By MACKIE JIMBO, Rafu Contributor
It’s 9:20 a.m. on a crisp Friday morning in September, and there is tension in the air. My mom and I join a group hovering near a small take-out window. As we wait, passersby either knowingly join our group or walk by with confusion. Suddenly, the athleisure-clad girl next to me loses her composure and a sheer look of panic spreads across her face. A hostess had magically appeared in the take-out window to deliver devastating news: the croissants were sold out for the day.
This is the scene outside Konbi, a tiny daytime restaurant sandwiched between a gas station and a vegan bakery/crystal shop in Echo Park. Blink and you could miss it, except for the discreet forest-green sign perched above the take-out window and the usual crowd waiting on the sidewalk.
On this particular Friday morning in September, the crowd was larger and more intense than usual, because a few days earlier, Bon Appétit had named Konbi its Restaurant of the Year. Konbi beat 50 other restaurants nationwide, winning the title for its meticulously crafted sandwiches inspired by those found in Japanese konbini. (Konbini are 24-hour convenience stores, like 7-Eleven and Lawson’s, in Japan that sell impossibly fresh packaged sandwiches, salads, and onigiri, a dizzying variety of bottled drinks, and even magazines and cosmetics.)
Konbi is the product of over a decade of friendship between chefs Akira Akuto and Nick Montgomery. They met as chefs at David Chang’s Momofuku Restaurant Group in New York City. They eventually made their way to L.A. for the better weather, produce, and real-estate prices.
Initially, Montgomery and Akuto hosted pop-ups for Italian deli sandwiches, which garnered mild success. Then, one day, they decided to serve a Japanese-style omelet sandwich, paying homage to the ubiquitous konbini sandwiches. Customers loved it, and with that, the idea for Konbi was born.
Montgomery and Akuto spent the next four years developing the concept for Konbi.
“The inspiration is taking the konbini food in Japan, and using really nice ingredients, and having that as a starting point,” Akuto explains. “In Japan, the accessibility of good food is a common trait for every level of price point. That doesn’t seem as common here. So, we wanted to take that availability at every corner, and put it in restaurant form in the U.S.”
Akuto and Montgomery traveled to Tokyo often to research the concept. In addition to konbini, the chefs drew inspiration from Tokyo’s kissaten (old-school coffee houses where city dwellers go to read a newspaper or take a break) and third-wave, minimalist coffee shops. In particular, they wanted to emulate the look and feel of these shops and their efficient use of space. Colors seen around Tokyo also shaped the chefs’ vision for Konbi.
“Wood, concrete, earth tones – and green. A lot of green. We kept seeing green in subtle places, like road cones and the JR line. I never noticed it before, and now, I can’t un-see it,” Akuto recalls.
Konbi’s interior reflects these influences. It’s clean and minimalist inside, with exposed wood beams on the wall. It’s the most efficient use of a very narrow space, with a 10-seat counter bordering the open kitchen. There are also nods to konbini and kissaten culture scattered throughout: a vintage chef doll lounges atop a jar of Kewpie mayonnaise; a bowl of complimentary matchbooks with Konbi’s forest-green and white logo sits on the counter; and UCC coffee cans and Japanese design magazines line built-in bookshelves. A black-and-white framed print on the bookshelf reads “f**k perfection,” which I can only imagine is irony from Akuto and Montgomery, because everything about Konbi strives for perfection.
Akuto and Montgomery achieve that perfection, for the food at least, through a commitment to using the best ingredients and meticulous execution. Take the layered omelet sandwich, for example. Akuto and Montgomery played with several different techniques of preparing the omelet before settling on the traditional square pan, and folding each layer by hand with chopsticks. They use locally sourced eggs from Chino Valley Ranchers, and infuse the eggs with a dashi made from wild konbu foraged in Hokkaido.
“The goal of the sandwich is to suspend perfect, well-seasoned dashi in egg, and make it a little bit more savory,” Montgomery notes.
The omelet gets sandwiched (for lack of a better word) between two thick slices of white milk bread, baked specially for Konbi by L.A.’s premier bread purveyor, Bub & Grandma’s. And for the final touch, the chefs drizzle Dijon mustard and, of course, Kewpie mayonnaise on the sandwich.
The result is sublime and comforting: reminiscent of the konbini sandwiches I remember eating in Japan, but elevated to near-perfection.
Surprisingly, Akuto and Montgomery’s favorite sandwich is the least popular with diners. For the eggplant katsu sandwich, the chefs prepare an intensely umami vegetarian dashi containing burnt onions, dried shiitake, and soy sauce. They marinate sliced eggplant in the dashi overnight, and then coat the slices in panko and fry them to order for each sandwich.
