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The Greatest Restaurant I Never Knew

An ode to the beautiful life and heart-rending death of Yoonjin Hwang’s beloved Spoon by H.

Not too long ago on a perfectly pedestrian, mid-pandemic LA Tuesday, I stumbled onto greatness. My wife Jaime and I were at a store on Beverly Boulevard picking up a jacket I had very unnecessarily purchased (well, technically, because of strange COVID protocols, we were in the backdoor alley behind a store on Beverly Boulevard, but I digress). We hadn’t had lunch, so before exiting the alley we asked the shopkeeper if there was anywhere to eat nearby. “The only place I’d really recommend,” he said after a pause, “is this Korean place across the street - Spoon by H. It’s pretty famous.” The pork belly soup and dumplings, apparently, were musts. The chef David Chang, he noted (briefly stopping to self-consciously make sure he hadn’t confused my name with his), was a vocal fan.

"Not too long ago, on a perfectly pedestrian, mid-pandemic LA Tuesday, I stumbled onto greatness."

He also added, with a lede-burying thud, that he wasn’t sure if it was actually still open. And sure enough, we turned out of the alley and looked across the intersection - in a small strip mall sandwiched between a closed Papa Johns and a closed GameStop (both locations apparently went out of business during the pandemic; I’m tempted to say more about this, but the ironic symbology is so thickly layered that a hydraulic excavator couldn’t unpack it) sat Spoon by H. It didn’t look so much closed as abandoned - its façade was entirely boarded up with plywood and papered over with album release posters for anonymous rappers, like the makeshift walls of a construction site. Still, global pandemic and all that, so we scoured the internet for more information, inconclusively - a seemingly defunct Postmates entry, an obtuse listing on Tock, and a phone number that you apparently could text, but not call, to try to place an order. 

We texted and waited. And just before we gave up hope, a reply came: we could order, but would have to pay now, give the make and model of our car, and wait 45 minutes for the next available pick-up time. Perhaps somewhat recklessly, we complied. We waited. I fired up a podcast and went for a walk; Jaime did some work. And then, suddenly - a man in a mask emerged from the boarded-up door, brusquely put bags of food in our trunk, and turned and went back inside. 

A bit odd. But the food - even after unfairly enduring an hour of traffic on the 5 Freeway in the trunk of our Toyota Matrix before we ate it - was wonderful. Full of texture and flavor, splashed with vivid pinks, yellows, and greens; brimming with considered craftsmanship. Food so good it could recalibrate your perceived limits of pickled cucumber, your expectations of kimchi fried rice, and your understanding of Korean cuisine writ large. We went again two days later, this time buying enough for our entire families. We told our friends about it, insisting they go. We kept making the trek, almost weekly, sometimes spending hundreds of dollars. We liberally over-ordered, finding some things, like the dumplings, needed to be eaten immediately but others, like the milky soup broths, almost got better with time. It was an easy favorite, and a unique one for me: I can be a bit of a food homebody, picking a favorite dish at a restaurant and ordering it ad infinitum, as though trying anything else isn’t worth the risk it entails. But Spoon by H was different. I unreservedly trusted its menu’s small, daily shifts. We always ordered the new stuff. One time it was a tangy yellow curry with an entire crab submerged in it. The next time it was soft, shredded oxtail stirred into udon. Another time it was spicy noodles in a sauce of kimchi and heavy cream that almost seemed Italian. 

In a time when it’s nearly impossible to try any new restaurant without squinting at its relative Yelp rating and vetting it for safety, happening upon this revered place by happy accident was the brightest surprise. All the more amazing because I never truly went there, of course; I’d never dined inside or even seen inside, and I didn’t have the slightest idea of what I’d find if I had. Food had just been dropped, repeatedly, into my car like a gochujang gumball rolling out of a large format vending machine. I couldn’t help but imagine the post-COVID day I’d finally go and make a real meal, literally and figuratively, out of my visit - standing at the register pondering the menu, ordering to my heart’s content, and watching it all brought, piping hot, fresh out of the kitchen. 

