A well-loved restaurant rises again in Koreatown as Jun Won Dak
When Jun Won closed in July 2020, comments and condolences streamed in to the Jun family for weeks, months and even years after their announcement. A neighborhood staple for nearly three decades, the Korean restaurant (which landed on the L.A. Times 101 List in 2019) served bubbling bowls of galbi-jjim, comforting eundaegu and other dishes inspired by matriarch Jung Ye Jun’s home cooking until pandemic-spurred hardships caused the Juns to close their family business.
But this month, the mother-and-son team behind the restaurant has excellent news for those who’ve been mourning the Koreatown classic: Jun Won will begin anew with service on Nov. 14 as Jun Won Dak, a takeout-only operation focusing on chicken, though a few of their signature dishes — such as braised black cod, a favorite of celebrated Times food critic Jonathan Gold — will make a return too. On Nov. 21 they hope to hold Jun Won Dak’s grand opening.
On this week’s episode, we try three different mandu specialists in Koreatown for some king mandu, spicy shrimp dumplings and pan-fried dumplings.
The move to reopen Jun Won in any capacity is as much a surprise to Jung Ye Jun and Jeff Jun as it is to the restaurant’s fans, whose elation is already evident on social media. Jeff Jun had planned to remain in the restaurant industry in some form, perhaps to launch a sandwich concept. But with the exception of fulfilling home orders of banchan and seasonal samgyetang — a ginseng chicken soup that will be at the heart of Jun Won Dak’s menu — Jung Ye Jun was more or less out of the business due to age and concerns regarding public health, given COVID-19.
“[In 2020] I thought, ‘This is our life, in our restaurant, but I think my mom’s life is a lot more important than the restaurant,’” said Jeff Jun. “If I lose my mother, I’ll lose her forever. I can’t do that. I don’t want to take that risk, so I said let’s let it go. It was really hard for her to admit and listen and go with it: At first she said, ‘You’re crazy,’ and I went, ‘No, that’s how it is right now. We’ve got to walk away or we might even lose our house.’”
That summer, Jun Won didn’t even make $500 most days, he says. The pandemic-closed dining room led to a trickle of what had been a constant stream of orders, which he credited to the then-recent accolades in the 101 List and Michelin Guide. A burglary of Jun Won proved too much heartbreak, and concerned with health and financial viability, the Juns walked away.
Now, having experienced restaurant ownership during the pandemic, the security of a takeout-only model appeals more to Jeff Jun. Other friends in the restaurant industry have told him they’re already envious of his dive into this business model: One, in his own restaurant, said, “Look at this space — there’s nobody sitting. I don’t know why I’m paying all this rent.”
The new format and menu will center around four dishes, especially samgyetang, a stuffed-chicken soup traditionally eaten during three summer periods: the start of season (Chobok), the middle of summer (Jungbok) and the end (Malbok). The Juns served theirs most summers at Jun Won, and again for limited home orders after closing the restaurant, soaking the rice overnight, then adding ginseng, jujube and garlic before using it to stuff chicken. It’s trussed and boiled in broth that’s already simmering, scented with Korean herbs and roots. At Jun Won, in the season, they would sell 20 or 30 orders a day; at Jun Won Dak, where the dish will be available year-round, they’ll offer 50 orders each day. Gradually, Jeff Jun says, they might increase the amount to 75 or 100 bowls.
The duo also will offer dakdoritang, a spicy chicken stew; and their Jun Won signatures of galbi-jjim (braised beef short ribs) and eundaegu (braised black cod).
Speaking through her son, Jung Ye Jun says she feels “very good about it.” She doesn’t consider her return to the kitchen as being called back from retirement, as she’s been keeping up with banchan and seasonal samgyetang home orders since closing Jun Won in 2020, but now at 75, she says she does see Jun Won Dak as her final restaurant concept.
“This soup — samgyetang, ginseng chicken — is something that I’ve always wanted to do before I die,” she said. “So this is going to be the last journey.”
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As it happens, it was her semiretirement that began Jung Ye Jun’s journey to realizing her years-long dream of opening a chicken shop. When she and her son decided to walk away from their restaurant, she visited her doctor for a health checkup; she was immediately diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the summer of 2020. Shocked and crestfallen, they consulted multiple other doctors and hospitals, who in turn diagnosed the lump as not a tumor but a water cyst. Her initial diagnosis soon was rescinded, but the confrontation of her mortality and whatever she felt unable to accomplish spurred the realization that it was now or never: “I won’t be able to do something that I wanted to before I die,” she said.
Jeff Jun, who had been planning to open the sandwich shop without his mom, wanted to help realize her dream and decided to partner up as a mother-and-son team once more. “I was like, ‘You know what? What could go wrong?’ Let’s do it. Let’s have some fun with it, and let’s do something that you’ve been wanting to do,’” he said.
The day that he changed his mind, he put his mom in the car and simply told her they were going for a ride. They drove around and around the neighborhood looking for vacant restaurant spaces they could fill with herbal soups and stuffed chickens: up and down Western, up and down Olympic, across 8th Street, 6th and Wilshire. Eventually they wound up on West 3rd Street, where they noticed a closed spot across the road.
This month, that space — formerly home to long-running Samga Chicken and, more recently, to Yuk Dae Jang — will be helmed by the Juns, who’ll run service from Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and launch with in-person and phone orders only, available via (213) 263-9135, and then with delivery-platform orders in the following month.
They hope their friends and fans will be as comforted by the return of their homestyle Korean cooking as they themselves have been by the warm welcome they’ve already received since announcing the return.
Jun Won Dak is located at 4254½ W. 3rd St., Los Angeles. For updates, follow @junwon_la on Instagram.
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