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Food & Drink

A Koreatown is quietly forming in an unlikely location: Japantown

A cheerful man in a black graphic t-shirt stands in a vibrant, colorful restaurant with Japanese-themed decor and murals, smiling broadly.
Green Chang, owner of Kippu Sushi on Buchanan Street says “some of us already refer to this area as Koreatown.” | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

When Jennifer Tse craves Korean-style beef rib noodle soup and kimchi pancakes, she knows exactly where to go. As she walks through San Francisco’s Japantown and the nearby Fillmore Street area to get her food, she’s surrounded by Korean businesses.

There’s no official Koreatown in San Francisco, but Tse, a Chinese American fan of Korean dramas and Korean pop music, is a frequent visitor to a growing cluster of Korean restaurants, bars and beauty shops in the middle of the city.

“[This area] definitely became popular among the locals and tourists alike,” Tse said. 

Unlike in Los Angeles’ iconic Koreatown, the Korean American community in San Francisco is generally more spread out and relatively small—about 12,000 residents, or roughly 1.5% of the city’s population. Still, dozens of Korean businesses have opened within a short walk of Post, Geary and Fillmore streets, with Korean language signs on almost every block.

A woman with a red basket shops in a grocery aisle. Items are neatly stocked on both sides, and two store employees are organizing products on the right.
Customers shop at Woori Food Market, a Korean grocery store located at 1528 Fillmore St., on Monday. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

In a city better known for its historic Chinatown and Japantown neighborhoods, the growing popularity of Korean businesses has pushed some entrepreneurs to develop an ambitious plan to build a hub for Korean culture.

“Our vision is clear: a food-focused Koreatown in San Francisco,” said Jin Hyup Song, a marketing manager at Korean-owned Woori group, which operates businesses around Japantown.

Daeho Kalbijim & Beef Soup, YakiniQ Korean BBQ, Jina Bakes, Beque BBQ, Doobu, San Wang Restaurant, Dimples, Pagoda and Seoul Garden are some of the popular restaurants and bars anchoring what’s quietly turned into a budding Koreatown in the heart of the city.

Nearby, the Woori group has three storefronts on just one block of Fillmore Street between Geary and O’Farrell, including a grocery store, Woori Food Market, a catering company, Kitchen Woori, and a restaurant, Sikdang Woori, where Tse goes for her Korean food. Bansang, an award-winning upscale Korean restaurant, is another popular eatery. A Korean billiards venue sits next to the Woori grocery store.

A person in a store smiles while holding a tray of sushi. They stand by shelves stocked with Shin Ramyun noodles, hot sauces, and various groceries. Another person is at the counter.
Jin Hyup Song, marketing manager for Woori Food Market, says the company's goal is to promote the area as an "unofficial" Korean cultural zone. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard
The image depicts two people walking past a pink building with a sign in both Korean and English for "Fillmore Billiards," located at 1530-1526.
Nextdoor from the Woori grocery store is a Korean billiards venue. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

At the corner of Laguna and Post streets, a building next to the Daeho restaurant is dotted with Korean language signs advertising medical, accounting and legal services. A Korean karaoke spot and a beauty shop sit there, too, along with skincare businesses in the area. A block away, two major storefronts with Korean signs are Imperial Spa and Queen’s Houseware & Gift.

Green Chang, a Korean American who runs the Kippu Japanese restaurant on Post, has been in the area for over a decade.

“Within the Korean community, some of us already refer to this area as Koreatown,” Chang said. “But the term is not commonly used outside of the Korean community.” 

An ambitious blueprint

In January, three managers from Woori group visited Los Angeles’ Koreatown and Orange County to gather data and inspiration from the Korean cultural wave in Southern California, according to the organization. The group also launched the Korean American Restaurant Association of San Francisco (KARA SF) earlier this year, which will have an office on that same Fillmore block.

Song said the company’s goal is to promote the area as an “unofficial” Korean cultural zone without undermining the area’s strong historical ties as a center of San Francisco’s Black and Japanese American communities.

“The idea of Koreatown in San Francisco needs a more delicate approach,” Song told The Standard. “This idea is still in the early blueprint phase but holds great potential.”

People are sharing a vibrant Korean meal with kimchi, rice, various stews, and side dishes spread out on a table. Drinks include soda cans and water.
Daeho Kalbijim & Beef Soup is one of several popular restaurants anchoring San Francisco's budding Koreatown. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard
A bustling restaurant with closely packed tables shows diners enjoying their meals. The interior has dim lighting, with posters on the walls and a mix of people conversing.
Opened in 2019, Daeho, located at 1620 Post St., specializes in beef soup with cheese. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Song, a Korean immigrant, emphasized the diversity of Korean food, which combines traditional Asian cuisine like Jjajangmen with Western influences like Army stew. “This means that food lovers of all backgrounds can come together over Korean food,” he said.

Rich Hashimoto, president of the Japantown Merchant Association, said that he welcomes more businesses in Japantown and is happy to see the area emerging as a pan-Asian destination with lots of dining options.

Korean-born Chinese immigrant Slider Wang runs the 46-year-old San Wang restaurant, known for its Korean Chinese cuisine. On a Monday afternoon in early June, the restaurant was packed with a diverse group of diners.

Wang said many Korean and Chinese families come to his place to eat, along with pilots and flight attendants from South Korea in the city for work. But his restaurant attracts customers from all demographics, he said.

A man in a black hoodie stands inside a modern restaurant, with neatly set tables, dim lighting, and contemporary decor featuring metallic and wooden elements.
Daeho general manager Sung Hoon (Chris) Lee thinks the restaurant's location is perfect for Asian customers from across the city. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

“Many customers watch Korean dramas, and they want to try the Korean food that they see,” said Chris Lee, a general manager of the popular restaurant Daeho, which specializes in beef soup with cheese. “Every food [in the show] they are having is looking good.”

Lee and Wang are doubtful of the Fillmore area’s potential as a place for Korean Americans to settle and work, citing declining immigration. Restaurant work is very difficult, Wang said. 

Lee imagines a pan-Asian destination that brings together a mix of cultures in one centrally located neighborhood. Though there are other parts of San Francisco with thriving Korean businesses, such as the H-Mart in the Southwestern part of the city, Lee explained that they opened Daeho in 2019 because the location is central for Asian customers from across the city.

Four people are sitting at a table in a restaurant, engaged in conversation while eating. The background shows a counter, neon beer signs, plants, and kitchenware.
Diners talk over lunch at San Wang restaurant, located at 1682 Post St. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard
A man dressed as a chef stands in a restaurant beside tables with folded napkins. Behind him are a framed sports jersey, photos, and a large board with text.
Slider Wang has run the San Wang restaurant, which specializes in Korean Chinese cuisine, for 46 years. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

“This is an area where all the Asian people get together,” Lee said. “This is a pretty good place to open a new Korean restaurant.”

For Song, a San Francisco Koreatown dream is a decades-long project. He challenged the traditional idea of “Koreatown” as an ethnic residential neighborhood: In his eyes, a modern San Francisco-style Koreatown could be a cultural alley that welcomes all lovers of the culture, regardless of their ethnicity.

“It may take three decades,” Song said. “We are carefully watching the Korean waves.”