Swinging Doors — Asian Bars of Los Angeles

I’ve heard Vietnamese and Koreans friends talk about how much Koreans and Vietnamese drink. More than once have I found myself drinking more than I should, egged on by Thai friends, Filipino family, and in one case a Japanese salaryman. No one drinks like Europeans, though, and European nations predictably occupy the top ten rankings of alcohol consumption per capita. The top Asian nation, Korea, only ranks #17. The top 100 only includes a few Asian and Pacific Island nations, in fact: Kazakhstan, Palau, Laos, Japan, Thailand, Mongolia, China, and Vietnam — in that order. That’s not to suggest that alcohol isn’t an important part of Asian culture and history, though. Asia, after all, gave us sake, soju, cheongjuchoujiugouqi jiu, goryangjuhuangjiukumis, makgeollimeijiu, shōchū, umsehu, Singha, and cognac. Asia also gave us Asian bars, and while Asian restaurants are the fodder of a thousand listicles, acknowledgments of Asian bars are almost non-existent.

If a bar doesn’t serve Asian alcoholic beverages, what makes it Asian? And if it serves food, which it probably does, is it a bar? What if karaoke is the focus and drinking merely a helpful social lubricant? What if a bar is a white guy’s inauthentic kitsch version of an Asian or Pacific Islander bar, such as a tiki bar? Where is the line drawn between Asian bars, lounges, and nightclubs? What if the bar is owned by an Asian-American but mostly caters to non-Asians, or the other way around? Those all sound like fine things to discuss over drinks and I will consider adding any and all to my map of Los Angeles’s Asian bars.

So help me build this map of Asian bars by giving me your suggestions be they Asian-owned dives, Little Saigon bikini bars, Koreatown booking clubs and hostess bars, Little Tokyo izakayas, San Gabriel Valley pijiu wus, lounges with table service, nightclubs, taverns, tiki bars, &c. Please do not give me any hookah bars, coffee bars, juice bars, noodle bars, strip bars, sushi bars, oyster bars, or bar-b-ques — unless there is a wet bar within them.

Ideally, I’d like to include contemporary establishments as well as historic ones. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about the early era of Asian bars in Los Angeles. Chinatown had arisen by the 1870s and surely had its share of bars. There were two nihonmachi by the first decade of the 20th century and East 1st Street apparently supported several nomiya, where men drank and women sang and played shamisen.


CAFE BLISS (Koreatown)

view from our table…. (Image: James “Show Me The Food and Drinks!” Y.)

Cafe Bliss is an almost intimidatingly sterile, dimly lit, noraebang which I imagine is what a bar on a space station might look like, not one situated within an historic Churrigueresque building designed as one of the West’s first car-centric markets (Chapman Park Market, 1929). The bar scenes in Michael Mann‘s film, Collateral, were filmed here and I’ve still yet to see that despite being a Cruise-head!

It’s served by Metro‘s Red and Purple lines.

EBISU (Little Tokyo)

I’m on a boat! (Image: Lee “fatlildragon” L.)

Ebisu is a Japanese tavern with a nautical theme. The bar’s namesake, Ebisu (恵比須) is the Japanese god of fishermen and luck.

It’s served by Metro’s Gold Line.

FAR BAR (Little Tokyo)

The Alley. (Image: Christopher “Eats Here” C.)

Far Bar is a nice little bar tucked into an alley with a big selection of Japanese whiskeys. Once inside it turns out to be a much larger place, with an upstairs, a main room, a bar, and a fairly secluded outdoor patio. The downside is long waits at the two needlessly gender-specific restrooms. UPDATE: The restrooms are now all gender.

Far Bar is served by the Gold Line.


Beautiful decor (Image: Alyssa F.)

