Song-tae Kim and 17 of his church friends chatted loudly, some fueled by soju, as the leftovers from their dinner – black bean noodles and spicy seafood noodle soup – were spread out in front of them.
For dessert, they passed around Korean pear slices that they had brought from home.
This was the group’s last meal at Dragon, a Korean-style Chinese restaurant in Koreatown. They have been meeting there twice a month for two decades.
Dragon is closing Sunday after more than 40 years of serving Southern California Korean Americans dishes like jajangmyeon (the aforementioned black bean noodles), jjamppong (the seafood soup) and tangsuyuk (sweet and sour pork).
With its private rooms and expansive banquet rooms, Dragon has hosted countless first birthday parties Doljanchi, and 80th birthdays, or pulse.
In addition to regular meetings with his friends from St. Agnes Korean Catholic Church, Kim has enjoyed many family dinners and birthdays at Dragon, which he owns “dangol”, or go to a restaurant. A resident of Koreatown, Kim immigrated to the United States in 1978 and ran a sewing factory for 35 years.
“It’s such a shame,” said Kim, 74. “We meet here twice a month and now we have to find another place, but there is no place like it.”
Deok-jeong Wang, who founded the restaurant and owns the property, plans to convert it into mixed-use, affordable housing. But he said the driving force behind his decision was not profit. The quality of the food is declining, he said, because it is difficult to recruit chefs knowledgeable about Korean-Chinese cuisine, which originated with Chinese immigrants in South Korea and adds a Korean twist to northern Chinese dishes.
For example, Chinese Zhajiangmian is usually simpler than Korean Chinese Jajangmyeon, which is coated in a thick sauce made from fermented black beans.
“To make these very traditional dishes, you need someone who has those special skills, but there aren’t that many of those chefs anymore,” Wang said. “In the beginning, a lot of chefs immigrated from Korea, but generation after generation, young people don’t do it anymore.”
Like many who work in Korean-Chinese restaurants, Wang is of Chinese descent and grew up in South Korea.
After arriving in the United States in 1971, Wang took any job he could find – bus boy, food delivery man, sous chef. In 1974, he opened a Korean-style Chinese restaurant, which became Dragon in 1980.
Wang sold the restaurant to In-seung Choi in 2016, but retained ownership of the property on South Vermont Avenue north of Olympic Boulevard.
In recent years, density premiums and other incentives have led to a surge in affordable housing development in Koreatown, one of Los Angeles’ densest neighborhoods.
Choi said construction of the six-story, 90-unit building that will replace the Dragon is scheduled to begin in March.
Choi said he once owned four Korean-Chinese restaurants but sold them after struggling with a shortage of chefs.
The Glendale Chinese restaurant House of Joy, which he sold in 2021, could get by with Latino chefs trained to prepare that cuisine because about half of the customers are non-Korean, said Choi, who has more than 10 restaurants in the space LA owns.
The Dragon also has some non-Korean guests, but Choi said many of the Koreans “are of the older generation, who are more picky and sensitive to changes in food.”
Younger chefs from South Korea don’t want to move to LA because of the high cost of living and relatively low salaries, Choi added, which is also a problem for Korean restaurants that serve traditional Korean cuisine.
“The chef, who has worked at Dragon for over 30 years, is now in his 70s, and it has been over a year since he said his wrists were hurting,” Choi said. “We knew it was time to close the store.”
Hobin Chang, owner of Korean-Chinese restaurant Young King in Koreatown, said he has similar problems with recruiting.
“It’s difficult, but we manage to find some people from Hong Kong and China, for example, who live in LA and we train them,” Chang said.
The Dragon was originally scheduled to close last June, but remained open mostly to keep its approximately 20 employees busy, Choi said.
Choi said he felt terrible about closing the restaurant and putting workers out of work.
“I personally have so many memories of this restaurant,” he said. “This is where my parents and my wife’s parents officially met before we got married in 2001.”
Staff hoped the restaurant would move to another location, but Choi said a large space suitable for traditional Korean celebrations would be prohibitively expensive.
“Without the size and dedicated spaces for events, it would no longer be the Dragon,” Choi said. “It would be just another Chinese restaurant. “We could find any little place to keep the restaurant going, but it would lose its meaning.”
Peter Nam, 68, has been coming to the Dragon since arriving from South Korea in 1982. Every second Saturday of the month he dines there with a group of about ten friends.
“It’s a very sad feeling because I’ve been coming here for over 40 years,” Nam said as he ate a plate of sweet and spicy shrimp at his last dinner at Dragon. “We’ve talked about what the next restaurant will be where we can all get together, but we’re not so sure.”
As the St. Agnes church group finished their dinner, Joanne Lee passed around a second round of freshly sliced Korean pears and pushed half-finished plates of jajangmyeon and aside Seafood soup
“We need to find another place for our gatherings, but it’s hard to find a place that can accommodate a large group and offers as good a service as the Dragon,” said Lee, 70. “They even allowed us to Bringing our own dessert and alcohol to the restaurant because we know the staff so well.”
In Korean, aswiwo means sadness, pity and disappointment all in one – an apt description of how customers felt in the dragon’s final days.
“Aswiwo, aswiwo,said Lee and several friends, all shaking their heads.