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Randy’s Donuts Seoul brings L.A. taste to South Korea

Sometimes you leave Los Angeles and find it has arrived at your destination far before you.

A few years ago on a trip to Tokyo I encountered Downtown Los Angeles’ Pie Hole I was on my way to Afuri Ramen, an expert in yuzu-ramen, when I stopped at a train station.

This cultural transmission works both ways. I had the same bowl at the Arts District branch of Pie Hole a few weeks back. Afuri Ramen.

So I was more bemused than surprised to find, after 16 hours of travel to visit friends in Seoul, a Randy’s Donuts just a few blocks from my hotel in Korea.

The blocky brown font spelling out “Randy’s” in all capitals was unmistakable. And the giant doughnut — though scaled down to fit in a storefront window — had the familiar disturbingly brown color and mottled texture that I’d never actually want an actual doughnut to have.

These similarities ended there. Randy’s Donuts in Seoul features the sloped tile rooftops found on hanoks, traditional Korean homes. The interior featured light wood accents, polished white granite tabletops with paper lanterns and wall decor inspired from sliding paper screen doors. The display case contained the traditional maple bars, apple fritters, and glazed old-fashioneds. There were also more recent creations such as a cronut-like pastry, and a glazed doughnut with garlic cream cheese, cheddar, and charred green onions.

I washed down my spring onions doughnut with an Aewol Ocean Ade. It’s a fizzy blue lemonade with a mint leaf.

The main commonality between Randy’s in America and Seoul is the opportunity to be the unwilling backdrop to professionally created social media content. My friend and I were accompanied by a three-person shoot that included lights, tripods, and even a costume swap. I can’t recall if the fashionable trio of Korean influencers actually ate the doughnuts they photographed.

By the time I got there, Randy’s in Seoul was old news. There are now five Randy’s Donuts locations in Korea, the first of which opened 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 duking it out in Korea for decades.

The transition from beloved local brand to global brand often erases history. The story of the original Randy’s follows the rise of programmatic architecture and one man’s endearingly bombastic response to Southern California car culture.

Ten gigantic doughnut statues, each more than 20 feet high, dominated Los Angeles once. They lured drivers into Big Donut Drive in locations, founded by Russ Wendell in 1950, who was a former salesman for doughnut machines.

After Wendell decided to close down the chain in the 1970s and sold off the locations one by one, at least four monumental doughnuts stayed open under names like Kindle’s, Dale’s and Donut King II.

Randy’s giant doughnut was the most well-known remnant of the chain, perhaps thanks to its location at La Cienega Boulevard and Manchester Boulevard. Neighboring LAX and visible from the freeway, the doughnut stand’s visibility made Randy’s into a ubiquitous cultural icon. Randy’s doughnut has been featured in disaster movies, graced the cover of a J Dilla beat record, and cameoed in “Iron Man 2.”

The Randy’s Donut Korea website offers a simplified version.

“Number one donut brand in the United States!”

This viral cultural fluidity is a part urban life for almost a decade. Grand Central Market’s Eggslut has spread to Seoul as well. And it’s useful to take a step back and think about how weird this new world is. If it’s cool, it will soon be everywhere. Cities are more like trending magazines, where anything can appear and disappear on any given day.

Randy’s presence in Korea reflects the country’s particular cultural wizardry, which hoovers up hip concepts from all over the globe and creates remixes, replicas and remakes that are so skillfully done that you hardly notice the historical or cultural incongruities. My trip also featured a margherita pizza from a Little Italy-style restaurant replete with stained glass windows and a Korean chef who received an official certification from the Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani in Naples, Italy — surely the world’s foremost authority on Neopolitan pizza authenticity.

You wonder if it is worth the effort to travel to another country. Just wait long enough, and an algorithmically optimized selection of the world’s most viral foods and experiences will likely appear in your city.

Seoul residents are used to the rapid pace of current trends. John Lee, a post punk musician from Southern California, was present when I met him. He had lived in Chicago before moving to Seoul in 2008. He noted that Seoul’s smashburgers have become more delicious in recent years. But it’s not hard to do.

“Sometimes there will be this thing that I think is really cool, like, and then I’ll come back a few years later and it’ll be a cosmetics store,” Lee said.

Our culture is so fluid that geography and history seem redundant. The past, present, future all mix together in a chaotic and confusing mixture. Finding gems has never been easier or more meaningful. Everything is everywhere. Nothing ever dies, and nothing will last forever. Culture has been liberated, or stripped depending on your feelings about authenticity.

It’s easy to feel disturbed or jaded at all of this. I can’t recommend the spring onion doughnut. I was quickly overcome by a sense of creative energy in Seoul, which quickly erased my cynicism.

I browsed shops that successfully mingled midcentury modern decor with Andy Warhol-esque iconography and a childlike Fisher-Price aesthetic — picture a chrome diner-style Burger King clock and bright red plastic foldout chairs paired with a coffee table of glass and steel.

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

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