Never Mind the Rules

Words by
Maya Eslami
Photos by
Amber Maalouf

In a city defined by diversity, especially when it comes to food, restaurants are becoming ever more inventive, inclusive, and eager to defy boundaries. From a classic Neapolitan pizza spot using seasonal vegetables and a Japanese technique honed from the internet, to fine Italian cuisine with a Japanese twist, to Korean homestyle food disguised as a deli, these three Los Angeles restaurants have built their businesses by resisting the notion that Asian cooking should be confined or constrained or at all restricted.

Pizzeria Sei, the Neapolitan pizza restaurant on the corner of Pico and Robertson in West L.A., has only been open for a few months. Yet you wouldn’t know it by the local devotion and national attention this Italian eatery is getting.

Inside, the round, black-tiled pizza oven takes center stage. A marble counter wraps around the small prep station and oven, with a handful of tables that fill up the cozy restaurant. The head chef and co-owner, Sang Woo Joo, waves from behind the counter and tosses pizza dough into the air. He measures out the base until it’s the perfect diameter, then twists the crust and covers the center with tomato sauce and fresh toppings. At first glance, Pizzeria Sei looks like a typical pizza spot. But beyond the oven and stacked ingredients that barricade the cooks is a story of a Korean pizza chef doing something different.

Joo gained most of his culinary experience at various Italian restaurants around Los Angeles. But it was during the pandemic, with the help of YouTube and the Internet, when he taught himself how to master the Japanese technique of creating Neapolitan pizza. Along with co-owner Jennifer So, he opened Pizzeria Sei in February of this year.

Neapolitan pizza is specific, precise, and regulated by an official association in Italy. But the beauty of Japanese-style pizza is the ingenuity in implementing local flavors. At Pizzeria Sei, the pizza is more of an expression of California, with locally sourced toppings and fresh ingredients found at farmers’ markets and native to this climate.

This is most reflective in the giardiniera, a bright, colorful dish of pickled farmers’ market vegetables. Traditionally, Italian giardiniera is more of a relish or condiment, but Joo reimagined the dish to include a bit of his heritage. “Honestly,” he says, “it was my mother’s idea. Koreans eat pizza with pickles, so she was like, ‘We’re not going to have pickles at the pizzeria?’”

At its core, Pizzeria Sei is about simplicity, and allowing the ingredients to speak for themselves. “I could go crazy,” says Joo, “but that’s not for everyday food.” Instead, he prefers to use premium ingredients, specifically the fior di latte mozzarella imported directly from Italy, and their tomatoes, which taste like they were picked fresh off the vine. “That’s my philosophy on the toppings,” he says. “Simple, but using the best quality possible.”

“Koreans eat pizza with pickles, so my mother was like, ‘We’re not going to have pickles at the pizzeria?’”

Sang Woo Joo in front of the pizza oven at Pizzeria Sei.

When restaurateur Jeremy Umland set his sights on a new dining experience in the heart of Hollywood, the decision on what to serve came easily. “I liked the idea of somehow combining two of the most popular cuisines in the world,” he says, “and seeing where it would take us.” Japanese and Italian food may not seem com patible at first, but Umland and Magari’s head chef, Yoshi Okuno, knew that the right ingredients mixed with the right techniques could yield something remarkable.

For Okuno, the blending of these two cuisines was obvious. “Japanese people are ge netically predisposed to love Italian food,” he says, “and I felt the collaboration of great Japanese ingredients and Italian food was perfect.” He went on to create a menu that showcases exactly that, and found executive chef Enrico Merendino to streamline the execution.

Executive chef Enrico Merendino.

Executive pastry chef Armenak Svatzian.

“Los Angeles is renowned as both a culinary capital and a city where revolutionary new cuisines are created. It’s such a multicultural, multiethnic city, it’s only natural for the food to reflect its people.”

The result: a robust array of dishes that are, essentially, traditional Sicilian meals infused with Japanese flavors, with a few twists and variations here and there. For instance, the gnocchi pesto Genovese is made from shiso-infused flour and served with Japanese sweet po tatoes. The gorgeously green grilled asparagus, part of the antipasti, is garnished with sprinkles of goji and covered with an English pea culture made from yuzu.

Born and raised in Sicily, Merendino says he’s been cooking since he was 15: “It was either that or the street.” He sticks to his Sicilian standards in the kitchen when it comes to prep, technique, and presentation, and lets the Japanese flavors, from yuzu, shiso, goji, and soy sauce, do the rest. Every addition to a recipe is subtle, seamless, and sensational. The yari ika, or spear squid, used in the squid ink bucatini is from Japan and prepared as a bolognese. The grilled whole orata is served with katsuobushi infused aqua pazza, a thin tomato sauce that’s poured not on the fish but around it, like a body of water. Even the cannoli, prepared as in Sicily, is flavored with sudachi limes and topped with dots of yuzu-infused orange preserves.

“Los Angeles is renowned as both a culi nary capital and a city where revolutionary new cuisines are created,” says Umland. “It’s such a multicultural, multiethnic city, it’s only natural for the food to reflect its people.”

Katianna and John Hong in the patio at Yangban Society.

The owners and chefs at Yangban Society, Katianna and John Hong, are no strangers to the restaurant industry, each having held a chef de cuisine position at Michelin-starred establishments. But it’s their homestyle restaurant, nestled in Downtown’s busy Art’s District, that truly tells their story.

Inspired by the food of their Korean heritage and reflective of Katianna and John’s diverse upbringings in upstate New York and Highland Park, Illinois; Yangban Society is a self-proclaimed “multi-dimensional experience.” And it is, with the restaurant on the main level, and their “Super” on the upper floor selling branded merch, packaged goods, and rows of refrigerated beverages, with framed photographs of their family on the painted brick walls throughout. The vibe is a mix between a Brooklyn bodega, Jewish deli, streetwear boutique, and a foodcourt you might stumble into in Seoul.

“The schmear in particular is our play on the creamy whitefish spread often sold at Jewish delis. It’s a perfect example of us being inspired by our childhood food memories as well as our work history.”

The seating, casual and easy, is directly across from a long glass deli case, where bowls of twice-fried potatoes and honey hazelnut carrots sit side by side with ssamjang onions and kimchi ppang panzanella. Their main menu, which is made to order and attracts the most attention, offers more traditional Korean dishes like braised beef short ribs, kimchi fried rice, and their now famous Yangban wings. But dishes like the congee pot pie, biscuits and kare gravy, and the hot smoked trout schmear are by far the most indicative of their “multi-dimensional” business.

“The schmear in particular is our play on the creamy whitefish spread often sold at Jewish delis,” says Katianna, who was adopted from Korea by a Jewish father and Irish-Catholic mother. “It’s a perfect example of us being inspired by our childhood food memories as well as our work history.”

The congee pot pie, served in a pie cup with a beautiful biscuit top layer, is a mix between a chicken pot pie and traditional dakjuk, Korean porridge. Beyond comforting, the congee was borne from a need to repurpose their biscuit trim and leftover rice from other dishes. “Sustainability and minimizing food waste is something that we take seriously,” Katianna explains, adding yet another element of their autobiography to the menu as modern chefs in the age of climate change.

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