Twin deli cases stand center stage, gleaming and summoning. You’ll see them as soon as you tug open the heavy glass door to Yangban Society. Your attention may bolt in many directions — the upstairs kitchen overlooking the 5,000-square-foot space like a spacecraft command center, a market area in the far corner delineated by its striking shade of cobalt-blue paint — but the most important decisions start at the deli counter, where two rounds of ppang have been strategically placed.
The loaves have deeply browned crusts that resemble a cross between focaccia and deep-dish pizza; the airy bread at their center is overlaid with kimchi and marinara, and one variation includes a weighted blanket of melted mozzarella.
For the record:
8:53 p.m. March 17, 2022The first reference to the chef couple misspelled their last name, which is Hong.
A staffer will pop a slice of ppang in the toaster oven to warm while you consider the rest of the possibilities. Some dishes on display — radish pickles, or mushrooms paired with gently chewy bracken ferns dressed in nutty perilla oil, or tangles of acorn-flour noodles — bring to mind an uplifting array of banchan. Others, like dilled egg salad or a creamy smoked trout “schmear” zapped with horseradish, will conjure staples of Jewish delicatessens. Many ingeniously seasoned vegetable sides (honeyed carrots given crunch from candied walnuts spiced with Korean red chiles; coal-roasted cabbage slaw spiked with grapefruit-like oro blanco and dressed in ssamjang vinaigrette; a reedy tangle of pea shoots and chives finished with buttered panko) seem to derive solely from the minds of chefs and owners Katianna and John Hong.
But wait — there’s an entirely separate menu of items prepared to order in the kitchen. Maybe throw in some twice-fried chicken wings brushed with soy-garlic glaze, crackly and sticky at once. Or pork belly and roasted kimchi fried rice that’s enough for a table of four to share. Congee pot pie? Mustardy avocado-Asian pear salad? We’ll get to those shortly.
For drinks, scan the cooler opposite the counter for water and other basics, or head upstairs to the market area to scour its abundance of options: canned cocktails (zero in on a Negroni spritz or sake and tonic), bottles of Champagne and natural wine, Korean beer and hard kombucha brewed with blueberries. Grab a bag of churros-flavored Turtle Chips for later, and perhaps some handsomely packaged sandalwood incense.
When you finally settle down at a table — upstairs, say, beneath rows of portraits and street scenes by Seoul photographer Wook Kim or outside along the brick-lined alley across from the Warner Music building in the Arts District — and begin to feast, the intention behind the cooking clicks like an animated jigsaw puzzle arranging itself into place. The multipurpose aspects of the ambitious project, the flavors that bridge cultures: It all makes a delicious sort of sense.
Katianna and John, who are married, imbued their restaurant’s name with pungent irony. The Yangban were a ruling class of political and artistic elites in Korea’s Joseon dynasty, which endured for over five centuries (until 1910, when Japan’s 35-year occupation of Korea began). The couple conceived of Yangban Society as an egalitarian experience, a place to eat in or take out, where they put as much thought into the $5 slice of kimchi-laced ppang as they do a $34 plate of braised short ribs over millet rice.
They arrived at their philosophy after years of working in exclusive fine-dining realms. The chefs met while cooking at Mélisse in Santa Monica. Katianna moved north to be part of the kitchen team at the Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa (which held three Michelin stars and is being rebuilt after it was destroyed in the 2020 Glass Fire). She moved up the ranks to become chef de cuisine under Christopher Kostow; when she left to help lead Kostow’s more casual Charter Oak, John took over as Meadowood’s chef de cuisine.
In a piece Jean Trinh wrote for The Times about how the Hongs have set about redefining their Korean American identity through their cooking at Yangban Society, she noted the couple pinpointed a trip to South Korea together as an impetus for mining their personal narratives to inform the restaurant’s menus. “It’s about being proud, and educating myself even deeper [about the Korean culture], and finding some closure within that,” John told her.