“You’ve got to try it,” Montgomery urges. “It’s tricky to make though, so I’m OK with only selling the amount we do. Production would become an issue if we sold much more.”
Though Konbi’s sandwiches receive all the attention, Akuto and Montgomery implore diners to explore the vegetable dishes on the menu. These change seasonally, which allows Akuto and Montgomery to experiment more and highlight Southern California’s bountiful produce.
On my last visit, for example, there was a beautiful chilled Meiji tofu, floating in dashi infused with the flavor of tomatoes at their peak ripeness. The dish tasted like late summer in a bowl, with some bites punctuated by sweet sungold tomatoes (each individually peeled) and crispy buckwheat.
One vegetable dish that remains on the menu year-round is the potato salad. Konbi’s version incorporates a traditional Japanese ingredient in an unexpected way. Akuto and Montgomery top their potato salad with okara, a byproduct of tofu.
“It’s a very common filler ingredient with potato salad in Japan, but we find it kind of gross to eat on its own,” Akuto explains. “So we wanted to do our own take on it.”
Instead of mixing the okara into the potato salad, Akuto and Montgomery fry the okara until crunchy and sprinkle it on top. “Everyone says the okara tastes like hot Cheetos,” Akuto laughs.
While Akuto and Montgomery experiment with the vegetable dishes, they stick to the classics with the pastries. The chefs wanted to offer French pastries, like those found at cafés and patisseries in Japan, but they needed to figure out what they could feasibly make in Konbi’s tiny kitchen.
Canelés, a custardy, cake-like pastry that is one of Akuto’s childhood favorites, fit that bill.
“You can make a big batch of the batter, and then bake it off on a daily basis. So, it doesn’t take up a lot of room,” Akuto notes.
Though the preparation sounds simple, canelés are exceptionally tricky to make.
“There’s so many factors, from the timing, to the oven temperature, to letting the batter temper. Even now, there’s still days when a batch just fails,” Montgomery observes.
Though high-risk, Konbi’s canelés yield high reward when done right: deeply caramelized and crisp on the outside, custardy and buttery on the inside, with intense notes of vanilla and the faintest hint of rum.
Konbi’s most in-demand pastry, though, is the chocolate croissant. Scores have already been written about how impossibly flaky these croissants are; how Akuto and Montgomery repurposed a machine, typically used to roll out clay for ceramics, to instead roll out croissant dough; how a chef from PATH, a renowned French bistro in Tokyo, taught them how to perfect these croissants; and how maddening it is to actually nab one, given that Konbi only makes about 36 per morning.
“People get real aggressive about the croissants,” Montgomery sighs. Suffice it to say that Akuto and Montgomery are strategizing how to make more croissants available and how to bring more fairness to the ordering process, including an unofficial quota of two croissants per person.
Bon Appétit & Beyond
Akuto and Montgomery are cerebral when asked about the Bon Appétit title.
“It’s a big honor. We’re happy to represent L.A. in this way,” Akuto muses. “But we don’t bask in it. We still have regulars, and new people with more expectations. So, we are focused on making sure everyone is happy.”
Since the Bon Appétit announcement, Konbi has been more slammed than usual, especially with out-of-town customers eager to try one of Konbi’s celebrated sandwiches.
“At least a few folks show up every day from the airport with their luggage,” Montgomery notes.
“It’s REALLY fun when Japanese people come to the restaurant,” Akuto adds with a grin. “We take real pride when they say the sandwich reminds them of home.”
Konbi’s success is not without challenges. In addition to increased expectations from customers, Akuto and Montgomery face increased competition from restaurateurs eager to capitalize on Konbi’s success.
Recently, a café opened in Pasadena serving Japanese-style sandwiches, coffee, and pastries. And in Manhattan, a new restaurant called Konbini has an almost identical concept. Though imitation can be the sincerest form of flattery, Akuto and Montgomery do not see it that way.
“We knew it was going to happen eventually. But it’s frustrating when people almost verbatim try to do exactly what we are doing,” Montgomery laments. “I wish that they would be a little bit more original.”
Looking forward, the biggest priority for Konbi is to find more space, whether that be through expanding the current space or opening a second location. Though Akuto and Montgomery are searching for the right deal, they are not in a rush.
“We have to make sustainable decisions, and that takes time,” Akuto remarks. “We can’t just open up.”
It is Akuto and Montgomery’s discipline, and relentless drive towards perfection, that have brought Konbi success thus far. And, it is that same discipline and drive that will continue to bring Konbi success for many years to come.
Follow Mackie on Instagram (@gourmetmackie) for updates on where she’s eating in L.A. and beyond. You can also reach her at [email protected]
Photos by ALICIA CHO