Except now, that will never happen. On February 22, Spoon by H and its chef-owner-sorceress, Yoonjin Hwang (she’s the H), announced via Instagram that the restaurant would be closing, for real. Perhaps not shocking news on its face - restaurants are notoriously fragile businesses, made all the more fragile by this past year of moving COVID goalposts. But this one stings because Spoon by H was hit by something else entirely - a brutally simple fraud perpetrated by customers, who would order and pick up food, then tell the credit card company it was never received and demand they refund the charge - and it ultimately sank them. It’s a grift Spoon by H had actually posted about two weeks earlier, chronicling the futile battle they had waged against it, only to have the credit card companies side with consumers every time. It made their long survival odds longer; and in the ensuing weeks, the fraudulent cases escalated and broke the business. 

It’s frustrating and saddening, all the more considering we might be nearing some societal normalcy again. But while horrible, the unbridled selfishness itself isn’t horribly surprising. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that apparently we cannot be saved from our own stupidly destructive behavior. Indeed, the last time I went to Spoon by H two days before its last service, a woman without an order who showed up purely because she heard about it closing, proceeded to haggle with Yoonjin for anything she could try; when Yoonjin kindly accommodated and had her brother bring the woman tea and a muffin, she then complained loudly that the muffin was supposed to be free. On the last day of service, February 27th, Yoonjin shared via Instagram that someone tried to pull the scam again with one of the very last orders. With friends like these, who needs a pandemic? 

It’s also devastating because Yoonjin Hwang is the last person on whom you’d wish this sort of thing: kind, always generous, and humble to a fault. She is perpetually grateful, and frequently gives free treats with orders. I’ve heard her lament her English abilities (objectively excellent as they may be), and she has said in the past that she winces at being described as a “chef” because she isn’t classically trained in any way. This, on its face, is absurd, of course - just because Jimi Hendrix didn’t need music lessons to play guitar doesn’t mean he wasn’t a mind-blowing musician. And I’d contend it’s precisely Yoonjin’s lack of training - crossed with her studied work ethic and preternatural grasp of flavor, balance, and texture - that allowed her to create a menu so perplexing in both its excellence and sheer breadth. Spoon by H was originally a dessert shop (its Google Street View entry still shows it advertising waffles and shaved ice); she gradually added savory menu items through the years. Her complex culinary ambitions slowly swelled to a crescendo, dish by dish, and the restaurant eventually exploded to notoriety on the back of them. The results were a rare breed - beautiful enough to live comfortably in an Instagrammed world where a restaurant can be built on a Pantone color swatch, monstera leaves, and an edgy neon sign alone, but delicious enough to be hoisted up by the food industry’s loudest voices. She is, in a word, a prodigy. 

She’s been deemed that more than once in her life, too. She's from Korea but earned scholarships to come to America to study music twice - once as a 13-year-old for piano, and once again in her 20s to attend Oberlin. There she studied pipe organ, a confounding instrument that requires independently polyrhythmic coordination of all your limbs - pressing the keys, pumping the pedals, pushing in and pulling out all the stops (yes, this is where that phrase comes from). It’s a sort of inversion of the one-man-band - rather than one person demanding to play all the instruments, it’s an instrument that demands all of one person to be played. 

It’s a fitting image because it’s more or less how Yoonjin chose to run Spoon by H. Though her family helped, it was basically all her, everyday except Sunday, pulling out all the stops. Before the pandemic, she managed the wildly ambitious menu, made essentially all of the food, baked goods, and desserts by herself in the space’s tiny kitchen and also helped run the front of the house. During the last year, there she was answering texts, packing food in customer’s trunks, and dutifully cranking out orders. To imagine the graceful choreography, precision, and timing it took to do her job everyday is, personally, simultaneously awe-inspiring and panic-inducing. And in a food industry increasingly dominated by the empty scale brought by both fast food behemoths and the delivery companies suctioned to its underbelly like remoras, Spoon by H was a rapturously analog throwback - a sweet, unassuming experience that couldn’t possibly be scaled and survived day after day on the pure, transcendent talents of one individual. 