A visit to Good Luck Bar is presumably nothing like a visit to China, but it is a bit like a visit to the set of a 1940s Hollywood film set (if not filmed) in China. Although it feels like a relic of the mid-20th century, the Los Feliz bar was only established in 1994, at the height of the so-called Swing Revival. That’s because its kitschy, retro, “exotic” Chinese atmosphere came courtesy of owner Sean MacPherson, who based it upon the aesthetics of the long-closed Chinatown bar, Yee Mee Loo. It’s served by Metro’s 2/302 and 175 lines as well as LA DOT’s DASH Los Feliz lines.

UPDATE: The Good Luck Bar has announced that it’s closing because the building which houses it is being demolished.

HONDA-YA (Little Tokyo)

Image: Winnie L.

Honda-Ya is an izakaya located on the top floor of Little Tokyo Galleria. Although large and located within a mall, the atmosphere and decor make it one of Los Angeles’s most relaxing izakaya.

It’s served by the Gold Line.

JURASSIC (Industry)

Image: Ping L.

Jurassic is a themed Taiwanese pijiu wu with a dinosaur theme. Historical inaccuracy is never of major importance at themed pijiu wu’s and Jurassic is no exception. The centerpiece is a large, fake skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, a creature unknown until millions of years after the end of the Jurassic Era. The staff usually wear fringy Coachella-type clothing, I suppose to suggest a sort of primitivism that humans presumably would’ve shown if the Flintstones were viewed as a documentary. Then again, the lunacy is part of the theme because as often as not, the staff also dress as anime characters, French maids, gothic lolitas, sexy schoolgirls, &c. Jurassic is served by Foothill Transit‘s 281 and 282 lines.

UPDATE: Jurassic permanently closed after sustaining serious roof damage from storms.

OB BEAR (Koreatown)

Image: Jonathan Y.

I used to come to OB Bear for the beer served in water cooler-like jugs. After they got rid of those, I went to Beer Town but they started demanding that patrons order food in addition to beer. So then I went next door to Soju Town. Both have since closed so maybe I should go back to OB Bear, which still has a nice atmosphere.

It’s served by Metro’s Purple and Red lines, which stop less than half a kilometer away at Wilshire/Vermont Station.

THE PRINCE (Koreatown)

Get you booth lounge on! (Image: Joe “Nitro” F.)

The Prince began life as “The Windsor” in the 1920s and has a British theme not dissimilar to that of the nearby HMS Bounty, which is no doubt why it was chosen to portray a Manhattan restaurant on Mad Men. However, where the Bounty feels like a relic of the early 20th century, the Prince acquired new layers as time has passed and now hip-hop plays over the speakers for a mostly Korean clientele drawn as much by the fried chicken as the drinks.

The Prince is served by Metro’s 20, 61, and 481 lines and the Metro Purple Line’s Wilshire/Vermont station is only half a kilometer away.

TONGA HUT (Valley Glen)

Meg pours a QB Cooler. (Image: Arturo S.)

Brothers Ace and Ed Libby opened the Tonga Hut in 1958, during the height of the Tiki craze. By the early 2000s it had literally faded under the neon beer signs… or maybe that was just the thick layer of dust. It still had charm, albeit the sort one associates with abandoned buildings inhabited by a dedicated group of characters. In 2005, the fountains began flowing once again and it presumably took on an appearance resembling the original.

The Tonga Hut is served by Metro’s 164 and 167 lines. The nearest stops on the Orange line are about 2.5 kilometers south.

UNCLE YU’S (San Gabriel)

Image: Maruko X.

The full name of Uncle Yu’s is “Uncle Yu’s Indian Beer House,” which is sort of confusing because the food is typical of a Taiwanese pijiu wu, and thus not remotely Indian. The “Indian” is used in the sense of Columbus‘s historical mistaking of Native Americans for East Indians. Thus the staff dress vaguely like the indigenous people of the plains did hundreds of years ago and the log cabin ambiance that suggests a Clearman’s North Woods Inn rather than a tipi. If none of this makes sense, just imagine that when Taiwanese open beer houses they draw a theme out of a hat, do zero research into the subject, and then run with it.  Sometimes, as with Uncle Yu’s it works.

Uncle Yu’s is served by Metro’s 76 line.

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

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