Randy’s Donuts in Seoul adds L.A. flavor to South Korea

Sometimes you leave Los Angeles only to find that it got to your destination long before you did.

A few years ago, on a trip to Tokyo, I stumbled across Pie Hole in downtown Los Angeles in the basement of a train station while on my way to try Afuri Ramen, a yuzu ramen specialist.

And this cultural transmission works both ways. A few weeks ago, not far from Pie Hole’s original location, I had the same bowl of noodles at Afuri Ramen’s new Arts District branch.

So I was more amused than surprised when, after a 16-hour drive to visit friends in Seoul, I found a Randy’s Donuts just a few blocks from my hotel in Korea.

The blocky brown font with the words “Randy’s” in all caps was unmistakable. And the giant donut—although scaled down to fit in a store window—had that familiar disturbing brown color and speckled texture that I never really wanted to have in a real donut.

The similarities ended there. Randy’s Donuts in Seoul features the sloping roof tiles found on hanoks, traditional Korean houses. The interior mixed light wood accents and polished white granite tabletops with paper lanterns and wall decor inspired by sliding paper doors. The display case featured the usual maple bars, apple fritters, and glazed old-fashioneds; and newer creations, including a cronut-like pastry and a glazed donut with charred green onions, garlic cream cheese, and cheddar.

I washed down my scallion donut with something called Aewol Ocean Ade, which is a bubbly blue lemonade with a mint leaf.

The main similarity between Randy’s in America and Seoul is the ability to be the involuntary backdrop for professionally created social media content. As my friend and I left we were flanked by a three person shoot including lights, tripods and even a costume change. I can’t remember if the fashion-forward trio of Korean influencers actually ate the donuts they photographed.

When I got there, Randy’s in Seoul was old news. There are now five Randy’s Donuts locations in Korea, with the first opening in August 2019 on Jeju Island, a popular Korean honeymoon destination. Now you can find Randy’s in Costa Mesa, Las Vegas and even Manila. Dunkin’ Donuts and Krispy Kreme have been making ends meet in Korea for decades.

History is often lost in the transition from popular local favorite to global brand. The story of the original Randy’s follows the rise of programmatic architecture and one man’s endearingly bombastic response to Southern California’s car culture.

10 gigantic donut statues, more than 20 feet tall, once towered over Los Angeles. They lured drivers to locations of the Big Donut Drive-Through chain, founded in 1950 by Russ Wendell, a former donut machine salesman.

After Wendell decided to close the chain and sell the stores one by one in the 1970s, at least four monumental donuts remained open under names like Kindle’s, Dale’s, and Donut King II.

Randy’s giant donut was the chain’s most well-known holdover, perhaps thanks to its location on La Cienega Boulevard and Manchester Boulevard. Neighboring LAX and visible from the freeway, the visibility of Randy’s donut stand made it a ubiquitous cultural icon. Randy’s donut has been featured in disaster movies, graced the cover of a J Dilla Beat record and appeared in Iron Man 2.

Randy’s Donut Korea website provides a simplified version.

“Number One Donut Brand in the United States!”

This viral cultural fluidity has been a part of urban life for nearly a decade. Eggslut from Grand Central Market has also spread to Seoul. And it’s useful to take a step back and reflect on how strange this new world is. If something is cool somewhere, it will soon appear everywhere. Cities have become more of trend sites where anything can appear and disappear on any given day.

Randy’s presence in Korea reflects the country’s particular cultural sorcery, absorbing hip concepts from around the world and creating remixes, replicas and remakes so skillfully made you hardly notice the historical or cultural incongruities. My trip also included a Margherita pizza from a Little Italy-style restaurant with stained glass windows and a Korean chef who received official certification from the Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani in Naples, Italy – surely the world’s leading authority on the authenticity of Neopolitan- Pizza.

You start to wonder why bother to drag yourself to another country? Just wait long enough and an algorithmically optimized selection of the world’s most viral foods and experiences is likely to appear in your city.

Seoul residents have become accustomed to the accelerated life cycle of trends. When I met up with John Lee, a Southern California-born post-punk musician who lived in Chicago before coming to Seoul in 2008, he remarked that the Smashburgers around Seoul had gotten particularly tasty in recent years. But easy come, easy go.

“Sometimes there’s something I think is really cool, and then I come back a few years later and it becomes a cosmetics business,” Lee said.

Our culture is now so fluid that geography and history seem redundant. Past, present and future mingle in an intoxicating, chaotic mix and gem discovering has never been so easy and meaningless. Everything is everywhere, and nothing ever truly dies out, nor will anything truly endure. The culture has been liberated or stripped, depending on how you feel, of the pesky attachments to authenticity.

It’s easy to feel disturbed or jaded by all of this. I cannot recommend the spring onion fritters. But there was a palpable creative energy in Seoul that quickly blurred my cynicism.

I browsed stores that successfully blended midcentury modern decor with Andy Warhol-esque iconography and a childish Fisher Price aesthetic — imagine a chrome diner-style Burger King clock paired with bright red plastic folding chairs with a glass and steel coffee table.

Diners are a crumbling tradition in the United States, but in Seongsu-dong, which some call the Brooklyn of Seoul, I found dining rooms that have never felt the 1950s so vibrant and alive. So what if they serve Japanese curry instead of hash browns?

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-11-29/randys-donuts-in-seoul-south-korea Randy’s Donuts in Seoul adds L.A. flavor to South Korea

Alley Einstein

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