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Photos courtesy of Tokki

Dish By DishLos Angeles

How Sunny Jang Finesses Korean Pub Food at Tokki, in Five Dishes

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Seoul’s pocha-style pubs are casual, low-key spots usually reserved for late-night pit-stops after bar hopping. Inspired by pojangmacha, tent bars set along the streets run by Korean ahjummas (aunties), these aren’t the kind of places reserved for date nights or anniversary dinners. You wouldn’t expect crafted plated desserts and cocktails with more than three ingredients. 

But at Koreatown’s new Tokki, you can get tuned-up pocha-style Korean comfort dishes — think tteokbokki and makgeolli — in an upscale setting.

Tokki is the product of five Asian American owners: Yohan Park, Alex Park, Patrick Liu, John Kim, and chef Sunny Jang. Yohan Park and Liu were tired of hitting up the same old bars in K-town and saw the need for a more refined spot that still had an air of coziness. Looking more to push the boundaries of traditional Korean drinking joints than to replace mom-and-pop bars, the group wanted to create a new option for a younger generation, whether Asian American or not.

Communicating that message through food is Jang, formerly of Barnzu and Quince in San Francisco, and New York City’s upscale Korean restaurant Atomix. While her professional career has taken Jang through award-winning kitchens on both coasts, she grew up steeped in Korean food traditions, making her as comfortable with the demands of fine dining as she is with mixing-and-matching flavors in approachable everyday cooking.

Family roots deeply influenced Jang. Her father, who studied nutrition, passed down his fascination with Korean medicine, inspiring her approach to composing dishes. Growing up, she often cooked with an aunt who lived at a Buddhist temple and a grandmother who owned a farm and a restaurant. Jang’s own cooking philosophy came together when she began working in kitchens that specialized in French and Italian cuisine. 

Using those European cooking techniques mixed with Korean ingredients, her food is not simple, and it shows. Dishes are precisely laid out and as lovely as a piece of Korean silk embroidery.

“These dishes weren’t perfected overnight — I tried them so many times, sometimes eating tteokbokki for 10 days in a row,” the chef says. “I want to make things that don’t really exist, with flavors that others haven’t done. I want my food to be sometimes dangerous, sometimes challenging.” 

Here’s how Jang has created a menu that’s both familiar and excitingly new, in her own words.

1. Truffle Kimchi Fried Rice

“Our version of kimchi bokkeumbap (fried rice) is familiar, but it’s different. The truffle bulgogi really sets it apart. It comes out sizzling, with the bulgogi slightly sweet, and then that spice in the kimchi fried rice. I order it as a guest, too — it’s my go-to meal. 

In terms of texture, how many times have you had kimchi fried rice that’s soggy and stuck together? This one has sweet premium Gyeonggi-do rice that turns crispy on the bottom like nurungji. I make kimchi fried rice in a wok. Then, I put an iron plate on a griddle and spread the rice on top to make it crispy on the bottom. Each batch is cooked fresh so that the rice and kimchi mixture joins together well, and doesn’t get mushy from waiting too long to serve.

When I did French cooking, I used duck and beef fat. That’s how it came to me to cook kimchi in beef fat for a kimchi bokkeumbap. With the beef fat, it’s more about how it’s executed, and the premium ingredients. It’s not something that comes out in a minute — there are a lot of steps, and I have to ensure the ratio of flavor for everything, including the truffle oil, is correct. 

The kimchi and the truffle oil just go really well together, and I was inspired by the combination. I sous vide an egg, and when it’s put all together, it’s so good. It’s just a fun dish.

When you do the A5 wagyu add-on, which half of our customers do, you get a little bit of showmanship — we bring slices of A5 to your table, lay them on top, and torch them. You could put that wagyu on anything and it would be good, since it’s just like putting caviar on top of something, but with our bokkeumbap, it’s really special.”

2. Rose Tteok (Tokki) Bokki

“Twenty years ago, when I was in high school, I’d finish class and rush out to buy 30 cent rice cakes on a skewer from a street vendor. These tteokbokki — fat, chewy rice cakes — come in a gochujang sauce and were the inspiration for this dish.

This dish uses white wine and tomato sauce to make a pink rose pasta sauce. But I do it with tteokbokki instead of traditional Italian pasta. 

