LA’s Koreatown has a new modern Korean restaurant worth checking out called Tokki, which opened a few weeks ago in mid-October at the very busy Chapman Plaza complex on the corner of Sixth and Alexandria. The restaurant comes from four partners who know their respective white-collar professions (Alex Park, Yohan Park, Patrick Liu, and John Kim), but don’t have any previous restaurant experience. Thankfully, they have chef Sunny Jang, who has extensive work at places like three Michelin star Quince and modern Korean restaurant Barnzu in San Francisco, as well as World’s 50 Best restaurant Atomix in New York City, to oversee the menu and lead the kitchen. Together, the five hope to establish the first real dinner-oriented full-service modern Korean restaurant in Los Angeles that encapsulates the zeitgeist of personalized Korean fare using American ingredients and polished preparations.
That means share plates to pick at and larger entree-like dishes that offer slightly bigger portions. Jang will want you to start with crumbled tofu with crunchy lotus root, epazote, and a hint of spice from habanero oil. Uni toast gets either Santa Barbara or Hokkaido variant of the shellfish roe, depending on what’s available, over a thick slice of bread, smoked trout roe, and marinated Korean cucumbers. The truffle kimchi fried rice should be cloying, but Jang’s deft touch of the heady tuber’s oil gets a glorious crunchy bottom atop a cast-iron skillet, tender bulgogi, and even an option of paper-thin Miyazaki A5 wagyu slices. This is drinking food excellence, and the limitations of beer and wine aren’t the case for Tokki, which makes colorful soju-based cocktails that have as much fun and complexity as a place with full liquor. The dimly lit ambience has hints of Danish minimalism while faux greenery gives the relatively stark space a bit of colorful pop.
Tokki, which means rabbit in Korean, but shouldn’t be confused with artisanal soju maker of the same name, is part of a new wave of modern Korean restaurants opening in Los Angeles. The trend of non-traditional Korean flavors and dishes served often more fancy or buttoned-up establishments started in Los Angeles with the influence of Kogi chef Roy Choi, whose seminal restaurant Pot closed too soon inside the Line Hotel (Choi took much of what he did at Pot and moved it over to Best Friend in Las Vegas).
The phenomenon of modern Korean comes from American-trained, often second-generation or younger first-generation chefs who want to employ the flavors they grew up with at home and in traditional restaurants, and remake them for a wider audience or one that might be willing to pay for more upmarket ingredients. Since Pot, places like Baroo, Hanchic, Spoon by H, Majordomo, and Perilla LA, HanEuem, as well as the soon-to-open Kinn, have marked a sense of LA’s place in the canon of modern Korean cuisine, a subgenre that has origins in Seoul and New York City. Over the past decade-plus, restaurants from Momofuku Ssam Bar in NYC to Parachute in Chicago to Maum in Palo Alto have demonstrated the enduring popularity of Korean cooking outside the confines of typical jjigae, bibimbap, and gogigui (barbecue).
Back to Tokki in Los Angeles, Jang says the idea was to make something relevant, and ultimately what people want. “Our food is affordable with a good portion. It’s not quite Korean food, with a lot of French, Japanese, and other Asian cuisine technique. We just twist it a little bit from the original,” she says. Originally brought on to consult on the menu but now established as the opening chef of Tokki, Jang’s food has a smart, elegant touch that should resonate with younger diners in K-Town, many of whom are used to traditional, mom-and-pop-style restaurants like Kobawoo, Soban, and Park’s BBQ.
Jang’s fantastic dae-chang dish comes as a slightly chewy, slightly sweet beef intestines over rice and brought together by runny egg yolk. Mala lemongrass pork noodle soup has neck bones and potatoes that meld Sichuan and Thai ingredients with the classic Korean hangover soup. Hot and sweet fried chicken comes with fried rice cakes, blistered shishito peppers, and cheddar for something that works as satisfying as a movie or ballgame snack (sorry though, no TVs here). For dessert, there’s an ever-illusive hotteok, deep-fried and served with cinnamon, vanilla ice cream, and the tangy pop of powdered açai. This isn’t Korean food you grew up with, but all of it will seem familiar, satisfying, and inventive.
Hours run Tuesday to Saturday, with service starting at 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., and until midnight on Friday and Saturday. Reservations are available on Resy, with $8 parking behind the restaurant.