professional model who lives in New York`s Chinatown.
If Korean pop culture has contributed much to the increased popularity of Korean cuisine in Japan, it was Korean companies and business figures that have been behind the rapidly enhanced interest in Korean restaurants in Manhattan.
"There are almost no global companies based in New York that have no connection with a Korean company," said David Oh, general manager of Bann Korean restaurant, which is on the West 50th Street, near Broadway`s theater district.
At first sight, the restaurant looked different from other restaurants on the Korean street. With somewhat artful, vintage-style decor, it looks as if it was the kind of place where diners want to ask for a menu to see if it was within their lunch budget.
Inside, the hall is fairly open, tall and generally spacious. Each dining table is equipped with a grill, but, unlike that of many Korean barbeque places in Seoul, it is designed not to produce smoke while preparing "bulgogi" and other barbeque dishes, offering a more pleasant environment to eat and unwind.
"Many Americans are not accustomed to the self-preparing concept of Korean grills, so we ask beforehand if they want us to cook meat or if they want to do it themselves in the Korean style," Oh said.
Choi Young-sook, the owner of the restaurant, also runs three "Woo Lae Oak" Korean restaurants in the United States.
Opened first in the Los Angeles Korea town in the late `80s, Woo Lae Oak has taken the lead in enhancing the image of Korean restaurants by purusing a more refined atmosphere and service.
Among the customers of Woo Lae Oak`s New York branch located in SoHo, the stylish lower Manhattan neighborhood, are Hollywood celebrities including Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves, as well as Rupert Murdoch, President and Chairman of News Corporation, who used to live near the restaurant.
When opening Bann, Choi intended to make Korean cuisine more accessible to New Yorkers, and thus came up with the name meaning "steamed rice," which is easy to pronounce and remember.
"I was shocked to hear a loyal customer of Woo Lae Oak in L.A. pronounce the name wrong," Choi told reporters when she visited Seoul last October.
Despite the comparatively short history, Bann is not far behind Woo Lae Oak restaurants in popularity. Although the former targets more of ethnic Korean customers, about 70 percent of its customers are non-Koreans.
Oh said that a large portion of the customers at the five-year-old Bann are either those who have reservations at nearby Broadway theaters for evening shows or high-salaried professionals from law firms and financial institutes around it.
"Pop stars such as Mariah Carey and Beyonce once came to have dinner here. But whoever comes here, we treat them the same as our famous customers," said Oh, who was also involved in Woo Lae Oak `s SoHo project as manager.
Oh left Seoul to settle in New York in 1976. He said that he was disappointed to see there were no Korean restaurant in SoHo, a thriving magnet for young expats, tourists and locals in search of a good party and the latest fashion trend. "There were Thai restaurants and sushi bars but no Korean restaurants, and as a food enthusiast, I took it serious enough to join the project," he said.
Besides Bann and Woo Lae Oak, more and more Korean restaurants have opened up in Manhattan, outside Korea town yet the future does not seem to be very optimistic.
"Running a Korean restaurant outside Korea town is not easy because one has to satisfy two very conflicting tastes at the same time. While Americans prefer Korean dishes with a mild taste and smell, Koreans like to have Korean food with maximum authenticity," he said.
Considering Korea`s overall position in the global business scene, Korean food is not very well-positioned in North America yet. According to a recent survey by Accenture, an Ireland-based global management consulting firm, Korean food ranked eighth in popularity among the food of 11 different countries (in China, on the other hand, Korean food was the most favored foreign cuisine in the same survey).
"Korean restaurants need to focus more on promoting the healthiness of Korean cuisine, giving up on the value for money approach," Oh said. "There are also things Korean restaurants in New York should work together for, such as unifying the spelling of the names of Korean foods on each of their menus."
By Lee Yong-sung/Korea Herald correspondent