I fry the rice cakes, then add the rose sauce into the pan, which is made with gochujang, cream, and an aged Manchego. The texture of the rice cakes is crispy when you bite into it, then very soft and chewy inside. I recently switched in enoki mushrooms for oyster mushrooms, because the texture is much better, and I just shred a little for flavor on top. Then I add a little bit of perilla leaf and some gooseberries on top.

Korean people who come in expecting the traditional tteokbokki need context around it, because it’s not what you’d normally get. Korean meets Italian in our food — not just kimchi pasta, but a combo of flavors that makes it a bit more elegant.”

3. Uni Toast

“Every morning, I pick up fresh artisan Korean milk bread from a local pastry shop for this. I butter and toast the bread, then layer it with cucumber jang-ah-jji (pickle). I put the uni and smoked trout roe on top, then dress it with avocado crema, onion aioli. and petit sorrel.

First, you taste the uni, then the cucumber pickle, and then the avocado crema and onion aioli. The flavors are soft and sweet in the middle, which contrast with the crispy toast. Then, suddenly, you taste a light smokiness from the smoked trout roe.

This came about because at first we had an uni bibimbap, but then we also had this bread. I was inspired by the avocado toast of California cuisine, as well as the Korean trend of carpaccio with onion cream sauce on top that you can get at an izakaya-style bar with anju (drinking snacks). Combined with the creamy uni, this is unbeatable — I feel transported to the sea when I taste this.

Even people who say, ‘I’ll never touch uni’ know this is so good. The fresh inspiration of the sea, sure, but the most important factor is the textural combination of the cream and the caviar pearls exploding in my mouth — that’s the ‘ooh’ feeling. Everything here is fun on our menu, because we offer an experience with our textures and flavors.”

4. Dae-chang (Beef Intestine) Over Rice

“I’m proud of this dish because it’s a Korean dish, and it’s unique — only Koreans eat it just like this. If you go to Korea, they give it to you in a fast rice dish called ‘dupbap,’ or covered rice. Even though they have it in Japan, it’s a Korean custom to serve it as a light, quick lunch. It’s a quick, resourceful dish that makes use of a part that would otherwise go to waste.

Yohan likes dae-chang, and he wanted to eat it very much, so he made it in an Instant Pot at home. I tried it and thought it was really good, so I tried to simmer it, but the fat inside kept coming out. So I found a novel answer: sewing the intestines. 

I clean and marinate the intestines overnight. I sew together every single one of the intestines you eat at Tokki, and then put them in a pressure cooker to cook. Then, I glaze them in a soy mixture inspired by Peking duck glaze, which has corn syrup and gives a honeyed exterior to make it crispy, and saute them. Then we serve them over rice with a salad with a chile-red onion dressing, an egg yolk, and a side of wasabi.

When you taste it, it’s crispy at first and then bursts when you get to the interior. There’s no lasting smell, and then the biggest part, as I said, is maintaining that fat. If you don’t cook daejang right, it can be so chewy that you’re working on it for minutes, and that’s not a good experience. So it needs to be soft and tender, with just enough texture. Don’t think of the intestine when you eat; think of it as a cross between bacon and bone marrow.”

5. Scallops With Brown Butter Sauce

“I worked in an omakase restaurant for two years and loved a good geem (seaweed) and sushi rice with a poached scallop on top. This is like sushi without rice. I picked scallops for our menu because, plain and simple, everyone loves a creamy scallop. And when I worked at Quince, I used seaweed butter, so I said, ‘Let’s try it with scallops.’ 

First, I leave the scallops in their brine for one hour to add taste to them, and then I add butter and lightly torch it. Then brown butter with geem sauce, which includes fish sauce. Since I want to do it Korean-style, I add jang-ah-jji (pickled) ramps, which we get seasonally and make into pickles so we can utilize that rampy flavor for a long time past its seasonal date. Then, there’s a black truffle pâté that’s just the perfect finish — it adds even more umami, nuttiness, and some smokiness that creates a strong finish. Our guests have described this dish as an umami bomb and an explosion of flavors.

Flavor-wise, I just wanted to combine the flavors of geem and scallops into a dish that’s savory, yet has the oceany flavors that are more akin to sushi. This balances the ingredients with strong umami characteristics with the delicateness of scallops while still maintaining the focus on the scallops themselves. Like most of our dishes, it’s just fun to eat.”

 

Dakota Kim is a writer, editor and recovering restaurant owner living in Los Angeles. Her stories have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure, Civil Eats, Food52, and many other publications. Follow her on Twitter. Follow Resy, too.