In returning to Los Angeles, the pair are among some vital local talents grafting innovative ideas with the region’s rich Korean restaurant culture. Kwang Uh sparked a national sensation last decade with the wild flights of fermentation and complex takes on salads and rice dishes he conceived at now-closed Baroo; at Shiku, the Grand Central Market takeaway stall that Uh runs with Mina Park, his wife, his intricate versions of kimchi hint at his still-restless innovation. Ki Kim has scattered winter truffles over bibimbap and reconceived beef galbi using beets at Kinn, his new K-town tasting-menu restaurant. Jihee Kim grafted banchan traditions to Southern California farmers markets via her popup Perilla L.A., which will soon become a storefront in Echo Park.
The Hongs have given themselves a lot of figurative and literal room in which to experiment. Yangban’s baseline deli format — with a menu that also reaches far beyond the class parameters of the deli experience — has more in common with the ecstatic chaos of Gjusta than with the comforting orderliness of Langer’s. It can be overwhelming to narrow the options. I’ve grown attached to some favorites: A rippling, flaky square biscuit covered in curried gravy flavored with ground beef and pork. The avocado and pear salad, with its smooth-crisp texture contrasts and its head-clearing hot mustard vinaigrette. The incredible congee pot pie, its chicken porridge hinting of ginger and its pastry cap reminiscent of crackling youtiao snipped into pieces and stirred into the soup.
One overall suggestion: Follow the potato. It leads to excellence, be it in the form of hot griddled cakes (an ideal vehicle for the smoked trout schmear), twice-baked spuds smashed with fish sauce caramel, a glorious take on chile cheese fries featuring a riff on Bolognese deepened with black bean sauce, or potato doughnuts akin to beignets but denser and richer. Speaking of dessert, it’s one instance where the choices are wisely limited. You have the doughnuts and also soft serve made from buffalo milk from Double 8 Dairy in Petaluma. Make a sundae out of the flurry of available toppings (salted doenjang caramel, puffed rice, chocolate rice cake, mochi, bingsu toppers), but be sure to excavate a few pure spoonsful: The gentle sweetness of the ice cream is a treat unto itself.
These talented chefs have a lock on the cooking: So much of it lands in the sweet spot of intelligent, surprising combinations and abject pleasure. The biggest challenge for Yangban Society will be its space.
When looking to open their first restaurant, John and Katianna partnered with Sprout L.A., the group that backs such marquee crowd draws as République, Tsubaki and Redbird. Katianna told me the company was wary of taking on a new lease while the Hongs searched for the right fit during the pandemic’s darkest months. Would they consider Sprout L.A.’s sprawling space vacated by Lincoln Carson’s sadly short-lived Bon Temps? It was certainly large enough to house their many ambitions.
It’s hard to say why this certain property has trouble sticking in the mind of Angelenos; I remember that Bon Temps struggled to find a consistent audience before 2020 forced its demise. The address is a block from always-packed Bestia, so location can’t be the sole reason. John and Katianna are aware that some diners see this area of town as a night’s destination rather than a casual drop-by, so this month they’re starting limited reservations for a $50-per-person chef’s choice dinner. It will include early hits like the congee pot pie (gilded with abalone) and galbi-style beef ribs.
In its layout, Yangban Society feels like a work in progress: Will the market area stick? Will the deli and separate kitchen menu eventually merge into one easier-to-navigate experience? More significantly, the food is immediately accomplished and, in its freshness and self-expressive individualism, beautifully Los Angeles. It’s a place Angelenos should be eating right now, in step with the chefs as they evolve their business and we emerge from some grim years.
712 S. Santa Fe Ave., Los Angeles, yangbanla.com
Prices: Most deli case items $3.75-$9.50 per 1/4 lb., kitchen menu items $8-$34, desserts $4-$8
Details: Open 11:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Thursday, Sunday and Monday, 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Beer, wine and spirits. Credit cards accepted. Valet and limited street parking.
Recommended dishes: Congee pot pie, griddled potato cakes, trout “schmear,” pea shoots with chives, pork belly and roasted kimchi fried rice, potato doughnuts, buffalo milk soft serve
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