Sustainably Minded

Words by
Julie Wolfson
Images by
The 1 point 8

Mobbed since the day they opened in 2019, Yang’s Kitchen continues working on the perfect recipe for their values.

Open the door to Yang’s Kitchen, in Alhambra, any day of the week and you find their bright, minimalist dining room buzzing with activity. Diners sip soup made with miso fermented locally by Ai Fujimoto of Omiso on meal trays inspired by Japanese breakfasts. Small bowls of Meiji tofu bathe in house-made ponzu. Toasted slices of Bub & Grandma’s bread wait to be slathered in smoked fish dip. When a cornmeal mochi pancake comes out of the kitchen topped with whipped cream and fruit, you run back to the counter to add one to your order.

Located in the San Gabriel Valley—home to the most populous Asian American community in Southern California and long established as the epicenter of Chinese cuisine in Los Angeles—the packed dining room of Yang’s tells the story of an instantly successful new addition to the neighborhood. Here Chris Yang, chef and co-owner, fills in the rest about all it takes to open a small, independent restaurant and make it a business that can sustain the owners and their staff.

What was your original plan when you first opened Yang’s Kitchen?

We cooked what we called Asian American comfort food. I was born here in Alhambra. My mom is from Vietnam and my dad from Hong Kong. There is a whole generation of us now cooking stuff that is nostalgic to us, but has roots in America too. And we wanted to work with healthy ingredients and try to source organic and more sustainable products when possible.

Then the pandemic hit about six months after you opened. How did you cope?

We didn’t know if people could work or if they would catch Covid, so we furloughed all of our staff and came back with three people. We opened the marketplace. It was more to support the farmers from the farmers’ market and help our community to be able to buy staples like eggs. It was three or four months before we started introducing food again, doing family meals and simple to-go menu items.

Where did you start to reorganize and reimagine the menu?

Before the pandemic, we had been cooking verything from scratch. We put so much work into the beef noodles and the scallion pancakes and the prices we were charging were too low. We took a hard look at how much labor we would need versus what we could produce and the prices we would have to charge.

Before, we were trying to achieve a fast casual concept with high volume, but it just took too much work. So we started making dishes that took a little less prep. We offered a roast chicken dinner and then a prime rib dinner for one of the holidays. Having our marketplace and displaying all of the farmers’ market ingredients gave people an idea of the quality that was going into the food, so they started accepting the higher prices and embracing what we were doing.

“Having our marketplace and displaying all of the farmers’ market ingredients gave people an idea of the quality that was going into the food, so they started accepting the higher prices.”

Now that you have had some time developing this version of the menu, is it working?

In the last year we’ve had to do some adjustments and figure it out. Some people can come in and get a breakfast for $15, like the tofu set meal. But if some people want to do more of a family-style meal, or eat more how they do when they go to restaurants for dinner, they can order a whole spread of multiple dishes, sides, and specials.

Let’s talk about your epic list of ingredients and purveyors, like Transparent Farms for shrimp. Have you been to the farm?

We found out about them on Instagram. We did go visit the farm with the team. It’s a good fit for us because it showcases what we are about. It’s sustainable and better for the environment. Steve, the owner, doesn’t use antibiotics or hormones. When we introduced the dish we put the name of the farm on the dish; we say these prawns are sustainably grown in Downey and explain why they are so special.

How do you connect with the farms you work with?

Lucky for us, we have the Alhambra farmers’ market here on Sundays. A lot of the farmers that we started working with are from this farmers’ market, like Hier Cheemeng Produce, a Hmong family located in Fresno. For us to come across seasonal Asian produce that is so good, it’s a rarity. One of our staples from them is gai lan, Chinese broccoli. It’s sweet, flavorful, tender, never too stocky and overgrown or too bitter.

When you were able to reopen the dining room, how did you approach tackling your goals?

Our goal was to see how this brunch and lunch experiment would go. We added a beer and wine list. We have our sights set on opening for dinner. Right now we’re only open five days a week for brunch and lunch. Rent is fixed. A lot of your costs are fixed. I think we’re doing almost as well as we can for brunch and lunch, but we still need to do more in order to get to where we need to be. We need to make more revenue, get the staffing levels right, and pay people what they need to get paid.

Chris Yang holding court at Yang’s Kitchen.

What does it take to launch dinner? How much will be the same menu and how much will be different?

A huge thing is space considerations. We don’t have that much cold storage. We need to make sure our menu is streamlined and that we are not making the same mistakes, like over-hiring and undercharging. We have the core offering, and will add a few specials. We’re looking to start with three nights a week for dinner.

What is your approach for training staff?

I learned a lot from Bryant Ng at Cassia. I learned systems from him like writing recipes in grams and having steps that people can follow. Our chef de cuisine, Elaine Chang, goes over a lot of the training and makes sure people are following the directions. We’re constantly tweaking and improving and updating. A lot of our staff is young and didn’t have that much experience, but they are willing to learn and take direction well.

Are you happy with how things are going now?

It is still really challenging. I am still on the journey—I would not say I have made it. It’s a work in progress. I’m glad for all of the lessons I have learned along the way.

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