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Tasting the future of L.A. dining via takeout

A feast of banchan and other dishes from Jihee Kim's takeout and delivery venture Perilla LA.
A feast of banchan and other dishes from Jihee Kim’s takeout and delivery venture Perilla LA.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

Susan Yoon was furloughed from her job as chef de cuisine at Orsa & Winston shortly after the mid-March shutdown. At home, she cooked her way through a “pandemic pantry cleanout” and embraced projects such as transcribing her mother-in-law’s baking recipes (date pinwheels, oatmeal icebox cookies) from photocopies.

Yoon also began composing dishes for dosirak — the Korean lunch box, sometimes carefully composed with individual bites and other times shaken to mix all the ingredients together — and selling them to interested friends and Instagram followers. Hers were more of the elaborate variety of dosirak: One setup might include soy-pickled egg, cucumber kimchi, peppers in gochujang, scallop jeon (fried in egg batter) and myulchi bokkeum (stir-fried anchovies) filled out with rice and noodles.

By the time L.A. Taco ran an article about Yoon’s marvels in early June, she’d been selling them (and, occasionally, pints of kimchi) for a month. Shortly afterward she was back to restaurant work and set aside her budding enterprise.

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I’d learned about Yoon’s dosirak too late to try one, but I’ve been keeping close watch on her Instagram account since then in the hopes that she’d offer another round. Which is how, through a post on Yoon’s feed, I found out about Jihee Kim and her Perilla L.A. project.

Kim cooked at restaurants such as San Francisco’s Gary Danko and Santa Monica’s Rustic Canyon before partnering with fellow chef Joshua Pressman on a pop-up series last year called Dandi. They held dinners at Koreatown’s Hotel Normandie, where their Korean fried quail proved to be an emerging signature dish, in hopes of eventually opening a restaurant.

With Perilla L.A., Kim centers on a rotating menu of banchan, often riffing off produce from weekly farmers market trips. “I want people to know that banchan doesn’t have to be only small vegetable side dishes,” she said in a phone interview. “It can really be anything in the mix of a meal eaten with rice.”

Bulgogi with sheer tofu skin and chives from Perilla LA.
Bulgogi with sheer tofu skin and chives from Perilla LA.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)
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To that end, bulgogi threaded with delicate tofu skin and salmon with green garlic sauce stand out among the week’s spectacle of vegetables: okra charred for gentle smokiness and then marinated in soy and vinegar; gingered braised yams sparked with orange peel; purslane, its earthiness deepened with soybean sauce; spicy fermented cucumber paired with sweet melon; summer squash ignited with garlic-chile oil. Summertime seeps deeper into the spirit eating a feast like this, anchored by Kim’s steamed rice with mushroom pickles. Order abundantly if you can: Banchan is excellent for multiple meals.

Kim posts menus on Instagram on Mondays, takes orders via direct message and delivers on Fridays and Saturdays. She has started to sell out by Wednesdays.

I wrote about small-scale, social-media-based takeout projects like Yoon’s and Kim’s for the Food section last week, but I’m still thinking about their momentum. Partly I focus on them because I am a restaurant critic not reviewing restaurants: Keeping up with their emergence reminds me that the circuit board of L.A.’s dining culture remains conductive, and tracing them like a scavenger hunt satisfies my restlessness.

These efforts aren’t a game, though, I quickly remind myself. They are responses to a crisis. They are livelihoods. They are means of survival, literally and creatively.

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Their grass-roots nature means that most of the entrepreneurs are figuring out strategies as they go along, juggling many hats. I think about FEW for All, a favorite recent takeout venture run by chefs Tyler Curtis and Mallory Cayon and front-of-house ace Ramzi Budayr. They made and delivered pastas and sauces, donated over 6,500 pounds of pasta to the L.A. Food Bank, and spun off a generous, pay-what-you-can undertaking called the Table 60 Project, a three-course meal kit complete with Spotify playlists and extras like pita from Bavel’s Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis or otherworldly vanilla ice cream from Antico pastry chef Brad Ray.

In mid-June, the FEW for All trio needed a break. Restaurants reopened their dining rooms and Cayon and Curtis resumed their gigs at downtown’s Hoxton hotel. Budayr went to see his family in the Bay Area. Then COVID-19 cases spiked in July, and dining rooms went dark again. The three will regroup in a new kitchen space and, for starters, stock their pastas and sauces at Zach Negin’s Tabula Rasa Bar on Hollywood Boulevard.

It’s all mercurial by nature. When talking to the chefs and operators behind the pandemic-era takeout projects, I’ve asked each of them what the future holds for their endeavors. “I don’t know” is always the answer, in some variation. Is there any other honest response? Who can possibly guess at this point in our divided, crippled country?

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In my more hopeful moments, I remember these takeout upstarts are seeding the next generation of Los Angeles dining. In Brandon Gray’s pizzas with their deftly improvised combinations; in the Lima-meets-Louisville duo of Pablo Osorio’s aji de gallina and Danielle Bell’s caramel pound cake and strawberry-goat cheese ice cream; in Phert Em’s three-course menus inspired by her Cambodian heritage; and in Jihee Kim’s whole-food-chain arrays of banchan, we’re tasting what some of our most brilliant emerging talents bring to the table. It’s impossible to predict where and how we’ll eat their foods together, but I trust they’ll sustain us, household by household, until we make it to the other side of this calamity.

Also, I’m hearing that Susan Yoon will soon be back in dosirak action. Race you to her DMs.

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(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)


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