David Shin remembers the day his father, Seung Cheol Shin, was fired from his job as a sushi chef at a local restaurant. He had had an argument with the owner, and that was that.
Much to his son’s puzzlement, Seung Cheol, a first-generation Korean immigrant with limited English, was in a buoyant mood that day. The break represented an opportunity to try something he had been saving for and contemplating.
“Let’s go shopping for restaurants,” Shin recalls his father saying.
They knew where to look: Allston. Now, his Oppa Sushi eatery is among at least a dozen restaurants that serve Korean cuisine or are Korean-owned along a half-mile stretch of the Harvard Avenue corridor between Cambridge Street and Commonwealth Avenue.
To them, “This was always Koreatown,” Shin said.
Over the last decade, the demographics of the neighborhood have changed, with significantly fewer Koreans living in Allston-Brighton. But here, on Harvard Avenue, a concrete expanse where storefront graffiti is much more commonplace than trees on the sidewalk, generations of immigrants, including Korean families such as the Shins, have come to try their hand at success.
Today, the corridor is home to scores of shops selling ethnic foods, reflective of a neighborhood that thrives on its diversity. There are Taiwanese tea shops, Sichuan barbecue joints, a Brazilian bakery and cafe, a restaurant specializing in Egyptian street food.
Shin’s father opened Oppa Sushi in 2014, then expanded its space a few years later.
Shin estimates his father worked 12-hour days for three years without taking a day off. His schedule is still grueling; he takes only Monday and Wednesday lunches off.
“It’s his baby,” Shin said of his father, who, at 57, finds it more exhausting to be at home than work at the restaurant. More than anything, he wants things to go smoothly and it’s easier to ensure that happens when he is physically at the restaurant.
For those in the industry, it’s a familiar tale of brutal toil, long hours on one’s feet, cooking and serving their way to a foothold in a city thousands of miles away from where they were born.
“American dream, I guess,” said Joon Son, owner of Kimchipapi Kitchen on Harvard Avenue, in response to a question about why his family moved from Korea to the United States. His family is from a rural area in Korea. There wasn’t a lot of money, and there wasn’t much in the way of educational opportunities. One of his aunts was the first to come over. She had met an American soldier during the Korean War, and settled in Portland, Maine. When Son’s family first came to the United States, they initially moved there, but there wasn’t much for them there, either, so they moved to Queens in New York City, and when he was a teenager, to Waltham. Growing up, his mother ran a restaurant in Somerville.
More than a decade ago, he first opened a sneaker shop in Allston, but eventually gutted and refitted the 800-square-foot space, where he now sells poke bowls inflected with Korean touches, such as kimchi, a traditional dish of pickled and fermented vegetables.
While others wave away notions of market saturation of Korean restaurants in Allston, Son is more circumspect.
“There’s room for everyone, I think, but you know how it is, there’s only so much you can do,” he said. “There’s only so much market share you can take. Not everyone can come in and be successful.”
How neighborhoods come to be is often a simple question with complex answers. In Allston, it’s no different.
“I don’t know who started it,” Son said.
Some leaders in the community point to Mirim Oriental Groceries, thought by some to be the first Korean grocery store in the state, which opened on Harvard Avenue in 1971. (It closed in 2015.) A Korean video store, Kachi Video, now also defunct, followed in 1990. As the years marched on, a business ecosystem emerged in and around the avenue: a Korean logistics company, Korean realtors, an alternative medicine business run by Koreans, and the city’s Korean language newspaper, The Boston Korea. And restaurants, of course.
But cities change, and the abundance of Korean restaurants and other businesses remains even as the size of the local Korean expat community has dipped in recent years.
Allston-Brighton still appears to have the most Korean residents in Boston, with more than 800, according to US census figures. But in 2012, about twice as many Koreans called Allston-Brighton home. Like the origin story of Koreatown itself, there are different theories as to what drove the population decrease.
Myong Sool Chang, the editor and president of The Boston Korea, said many Korean parents stopped sending their children to the United States because such a move can break apart families, and they’ve come to realize that an American education does not necessarily guarantee success. Others believe there are fewer Korean students coming here because big corporations back home have an aversion to hiring those with American college educations. And there is, of course, the ongoing housing and cost-of-living crises in Greater Boston that may have led many here, as with residents of all kinds, to move away to more affordable communities.
Harvard Avenue restaurateurs say they are well aware of the population shifts, but remain focused on their tasks at hand.
“Not a concern,” said David Shin. “Only because as a Korean person that lives in Saugus, I make the half-hour drive to Allston when I want Korean. Even when it’s not our own place.”
Others also shrugged off the demographic shift, saying that while the local Korean student population has undeniably dipped, Korean food has global appeal.
Meanwhile, Jeff Lee is among several local Korean restaurateurs who cite the local student population as a bedrock of their success. For generations, Allston has been filled with college students, with Boston University, Boston College, Harvard University, and other schools nearby. Being located in the middle of that academic milieu, said Lee, is good for business.
“The first thing is the taste,” he said. “It has to be good. Second thing is the price. The third thing is location.”
Even if a restaurant or bar has all those things, it can still be difficult to last. This neighborhood is evidence of that: Sunset Grill & Tap, Common Ground Bar and Grill, White Horse Tavern — all once Allston staples, all now defunct.
Lee opened Seoul Jangteo on Brighton Avenue, right at the intersection with Harvard, a month before the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out everyday life in the city. But there have been bright spots: South Korean first lady Kim Keon Hee recently dined at Seoul Jangteo, Lee said.
Lee, a former university professor who taught economics in South Korea, acknowledges that he sometimes misses teaching but said he doesn’t look back much. Life in Korea, he said, can be cramped and competitive.
“I like it here,” said Lee, a 65-year-old who lives in Needham.
Just up Harvard Avenue from Lee’s spot stands Seoul Topokki. One recent morning before opening, the proprietor, Benjamin Kim, spoke to a reporter about Korean cuisine. A long workday was just getting underway; most of the 48 chairs were up on the tables, and a worker mopped the dining room floor.
In the kitchen, Kim’s wife, Annie, the restaurant’s cook, prepared for the day. She makes all the dishes here based on the home cooking her grandmother and mother taught her back in Korea. Topokki, a chewy and spicy rice cake that is a well-known Korean street food and lends the restaurant part of its name, is a popular item, Kim said, as are the fishcake soup and seaweed rolls. He cut chicken from the menu, he said, because of what its oil does to the culinary offerings. He described the palate effect of chicken as “not good,” adding that he wants his restaurant to offer an alternative to “fast food, fatty food, oily food.”
He has owned this place almost three years. The restaurant is closed Tuesdays, but on his day off, he fixes and organizes things, he said. He owns another restaurant in Somerville, and though he enjoys reading and meditating, he lacks time.
Kim answered questions matter-of-factly. How did he wind up in Allston? A business partner of his knew a Catholic priest who suggested they open a restaurant here. Does he miss Korea? He gave a rhetorical shrug. His father passed away years ago, he said.
“I don’t need to go back to Korea,” he said.
He feels that the United States is “fairer than Korea.”
“More chances, more opportunities,” he said.
“It’s a good chance to show our Korean culture,” he said of his restaurant. “That makes me happy.”
Daigo Fujiwara of Globe staff contributed to this report.