At Los Angeles’ Yangban Society, chefs and owners Katianna and John Hong’s Korean and Jewish heritage is front and center at this one-of-a-kind restaurant. The Downtown LA spot is a modern Korean restaurant first, but it also doubles up as a deli inspired by Jewish traditions, and a minimart that sells products similar to the ones found at a corner store in Korea.
The restaurant is truly reflective of the chefs’ lived experiences. Katianna was born in Korea, and was adopted and grew up with Jewish grandparents in Upstate New York. John grew up in Highland Park, a Jewish suburb outside of Chicago, and was raised by first-generation Korean-Americans. Both have worked at some of the top fine-dining establishments in the country including Napa Valley’s the Restaurant at Meadowood and Santa Monica’s Mélisse, where the couple met. Now, they’re marrying their fine dining training with their Korean and Jewish backgrounds.
“Food is always personal and the food we are serving at Yangban is authentic to us and our experience as Korean-Americans,” says Katianna. “Our menu reflects the diversity of our city and pulls inspiration from different cultures and reimagines what American cuisine looks like today,” says Katianna.
The rotating menu currently features a potato mandu (Korean dumplings) served with housemade bacon and a dipping sauce of warm bacon fat, sherry and soy. “It’s our take on a baked potato,” says Katianna. “The fried, crisp dumpling skin adds a nice crackle, which contrasts with the creamy potato filling.” For Passover, the couple created a sujebi-matzo ball soup that’s still on the menu. The recipe melds the comforting Korean dumpling soup with the Jewish deli classic. “I use my grandmother’s actual matzo ball recipe in it and love that we are able to evoke comfort and nostalgia with this dish,” says Katianna.
The restaurant recently launched what it calls a ‘Yangban-style’ dining experience, where the Hongs pick the menu’s most popular items for a $50 pre-fixe that can be reserved on OpenTable.
Diners looking to make their own choices order at the deli counter, where they can choose from entrees like braised beef short ribs or congee pot pie, and banchan, or Korean small plates. The latter includes dishes such as giardiniera-style pickles, egg salad, and hot smoked trout schmear. “These side dishes are an homage to aspects of Italian and Jewish deli culture,” says Katianna.
The restaurant’s design similarly reflects the couple’s heritage. The Hongs designed the 5,000-square-foot space in collaboration with designer Shin Irvin of creative agency Folklor. The restaurant features a mix of communal tables and sleek wooden booths that seat a total of 107 people inside and 40 people outdoors. Images of Korean street life by Seoul photographer Wook Kim line the walls inside and Korean American artist Dave Young Kim has created a mural made from wheat-paste along an alleyway outside Yangban, where the outdoor seating is located.
Yangban Super, the minimart section of the establishment, is located on the second floor and features electric blue walls; refrigerators stocked with in-house products like incense, handmade candles and face masks. All of the products are made in LA by local residents, including by some Asian-American artists. “The Super is an awesome way for us to not only sell fun things but also support other companies that we love and believe in,” says Katianna. “We want this to be a place where anyone can enjoy themselves on a budget or celebrate a special occasion and ball out with custom Yangban caviar and trout roe.”
In the coming months, the Hongs plan to debut a summer-focused menu spotlighting dishes like mul naengmyeon, a Korean cold noodle preparation. Yangban’s version is similar to gazpacho and will have a tomato base and aged beef stock.
“We find that we may not be a fine-dining restaurant, but our efforts are deeply rooted in the same goals, while finding the importance of our own stories, traditions, and cultures,” says Katianna.