Chefs Are Taking Asian Cuisines to the Next Level in Los Angeles

As regional Asian cuisines achieve more mainstream popularity in the US, many restaurant owners are still faced with outdated attitudes, including the unfair assumption that certain kinds of food should have a low price point. More recently, anti-Asian sentiment intensified in the wake of COVID-19 and subjected Asian-owned restaurants to […]

As regional Asian cuisines achieve more mainstream popularity in the US, many restaurant owners are still faced with outdated attitudes, including the unfair assumption that certain kinds of food should have a low price point. More recently, anti-Asian sentiment intensified in the wake of COVID-19 and subjected Asian-owned restaurants to further stigmatization. However, here in LA, as the city continues to dip its toe into more tasting menu-type dining experiences, a new wave of talented Asian-American chefs are challenging racial biases and dated assumptions about their ancestral cuisines.

Unlike their immigrant parents, many of whom entered the restaurant business simply to make a living, this generation of chefs is following their passions and utilizing the resources their families didn’t have to create more ambitious concepts.

“I’d imagine most parents didn’t want the harsh restaurant life for their children and that’s why they pushed us to other professional fields,” says Andy Choongman Lee, who’s behind the private dining concept Nanoom. “We learned to value their hustle, but I learned that when we dig deeper and explore, there are thousands of years of artistry and craft that we can incorporate to enhance the Asian fine dining experience.”

sung
Photo courtesy of Sung

While their parents had to struggle to learn a new language and navigate a foreign country, most of these chefs didn’t have to. “Many Asians in America weren’t equipped with the duality of mastering English and being able to articulate the food we grew up with,” explains Arnold Byun, the founder of NAEMO, a collaborative Korean-American pop-up restaurant. “It’s different as more of us break away and graduate from traditional European kitchens to pursue our own path. We’re in a class of contemporaries that look to preserve tradition, but present our cuisine in a modernized, approachable format.”

Indeed, many of them are successfully leveraging classical training and experiences at prestigious restaurants—like Top Chef winner Mei Lin, whose trailblazing Nightshade married Asian flavors and fine dining techniques. She’s heralded as one of LA’s leaders in this space, and now you can find her flexing her creative muscles with Daybird, a Szechuan hot chicken takeout eatery.

The same goes for Jon Yao, a Michelin-starred chef and owner of Kato, an omakase-style Taiwanese restaurant in Sawtelle. “You have first-generation Asian-Americans who have a better grasp of the market and products available, so they’re better able to convey the nature of what they’re serving,” he says. “That, coupled with understanding how service and atmosphere are other factors that diners here value, is what an Asian-American restaurant looks like now.”

chef jon
Photo courtesy of Kato

As the Asian fine dining movement grows, its ambassadors must continue to defy stereotypes—including the idea that their food isn’t worth top dollar. “Some [customers] express annoyance when their order takes longer than 15 minutes to prepare, or think Chinese food is supposed to be inexpensive, without considering the quality of our ingredients and attention to detail,” says Ryan Wong of Needle, a modern Hong Kong restaurant in Silver Lake. “I always worry that mainstream customers can’t justify slightly higher prices. The stigma of Chinese food being cheap is so strongly embedded in our culture that it’s hard to break from that.”

To combat false perceptions, Wong tries to educate his customers, offering transparency regarding their sourcing methods and making dishes that others don’t have the skills to execute. “Some will get it and some won’t,” he says. “But those who get it really appreciate what we’re doing.”

When Lee launched Nanoom, industry friends didn’t think customers would shell out for a Korean tasting menu. “But if the ingredients are quality and thoughtfully prepared, and it’s delicious, why should there be less value placed just because it’s Asian food?” he argues.

Although we’re starting to see traditional elements of haute cuisine in more Asian restaurants—like an emphasis on top-notch service and ambiance—some hope that the parameters for fine dining start to blur.

“I think anyone who makes food that’s true to their personal background and story, who uses quality ingredients and is diligent and honest in their daily work, is pursuing fine dining,” says Yao. “The quality, traditions, and techniques don’t change much, only how they’re presented and communicated.”

