Escala brings Colombian flavors to Koreatown

October 9, 2014

Street artist Chino and Seoul Sausage chef Chris Oh got together to create ‘One of the hottest 25 restaurants in LA’ 

Escala, located in Koreatown's Chapman Plaza. (Courtesy of Escala)

Escala, located in Koreatown’s Chapman Plaza. (Courtesy of Escala)

By Tae Hong

If you’ve been to Koreatown lately, you may have noticed a colorful, open-windowed splash on the corner of the historic Chapman Plaza on 6th Street.

Welcome to street artist Chino and Seoul Sausage chef Chris Oh’s Escala, K-Town’s newest Colombian joint that’s brought a dash of hip, graffitied flavor to a street lined with regional institutions that includes the acclaimed KBBQ hotspot Kang Ho-dong Baek-jeong, the pork-rib-famous Ham Ji Park and Cheon-ju Han Il-kwan, the purveyor of the best military soup in town.

It’s at Escala, though, where a spinning disco ball hangs over its live DJs and where a water fountain greets both customers and passersby, that a taste of a newly emerging K-Town really bursts through.

Escala Owner Chino, left, and Chef Chris Oh. (Tae Hong/The Korea Times)

Escala Owner Chino, left, and Chef Chris Oh. (Tae Hong/The Korea Times)

“Koreatown’s not only for Korean food now. It’s like a destination place to get good food,” Oh said. “I think Colombian food and culture is really similar to Korean food and culture. It’s all about having a good time, drinking, having fun, eating, being loud.”

For owner Chino, who was born in Korea but grew up in Colombia, and whose parents still reside there, a culture of sharing is how he grew up. Oh, himself a 1.5-generation Korean American, took it upon himself to come up with a menu that he imagined would best be served to a group of friends or family.

Escala's fried chicken wings

Escala’s fried chicken wings, Colombian spiced.

Escala’s selections are meant to be ordered for the table, he said.

“Obviously, in Korean tradition, too, you eat as a family. You don’t eat as an individual,” Oh said. “It promotes conversation.”

The menu — and the restaurant’s unique venue — has promoted more than just conversation. Last month, EaterLA named Escala one of the hottest 25 restaurants in Los Angeles.

Oh had to Google and YouTube Colombian recipes — as he did for his famous Seoul Sausages — when he was handed control of the kitchen by Chino.

Escala's ceviche

Escala’s ceviche, with tilapia & shrimp, roasted corn, Asian pear Aji.

Offerings at EscaLA don’t stray too far from traditional Colombian fare, from chicken wings (“Every Korean place has chicken wings,” Oh said. His offering here has a twist — it’s Colombian spiced) and a tilapia & shrimp ceviche to beef empanadas and loaded fried yucca with pulled pork.

Lest you forget Escala is a Koreatown establishment, the menu also offers a K-Town arroz con pollo, essentially a kimchi fried rice. And if you’re up for a soju-based cocktail reminiscent of a Melona bar (the crowd-pleasing Korean popsicle) and named The Korean Lady, try a sip — or five — of La Coreana.

Oh’s philosophy for the selection reflects his take on both Korean and Colombian cuisine: they’re bold, spicy and comforting.

Chino and Oh are mainstays in K-Town. Chino’s been in the neighborhood since the late 1970s. Oh, despite Seoul Sausage’s Sawtelle location, says he spends 90 percent of his time here. They see the region as a fast-growing, increasingly inviting attraction for anyone interested in food culture.

“[Koreatown] is one of the coolest up-and-coming little pockets of a city, I think, in the nation,” Oh said. “I think Escala is really helping the community. It’s bringing in all these other cultures and other races. K-Town’s not just for Korean food anymore — we’re a gateway for other cultures to come in and experience the neighborhood.”

Chino hopes it will do just that.

Escala symbolizes, for him, much more than just food. His father was one of the first Korean diplomats in Colombia following the Korean War; he helped introduce Korean culture to Colombia, including taekwondo, in the 1960s. In turn, Chino has brought a slice of Colombia to the unofficial Korean capital of the United States.

The name itself — escala is layover in Spanish — is a reminder of Chino’s parents’ visits to Los Angeles as a layover between their flights to Korea.

Escala's La Coreana, a soju-based cocktail.

Escala’s La Coreana, a soju-based cocktail.

Chino, who is a longtime street artist with strong ties to the music industry stemming from a record store he used to operate out of South Central in the late 1980s, said the space was inspired by what he knows: street art and a wide range of music styles.

“I like that it feels like an art space,” Chino said. “Not just with different art on the walls, but with different DJs coming, and with different pop-ups, even the kitchen becomes an open creative space.”

Most of the space’s colorful art are contributions from his fellow street artists.

“[Diversity] is good for the community, not just for business,” Chino said. “We want to make Koreatown an attraction.”

“When people visit L.A., we want them to first go to Disneyland, and then second go to K-Town,” Oh said.

EscaLA is located at 3451 W. 6th St, Los Angeles, CA 90020. Visit escalaktown.com for more information.

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