Iota Adds New Dimension to Koreatown Coffee Houses

Koreatown doesn’t lack cafés, coffee houses and bakeries. What it has lacked until Iota opened in mid July is a big, open, airy space that offers a big assortment of reasonably priced buns and dessert pastries with a full complement of coffee drinks while inviting you to linger long after your purchases have been consumed.

What makes Iota an appealing lounging space is its scale. It occupies about 3,200 square feet of totally open space, with full-height plate-glass windows lining maybe fifty feet of frontage along Western between 5th and 6th Streets. The ceiling soars to the height seen in airport lounges and small hotel lobbies, creating a sense of grandeur lacking in most cafés. The big western exposure floods the place with direct afternoon sunlight, making you feel as though you’re sitting outdoors, except in cool comfort. The air-conditioning bill must be horrendous.

Along with the sheer sense of space the first thing that strikes a visitor is the stylish minimalism of the coffee bar, bakery showcases and furnishings. A big flat-screen TV perched high on the north wall plays K-pop music videos full time, though mercifully muted. The sense of having entered a high-style zone is reinforced by the attractive young Korean counter people sporting tight black tee shirts bearing the Iota logo. Along the window on the south end of the café are two big communal tables presided over by modern paintings hung in four rows to cover the tall wall. The rest of the table area is given to a dozen four-person tables plus a row of small two-seat tables along the window.

Adding to the overall sense of spaciousness while subliminally authenticating the establishment, is a plate glass wall displaying bakers at work. It was late Saturday afternoon. Only two were at work in the bakery putting finishing touches on a few batches of fancy French-style desserts. No trays of buns, danishes, tarts, bars and other baked items were in sight though their selection in the display cases had dwindled alarmingly. Despite the impressive baking facilities on display, Iota isn’t a high-volume baking operation like 85C in Irvine’s Diamond Jamboree that keeps putting out piping-hot trays of baked goods all hours of day and night. Perhaps that will come later as the clientele grows.

Still, Iota does offer a selection of maybe three dozen varieties of baked items at prices starting at $1.25 each — on the high side but not unreasonable. Their selection of frosted desserts start at $3.50. The big impressive coffee bar serves up the usual assortment of gourmet coffee drinks, as well as teas, bobas and juices at prices 10-15% higher than what one might pay at Starbucks or Coffee Bean. Iota also offers bingsu, Korean shaved ice topped with red bean, sweet cream, fruit and other goodies.

The crowd in evidence that afternoon was mostly Korean, ranging in age from students in their early twenties to occasional middle-aged couples, with an assortment of adventuresome non-Koreans.

Adding to Iota’s appeal as an all-around hangout are its two outdoor areas. Out front along Western is a small patio in a more colorful version of the interior’s ultra-modern theme. Out through the back entrance, past the rest rooms, is a large covered patio offering a more traditional ambience, perhaps a holdover from a restaurant that may have occupied the space before Iota.

If it manages to hang on long enough Iota has the makings of another success story for Eton Tsuno and Tommy Kim, the duo who created the highly successful Haus Dessert Boutique, a sort of coffee shop-bakery-cum-fusion-eatery located a half dozen blocks east-by southeast on 6th and Serrano. Next door to Iota is I Love Boba. Just a block south on Western is Madang, an upscale newly-opened three-level entertainment mall that has attracted the elegant Korean restaurant Bann (formerly Woolaeoak) as well as another branch of the popular Cake House bakery and coffee shop. The short stretch of Western between Wilshire and 5th Street seems set to challenge 6th Street as Koreatown’s lively new coffee strip.