I’m not the first person to lament Spoon by H’s closure, and I’m far from the first to sing its praises. Of course, I’m not even the first David Chang to do so - the outspoken chef made it his pet project, on his social media and his podcast, to praise and uplift Spoon by H. Though it had existed for six years by the time he declared via Instagram that it was his restaurant of the year in 2018, that decision suddenly catapulted Spoon by H onto the radars of the world's food publications, including inclusion a year later on the LA Times’ annual list of LA’s 101 Best Restaurants (my airtight alibi for not knowing any of this until now: I was living in New York then). That 2019 list was the first entirely compiled without the input of the late, venerated food critic Jonathan Gold. Gold died a few months before Chang’s post (he was also embroiled in a mini-feud with the chef at the time over his blistering review of Chang’s new eatery Majordomo, seemingly fueled by animus over Chang’s decision to shutter the magazine Lucky Peach; it’s an argument that has also not fared well during the pandemic), and from what I can tell, he never ate at Spoon by H. But I couldn’t help but imagine the cannon blast of colorful language Gold would have used to describe Yoonjin's food, and that, maybe in another universe, it would have been the kind of place where he and Chang could have reconciled. After all, it is the exact type of restaurant they almost certainly would have both fallen in love with - an unadorned, unpretentious, unexpectedly unique underdog. 

But here in this universe, it is a strange time to fall in love with something like a restaurant. First because you feel guilty for being outside long enough to discover it to begin with, and then because you wonder what hollowed-out version of the real thing you are experiencing. The Spoon by H this David Chang fell for, the one taking orders by text message from behind boarded up walls (remnants, it turns out, from 2020’s period of BLM demonstrations) was not the Spoon by H that that David Chang fell for. For starters, I never got to eat what had become Yoonjin’s signature dish - a pork belly and dumpling soup that she had long since taken off the menu by the time I came around, presumably because it wouldn’t travel well. In 2019, Eater named that dish an “instant classic” and the LA Times breathlessly called it her “magnum opus” and “the stuff of civic pride”; in 2021, I was left like some culinary paleontologist trying to project its majesty from the fossil record: pictures on social media, food reviews, the constituent pieces she uses in other dishes still available. That’s not even to mention that I had never even seen, let alone tasted, her purported main product - the desserts. Apparently, when it was in-season and there wasn’t a global plague, the mango shaved ice was divine.

Still, at its best, the Spoon by H I had the privilege of knowing reminded me of a sort of meal I’ve had many times in Asia, meals that are as incredible as they are casually anonymous. It is not damning with faint praise - if I was to try to encapsulate what makes Yoonjin’s food particularly special, it’s this: in the U.S., “ethnic” food is either marked by a sort of static concept of rote authenticity or fusion’s self-conscious attempt to appeal to domestic palates through inelegant substitution or cynical “elevation”. Spoon by H reminds you of something else altogether - that back in their home countries, cuisines are living, breathing, evolving things with range and bleeding edges. Her food is able to be at once very clearly authentic Korean cuisine and also something new and vital and different. Just, instead of happening at a bistro in Seoul, it was gloriously happening in a strip mall in Los Angeles. 

Fortunately, there is some sort of hope for the future. In the last week of its operations, loyal fans, a testament to the invisible community of non-shitty people that has sustained around the restaurant, started a GoFundMe, and by the end of Spoon by H’s last service, it had raised nearly $70,000. When I picked up my last order, I asked Yoonjin about this. She said she felt like she was losing her baby, and that the support made her emotional - sometimes it made her smile, and sometimes it made her cry. It was all so raw and overwhelming that she still wasn’t sure what she’d do. Make no mistake, though, Yoonjin Hwang is a fighter - after that first time she came to America as a pianist, the Asian financial crisis wrecked the stability of her family’s life; she returned to Korea and reinvented herself as an esthetician, and eventually through pluckiness, inventiveness, and sheer work, made it back to America to finish her studies. She then, of course, reinvented herself magnificently again.

I’m willing to bet that she has another comeback story in her. Yoonjin Hwang, and Spoon by H, will return, somewhere. And when she does, I’ll be there, in line, waiting anxiously to finally go inside. 

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