Mimi and Michael Hong, LA Korea
Mimi and Michael Hong, owners of LA Korea at the Farmers Market, opened their restaurant in 2003 after successful careers in banking and graphic design. Michael had been a VP at a local Korean bank, Mimi had been a designer with a major graphic design house in Los Angeles and a highly esteemed sculptress. Losing her job after major cutbacks at the design company, MImi told Michael she wanted to return to being an entrepreneur. Before emigrating to the US from Korea, she had owned and operated a successful restaurant in Seoul. Michael wanted to support her idea and opted to leave his secure banking job to help her run their new enterprise. They are the proud parents of two daughters, one a senior in high school, the other at Michael's alma mater, the University of Utah. The Hongs recently spoke with us about their experiences at the Market.
Michael: It was a big change for me, leaving the banking community. But I wanted a change in my career too. I didn't think it was too big a gamble for us to open the restaurant. Mimi had been so successful at it in Korea. She is known in the Korean community here for her cooking talents, although much of that rests on her wonderful cooking of Italian food. But the Market didn't need another Italian restaurant and the owners wanted a Korean restaurant. They wanted more variety and there wasn't a Korean restaurant here until we opened ours.
Mimi: We named the restaurant after our new city, LA. I had many ideas abou the kind of traditional Korean food I wanted to make for the new restaurant. Koreans like soup based dishes, but they rely on MSG for their flavor and we will not use MSG in our dishes.
When we opened, we had many items on the menu, but I knew that first day, it was more than our customers wanted. That was our biggest challenge in the beginning, shaping the menu to fit our customers' tastes. That first day, we knew it was our barbecue that would be the most popular. I had a steam table with lots of varieties of vegetables and noodles. So in two weeks, we completely revamped the menu, and by the end of the first month, we got rid of the steam table and replaced our stove with a much bigger grill so we could do all the barbecuing. That's alright because we offered a variety of vegetablees, not as many, but still fresh vegetables. Our meals are very, very healthy.
I feel very confident recommending our food to our customers. It's good, fresh, low in calories, has a lot of fiber, and is very well balanced. Even our Korean customers like it. They say it tastes "very clean" because we use simple ingredients.
Michael: we also miscalculated which would be our most popular dish. I thought for sure it would be #5. We thought it would be the most popular with an international audience. #5 is a typical Korean BBQ dish with vegetables, but it's #1, Kalbi, that's our most popular dish.
Mimi: Kalbi is made with short ribs of beef cut 1/2 inches thick, marinated in soy sauce, sugar, onions, garlic, sesame oil, and pepper. We make all our dishes fresh every day. It's one of our favorites, but my favorite is the #2, which is just thickly sliced beef in a sweet marinade. It's like Kalbi, maybe not quite as tasty, but it's a little less fatty. But no matter what we serve, I really am proud of it all.
Michael: One of the reasons I was so happy to open a Korean restaurant is that I wanted to bring Korean food to a non-Korean audience. I wanted to show it with pride as a way of introducing a piece of Korean culture to a new audience. Here at the Market, we have so many people from all over the world, from all over California and Los Angeles. Every day, there's a new audience, but we have a lot of regulars who come back every day.
We seem to be very popular with the 30-45 year old women especially. They taste our food and then tell us they love it and come back. It makes me feel proud. I feel that we contribute to the community, to the many people who come to the Market.
Mimi: They even bring their babies. I love it when they bring the babies, although when they are sharing with their babies, I make sure to leave out the spices.
Michael: Being here at the Market is definitely an advantage. If you go to Montana or Wyoming, you're home alone. Here, I get to mix with all kinds of people, Mexican, Asian, white. I went to school at the University of Utah right after leaving Korea. That was my first impression of the United States, but the Market, now I see, this is the real United States.
Mimi: I love being outside, I can feel the weather all day long. I really like that. I love being my own boss, being in charge of the creativity I bring to the food. The Market feels old-fashioned. It's so relaxed and the people are so down to earth.
LA Korea, Stall # 510, Phone: (323) 936-3930.