Photo by Wonho Photo, courtesy of Nanoom

At the end of the day, whether they’re serving multi-course tasting menus or not, that’s what each of these chefs is doing: using food to tell stories of what it means to be Asian-American today. In some cases, cooking the cuisine of their ancestral country is even cathartic. For Michelle Jane Lee, who operates a ten-course tasting dinner pop-up called Sung, it’s a way of coming to terms with the stigma she encountered when young.

“As an Asian person who moved to America at age 12, it immediately became clear that our food was ‘weird’ and ‘gross,’” she says. “It was in the TV shows, movies, casual conversations, jokes, and demeaning comments. Part of pursuing Sung is to speak up for that 12-year-old who couldn’t and work out my own issues of shame and embarrassment.”

Thankfully, no city is more perfectly positioned to embrace the rise of high-end Asian cuisine than Los Angeles, with our diverse demographic makeup and unparalleled Asian dining scene spanning Sawtelle to the San Gabriel Valley. We have the talent: a slew of ambitious chefs and restaurateurs eager to propel their cuisine into the future. We have the foundation: a large existing Asian population eager to support them and discover new interpretations of their food.

Whereas first-generation immigrants saw restaurants as a means of survival, the second generation is choosing this path, often as a way of advancing and advocating for their cultures.

The timing couldn’t be better. Once labeled as a city of food trucks and taco stands, LA’s high-end dining scene is quickly catching up to cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago. As diners demonstrate a willingness to shell out for extravagant experiences—after a year of home cooking and casual takeout during the height of the pandemic—our Asian-American talent is rising to the occasion, driven by a desire to reclaim their multidimensional heritages and translate their ancestral cuisines to a new format.

Below, we’ve spotlighted six dining experiences from some of LA’s leading Asian-American culinary voices. It’s thanks to them—and many more—that Angelenos are discovering a different way of enjoying Asian cuisine and appreciating its nuances and complex flavor profiles. Because whether you’re eating Chinese food from a takeout carton or a tasting menu, it’s always delicious.

Kato
Photo courtesy of Kato

Sawtelle
The strip mall where Michelin-starred Kato resides belies the sophistication of chef Jon Yao’s Taiwanese-inspired tasting menu, in which he serves dishes like three cup abalone (his tender, textured rendition of iconic three cup chicken) and boniato yam dessert (crowned with cheese foam and brown butter sable). The son of Taiwanese immigrants who grew up in Walnut, Yao’s cooking is both familiar and finessed, evoking nostalgic flavors while modernizing the Asian-American dining experience. “Immigrant food has always been a matter of survival,” he says. “Making food is a quick way to start a business and selling it cheaper than other options is a surefire way to make money. But it’s not like first-generation immigrants use lesser quality of meat, it’s just that they save costs in other areas, like labor or paying themselves, which are problems in itself.”
How to book: Reservations available via Resy.
Cost: $150 per person.

@stuffbeneats

Los Angeles
Naemo’s inspired by founder Arnold Byun’s foray into the world of Michelin-starred fine dining at places like New York’s Bouley, Eleven Madison Park, and Atomix. “I witnessed legendary chefs finding inspiration from Asian cuisine and not necessarily showcasing or championing its true origin story,” says Byun, recalling how he was trained to call a dish “white Napa cabbage” when it resembled white kimchi. While Naemo leverages the techniques you’d find at Western restaurants, it’s done with Korean flair, finesse, and flavors. An expression of his Korean-American identity, Byun’s take on dosirak—lunch boxes typically available at convenience stores—reframes banchan as the main offering, so you’ll find bites like grilled mackerel with confit mushrooms or candied ube (a version of the sweet potato dish mattang) with honeycomb crumble in your elegantly packaged to-go meal. In honor of the autumn harvest holiday Chuseok, Naemo is collaborating with a few other Korean-American small businesses—including Kioh Tea, Lucky Rice Cake, and Nossi Bojagi—on a tea and dessert box. Pre-orders for the Korean tisanes and injeolmi (sweet rice cakes) start the first week of September on Tock for pickup on September 19 and 20.
How to book: Order online. Follow NAEMO on Instagram or sign up for a newsletter to learn about upcoming drops.
Cost: $95 for a set designed to serve two.

