Ethnic Los Angeles
Hanging lanterns for Buddhist celebrations in Koreatown. (Ray Laskowitz/LPI)
Tourists may go celebrity-stalking in Hollywood – putting their hand prints on the Walk of Fame, hiking up to see the Hollywood sign, and even going on tours of celebrity homes in Beverly Hills (which are more often than not, the wrong houses) – but the real Los Angeles can be found in the city's ethnic neighborhoods.
Los Angeles is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country, with immigrants like Mexicans, Persians, Albanians, Chinese, Russians, Israelis and Armenians carving out their own territories through ethnic markets, restaurants and entertainment native to their home countries.
Many of these neighborhoods intersect near and around Hollywood, with Koreatown, Thai Town and Little Armenia within a few miles of each other - which is a boon in a sprawling city known for its excruciating traffic and long-distance driving.
Thai Town, which hosts the largest community of Thai outside Thailand, is centered along Hollywood Boulevard between Normandie and Western Avenues in Hollywood. It overlaps substantially with Little Armenia (www.littlearmenia.com), home to a large Armenian-American community and the St. Garabed Armenian Apostolic Church on Alexandria Avenue.
Thai Town seems a bit deserted compared to the bustling boulevard a little more than a mile west, where Hollywood tourists mill about. Start off at Thailand Plaza (www.thailandplazala.com), a market next to a kitchy, Oriental-looking tower. It houses a Thai bookstore, grocery and the unimaginatively named Thailand Plaza Restaurant, which serves traditional cuisine. For a cornucopia of desserts, like sweet tacos, the grilled taro/coconut (Bhan Kanom Pang) and the mango fruit roll up (Mamuang Guan) visit Bhan Kanom Thai (www.bhankanomthai.com), in the adjacent strip mall, which features a dozen Thai Restaurants like Red Corner Asia. For an unusual experience- although you would not call it authentic - go see Thai Elvis perform at the Palm's restaurant (www.palmsthai.com) every Wednesday through Sunday nights. There are spas in Thai town, like the Royal Thai Spa (www.nuchroyalthaispa.com), but head to Koreatown for classier settings.
Koreatown, located on the parallel Wilshire Boulevard a few miles south of Thai town, has a great new spa to add to the plethora of Korean-style options. At Wi Spa (www.wispausa.com), a 24-hour, Korean-style, three-story, 48,000-square-foot haven, you can even spend the night - provided you sleep on the bamboo mats and wood block pillows in the Jimjilbang, or common area, located on the lower level. Like many of the day spas in the area, the men- and women-only treatment rooms offer inexpensive scrubs, steams, saunas, cold and hot pools. But Wi is a bit more upscale and you may even spot celebrities like John Travolta.
A day of cleansing will leave you hungry. Korean barbeque, which is often priced at an all-you-can eat prix fixe (usually under $20) for an assortment of meat. Finish off your night by warbling at Korean karaoke places like Bobos Karaoke (213) 884-7700, which outdoes its American version with private rooms where you and your friends can inflict your voices on each other, instead of strangers; the accompanying sentimental Korean videos may be humorous to non-Koreans too.
Although every neighborhood has its own shopping - including hometown newspapers, groceries and delicacies - if you want to buy in bulk, head east (in your car) to Chinatown, located in downtown Los Angeles, which offers the best knickknacks, bags, jewelry and crafts at discount prices.
In each of these neighborhoods, you may feel like a foreigner, but then you know you have seen the real Los Angeles. In a city known for creating the make-believe, finding something real is priceless.