Years ago, veteran chef Debbie Lee roamed the streets of Los Angeles with her modern Korean food truck Ahn-Joo, named after the small tasty bites that accompany the soju and beer at Korean bars. 13 years later, Lee is back in Los Angeles with Yi Cha, an aptly named Korean gastropub slated to open in Highland Park by late summer of 2023. Yi Cha, which means “second round,” or the second stage of a night out drinking in Korean culture, opens in a former factory space at 4941 York Boulevard, with a large open storefront, lush outdoor patio, and rustic elements of traditional Korean hanok design throughout.
Lee trained at French restaurants before opening her own Korean-inspired food truck in 2010, which also had a brief stint as a kiosk at the Americana at Brand in Glendale. She published a well-received cookbook, Seoultown Kitchen, in 2011, but eventually closed Ahn-Joo in 2012. Lee also famously competed on the fifth season of Next Food Network Star.
Lee spent the first year-plus of the COVID-19 pandemic living with her parents in South Orange County, preparing takeout Korean foods for locals. A year-and-a-half ago, Lee moved back to the LA area, this time to Pasadena, with the hope of finding a swan song of sorts for her lengthy culinary career. “Being down in South OC through COVID hit a mark with me,” says Lee. “When people were asking me for mandu and jjigae, it’s when I realized this is how I want to retire and be known. This is who I am, my heritage and ancestry, and I want to be in a really great community.”
Highland Park as well as its adjacent areas of Glassell Park, Eagle Rock, and Cypress Park have been active restaurant neighborhoods over the past decade, subjected to discussions of gentrification due to rising real estate prices and the influx of pricey, unapproachable eating establishments. However, Lee has a plan to engage with Highland Park locals and embed herself into the neighborhood. “Highland Park sits near and dear to my heart. We’re not trying to be a trendy hipster restaurant. We’re already reaching out to schools, community centers, and the fire department to get to know our neighborhood. We want to have small plates of Korean food so that anyone, from families to couples to singles can come in.” Lee says she took a lot of inspiration after talking with Vivian Ku, whose reasonably-priced Highland Park Taiwanese restaurant Joy has been a hit since it opened in 2018.
Yi Cha also represents a part of the burgeoning wave of modern Korean food in Los Angeles, from Eater Awards winner Yangban Society and tasting menu restaurant Kinn to more casual spots like Shiku and Chimelier. Lee might’ve been a decade too early with her interpretations of Korean nachos using rice cakes, Korean fried chicken, and pork potstickers, but she plans to bring back a lot of those favorites, plus new dishes she’s created in the years since. As for her return to LA’s restaurant scene, Lee says that she feels honored to play a part: “It makes me proud to see the younger generation supersede [us]. Now I’m seeing incredible food at places like Yangban Society, one of the top new restaurants, and that’s really exciting to me.”
Lee says she plans to engage further with the community by hosting cooking classes and gardening lessons. The outdoor space will feature large planter boxes for kids to learn to appreciate growing vegetables. “Shortly after we open, we want to teach kids not to be afraid of a vegetable and try something new,” she says. The space will be designed by Trading Spaces host and Hollywood designer Kahi Lee. Yi Cha aims to open by Labor Day 2023 with dinner and cocktails, plus eventual lunch and brunch service.