Phenakite
Photo by Jenn Tanaka, courtesy of Phenakite

HollywoodAptly named after a mineral that forms into gems under pressure, Phenakite launched last fall in a coworking space’s lush, expansive patio, which played especially well during the pandemic. Using a tasting menu format, Chef Minh Phan displays the same soulful cooking and culinary artistry she was known for at Porridge + Puffs, where her rice porridges were a revelation. Crafting experimental dishes alive with color and flavor, Phan makes the fine dining experience delightful. You’ll find hints of her Vietnamese roots, although she rarely uses the word “Asian” when describing Phenakite and prefers to call it a love letter to LA: “Even though my heritage is important to me, I don’t cook like my mom or the food I grew up with. Phenakite is inspired by LA—the people first and foremost, the culture and appreciation of different cultures, and the availability of ingredients. We live in one of the best food-producing places in the world.”
How to book: Reservations available via Tock.
Cost: $489 per person, including wine pairing, tax, and service.

@troxphotos

Silver Lake
Needle is chef Ryan Wong’s heart-warming homage to Cantonese food, which he felt was a dying art underrepresented in LA. “It’s the food I grew up eating and it’s deeply personal,” says Wong, who cut his teeth at Trois Mec and Otium. “There was a desire in me to revive that, push the cuisine forward, and bring it to prominence.” Judging from rave reviews of his beautifully glazed char siu and a silky shrimp scrambled egg dish that reminds you of home, Wong’s done exactly that. Recently, he paused takeout service and launched Siu Yeh at Needle, a patio dining experience with a 6 pm and 8 pm seating every Wednesday through Saturday. Designed to blur the line between Hong Kong street food and refined dining, the concept revolves around a tasting menu of delicious skewers and snacks. While a limited number of tables with seats are available, we suggest dining at Needle’s custom-built standing counter—designed to make you feel like you’re at a hawker stand in Hong Kong.
How to book: Reservations available online.
Cost: $98 per person, exclusive of any supplements or drinks offered.

nanoom
Photo by Wonho Photo, courtesy of Nanoom

Los Angeles
After losing his job during the pandemic, chef Andy Choongman Lee leveraged his 17 years of experience to launch Nanoom. Driven by a desire to cook the soulful, nourishing food from his heritage and share cultural conversations, Lee creates a private dining setting in your space, using ceramics and decor from his home country. His thematic tasting dinners revolve around “Seasons of Life in Corea” (he uses the traditional “C” spelling)—starting with traditional temple food that symbolizes springtime and telling a story throughout. “I want my clients to eat the way Coreans have always dined, sharing their meal family-style,” he says, explaining that “nanoom” means “to share.” “Going to strangers’ homes during the pandemic to cook highly priced, traditional Corean dining shouldn’t have worked. But I’m learning that the most personal stories are also the most universal.” This September, Nanoom joins a collaborative Baik + Khneisser show with GOBI, a contemporary art gallery, and Namu Home Goods, which curates heritage woodwork with a distinctly Korean-American aesthetic, as part of a collective of Korean creatives showcasing their work at a farm-turned-gallery called Little City Farm LA.
How to book: Fill out this online form to request a tasting dinner experience.
Cost: $200 per person with a minimum of four people and maximum of ten. Inquire about two-person dinners (limited availability each month), as well as events or catering.

Sung
Photo courtesy of Sung

Lincoln Heights
Artist Michelle Jane Lee started a series of paintings after an epiphany prompted her to reconcile her Korean and American identities. When she realized her connection to Korean food had to be a part of her artistic process, she developed a 10-course, 100% vegan tasting menu dinner, accompanied by a display of her artwork. “Korean food can often be tricky for vegetarians and vegans, and I didn’t want that barrier,” she says. “If I was going to take up any space in food, I wanted it to be with a more sustainable future in mind.” Operating as a pop-up out of her Lincoln Heights home, Lee enjoys highlighting underutilized dishes, like kimbap, a seaweed rice roll often found at food stalls and snack bars. Lee’s version uses dried radish to mimic the texture of a beloved dried squid banchan, triggering fond childhood memories for anyone with a Korean upbringing with its familiar, comforting flavors.
How to book: For tasting menu dinners, check the site to see when reservations are available via Tock. Otherwise, order takeout for à la carte dishes via Instagram.
Cost: $120 per person (including complimentary drinks) for a tasting menu with a maximum of 8 people per dinner. Takeout dishes from the regular menu range from $15-20.

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Tiffany Tse is a contributor for Thrillist. Follow her on Instagram @twinksy.

 

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