Arts District has a Salt & Straw truck and soon-to-be brick-and-mortar. Chinatown has Scoops. The heart of Downtown LA has Gelateria Uli. Besides the indomitable and original mochi ice cream Mikawaya, Little Tokyo has the next best ice cream parlor in town. Ice Cream Downtown LA
At the first level of the Little Tokyo Galleria are fierce, but sweet competition from Beard Papa, Cherry on Top and Tom N Toms. However, a newly opened ice cream shop called Ihwamun has what I consider pure, good ice cream. The sweet treats are not too smooth, not too chunky, not too sweet and not too hyped (yet). For now, the 500 sq. ft. shop is a place my lactose intolerant self can enjoy a frozen treat in peace. It’s the next best secret kept in town with ice cream that uses simple base ingredients: organic cream, milk, sugar and eggs.
During my second visit to the Korean influenced ice cream shop, “Red Bean” was the introduced flavor for the week. Popular flavor “Injeolmi” is nutty and filled with mochi bits. The “Choco Pie” tastes exactly like the individually wrapped chocolate, marshmallow filled cake. The ”Black Sesame” pairs well with the brittle seaweed infused ice cream cone. It smells heady like peanut butter, but it’s rich enough to discern the token umami sensation without the sugar crash.
One scoop of ice cream at Ihwamun is $4 and $6 for a double scoop. The seaweed cone is an extra $1 while supplies last.
Here’s what the owner and flavor maker Michael Kim has to say about the history and his intent behind his flagship brainchild Ihwamun.
KG: If you can describe Ihwamun in five words or less, how would you describe the ice cream parlor?
MK: Flavors Koreans grew up with.
KG: Who is behind the flavors? Which were the first to be created?
MK: I’m in charge of creating the flavors. The ideas come easily, as you can pretty much make ice cream out of anything. I’ve seen wasabi ice cream, curry ice cream, octopus ice cream and many other odd flavors. It’s just a matter of will it taste good?
I try to make flavors that I grew up eating as a child. For example, what is referred to as a moon pie in the U.S. is known as choco pie in Korea, where it has been a popular snack since its introduction in the country circa 1974. I grew up in the U.S., but was able to eat [choco pie] once in a while as a special treat when my grandfather would bring them from the Korean market. The snack even played a role in the 2000 South Korean film J.S.A.: Joint Security Area, where four soldiers from both sides of the DMZ end up becoming secret friends. A soldier from the North becomes a fan of choco pies.
As for our original flavors, I don’t even recall the flavors during our soft opening. Construction and setup took a while, so I remember just rushing to open and get some cash flow going as I had been paying rent and other bills for about six months prior to opening. However, I believe our soft opening flavors were: “Choco Pie,” “Injeolmi,” “Matcha,” “Coffee,” “Apple Pie,” “Vanilla,” “Chocolate” and “Pineapple.” We didn’t have much of the Asian flavors at that time.
For our grand opening, we had many more flavors, such as “Green Plum,” “Citron,” “Yakgwa” and “Black Sesame.” I am constantly working on improving existing recipes as well.
KG: What flavor would you consider to be the most unique? Which took the longest to develop?
MK: Our most unique flavor is “Injeolmi.” Injeolmi is a popular rice cake covered with roasted soybean powder and eaten on special occasions. As it is chewy and sticky, newly married couples traditionally received them so that they, too, would stick together. The powder itself has a roasted, nutty flavor, and we add this powder to our ice cream base. We get the roasted soybean powder from a rice cake shop in Koreatown called Poong Nyun, which has been around since 1988. Also added into the ice cream now are small bits of sticky rice cakes, known as chap ssal dduk in Korean, or mochi in Japanese. Those are the two main ingredients in the popular flavor as of this moment. As I am updating this flavor regularly, I suppose this is taking the longest to develop. I am considering making another version with sliced almonds added to it.
KG: How are the seaweed cones created?
MK: Though initially my idea, it was my business partner, Deb Kim (no relation) who turned it into reality. She is still working on perfecting the recipe, so nothing has been finalized on that part yet. However, each version contains a bit of ginger. Deb takes sheets of seaweed, commonly known as nori in Japanese and gim in Korean, and puts them in a food processor until they turn into flakes. While the waffle cones are being made, she will add the flakes about halfway through the cooking process. The idea, however, is not revolutionary at all. I got the idea from Korean snacks, cookies and crackers that also contain seaweed in them. A google image search for “Korean seaweed cookie” will yield some results. I simply thought if Korean cookies can have them, then why not waffle cones?
KG: What was your main objective with opening up Ihwamun?
MK: Apart from the obvious “Be my own boss,” I wanted to do something meaningful. Though it is just an ice cream shop where people can have a frozen treat and be on their way, there’s more to it than that.
First, there is the name and logo: Ihwamun. Ihwamun is the Korean term for the Imperial Seal of Korea of the former Korean Empire. The Imperial Seal or Ihwamun featured a plum blossom. Without getting too deep into Korea’s complicated history, the Korean Empire was declared in 1897 and officially lasted until 1910, when it was annexed by the Empire of Japan, which lasted until Japan’s defeat at the end of WWII in 1945. Due to the Soviet and U.S. influence then, Korea and the Korean people have been divided until this day. So really, the last time the Korean people were officially one unified nation was during the period of the Korean Empire. Our name and logo is in tribute to that era.
Secondly, when most people today think of Korea, they think about television dramas, K-Pop, Gangnam Style, all-you-can-eat BBQ and karaoke, among other “cool” stuff. In opening this store, I wanted to present what I consider to be more of the real Korea.
Thus, the primary objective is to promote a unified Korea, as well as promote Korean traditional culture, art, history and flavors. We have a small library with books about Korea in our store. And we’re using ice cream as the vehicle to do so.
KG: What’s the most rewarding part of the business?
MK: Of course, like all businesses, Ihwamun just started out as an idea. In this case, the idea to do an ice cream shop. In deciding the concept of the store, my Korean-ness came through, and I went with our traditional Korean theme. I wasn’t sure how the public would react to the concept. I wanted to go for it, anyway.
Having this idea become something real— something I can walk around in and actually serve ice cream out of. Seeing people come and enjoy our unique ice cream flavors, especially when they are repeat guests, is very rewarding. I appreciate all who come by. However, I know the repeat business is not just for the ice cream, but also for the service. I also sincerely appreciate and am extremely grateful to my staff for the excellent service they provide our guests, while I am usually out in the back making ice cream or cleaning tasting spoons.
I guess it’s all very rewarding, seeing an idea become reality, seeing people come by and accept my idea, and having people being a part of it and growing with it. I suppose this shop, or any business, is like having a child, from conception to birth, to raising them and seeing how they grow, develop and interact with the world around them. Perhaps this is the joy of parenthood, which is something I’ve yet to experience, but perhaps someday will.
Ihwamun is located at 333 S Alameda St., Ste 103 and open Mondays to Fridays 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. and Saturdays from 3 p.m. to 12 a.m. For more info., visit: www.ihwamun.com/.