A Food Revolution: Kwang Uh of Baroo
A Food Revolution: Kwang Uh of Baroo
BY : JASON STEWART
Baroo, where food and art intersect...
It’s easy to write about how cool and different Baroo is. How it’s a peaceful fermented Korean after school special that also plays Metallica, sometimes, and can you believe it, is inside of a nasty ass strip mall in the not cute part of Hollywood. Now, however, we’re in a time where “strip-mall” restaurants are no longer a kitschy concept, hell there’s an entire episode of PBS’s “Mind Of A Chef” devoted to the concept.
2 years ago a sign-less storefront made you feel cool for being an insider. That excitement has lifted now that everyone’s an insider, but you still feel cool knowing about Baroo. 2 years ago Bon Appetit said Baroo was the 5th best new restaurant in America, and their most camera ready dish, “Kimchi Fried Rice,” tiny potato chips and all, was awarded Dish Of The Year. You can see their influence on Destroyer, the equally tiny lab across the street from Vespertine; house fermentation proudly on display in the dining room, tweezer food at Olive Garden price points, whatever “Job’s Tears” are. With Baroo’s limited storage space, owner Kwang Uh, has his close knit group of employees go shopping everyday before service, and I’m glad I asked where exactly, because it’s at the Whole Foods across from The Grove. On Sundays and Mondays he’ll visit a few Asian markets to round out his list.
A tiny library of cookbooks and magazines sit between the front and back of house, an issue of Mold, Gucci Mane’s NYT bestseller, or a random old surf magazine, not unlike my coffee table at home. It reminds me of Kindergarten in the 80’s, it reminds me of going over to your Asian friend who has *chill* parents’ house as a kid, and for a random restaurant designed by two guys from Korea, feels a lot like home for me. Despite the solacing interior, Kwang admits Baroo is not the type of food you’ll want to eat everyday though, the flavors are too, well, weird. You feel like you’re doing your part to support the outsider arts, local business, and the good guys all in one Sapphire swipe. At Baroo I’ll eat a plate of oxtail ragu, draped in fried beef tendons, puffed like pig skin chicharon, and still pat myself on the back for eating clean that day.
When I ask if he has time for a quick nap while they close down from 3pm-5pm, he laughs while his partner Kim manhandles a giant vat of steaming rice to cool on a sheet pan, bussing tables on his way back to the kitchen. For staff meal today he’s making Chapagetti, a Korean instant noodle version of jajangmyeon that he’s doctored up, of course. He’ll be pairing that with fried chicken sandwiches because it seems wrong to eat instant ramen for lunch at a restaurant run by someone who’s staged at Noma. Kwang said he usually skips dinner, and hasn’t had breakfast in 20 years. I’ starting to wonder if this man ever eats at all. He doesn’t strike me as an intermittent faster.
His Buddhist traits are starting to show, but he’s not really a religious person. I get the feeling he’d prescribed to the laidback spiritual essence of California long before posting on facebook for a Westside Rentals password. Kwang doesn’t do drugs or drink really, a contemporary “post-hippie” whose parents were cool enough to let him play Nirvana and Pearl Jam covers growing up in Seoul. Baroo is now Kwang’s entire life. He has no family here in LA, he lives and breathes this tiny storefront, and you can see him getting better at it with time. Being around him is relaxing; the way he weaves his tranquil Korean philosophies into LA’s sun-drenched self care fabric have proven to work well for both his cuisine and his life.
Kwang is lucky to be of the age where he can sample from both traditional and experimental worlds, while still being respected by both. Modern and unique methods that somehow most “Old Heads” can accept, not unlike a Kodak Black, or Oat Milk. Kwang says the food here in LA’s Koreatown is more more seasoned, and salty than in Korea, and that I might be disappointed to eat my favorite dishes there. Soban on Olympic Blvd has the most authentic banchan he’s found in LA, the braised short ribs at Sun Nong Dan are among his favorites as well. He loves Panda Express and hates McDonalds, good man. I was surprised to learn he likes Fat Sal’s, a Hollywood slop spot when in the mood for a naughty meal.
I asked him how much money it took to open Baroo, after a few seconds of “ums” and smiles he started telling me that restaurants in LA often cost upwards of $500,000 to open up. I nodded politely, we all read Eater. He wouldn’t tell me exactly, but it’s a LOT less than half a mil’. Kwang was able to open an internationally acclaimed restaurant for more or less the cost of a late model Kia Soul. He’s been offered investment opportunities but he believes that kind of relationship puts the restaurant out of balance, and that outsider influence, even the slightest, can breed animosity. A suspicion I can relate to, perhaps we could both let our guard down a bit on that.
You can tell they’re mindful of the current class disparity, and how it affects the way we eat. Only the upper class being able to eat healthy, buy organic, pick up a CBD elixir when they’re having a bad day, while the lower class struggles to find food their kids will eat that isn’t exploding with sodium or injected with hormones. In the grand scheme of things, Baroo is priced well, they aren’t cheap, but close enough to be “training wheels” for the underprivileged. Local kids can save up a bit, ride their bikes to Baroo and eat something truly insane. Even for $2 they can get a small plate of pineapple and cabbage kimchi, hitting every flavor note in the book, unlocking an entirely new part of their brain. We need Baroo now more than ever, a buffer between the two worlds, a curiosity for food that goes beyond is all you need to pull up. “Human beings are social animals,” says Kwang, and he’s created the perfect place for his weird ass to be social.