It doesn’t take a venture capitalist to figure out food trucks are a risky business: The grueling hours, the ceaseless competition, constant jostling for prime real estate and the ephemeral nature of singularly focused food trends are all factors as to why a food truck is just as, if not more, susceptible to the risks of opening a restaurant. It makes sense, then, that a successful food truck concept such as The Bun Truck would have fewer qualms than your average restaurant opening a brick-and-mortar business in Koreatown, an area notorious for restaurants going belly-up in the face of trend-based turnovers.
The Bun Shop opened earlier this month in the wake of one such closure: It occupies the former space of King Hot Dog, a Korean fusion hot dog concept that closed its doors in July 2013, just five months after opening. Unlike King Hot Dog, however, The Bun Shop seems up to the task of transforming a notoriously tricky location on the corner of Western Avenue and Council Street into a casual pub destination.
Korean fusion is nothing new in Los Angeles’ dining scene. What Roy Choi did with Kogi was seen as more or less a blueprint for the successful business — take food from two cuisines and fuse them together in a convenient, street-friendly package. The Bun Shop, however, doesn’t seem content with attempting to haphazardly mesh two disparate food cultures that sound good on paper. The buns are soft, pillowy mounds stuffed with a variety of meats, ranging from Korean bulgogi to pork belly to panko-fried chicken katsu.
Each thoughtfully conceived bun reads like a melting pot of culture. In the “Spicy Pig,” the Korean dwaeji-bulgogi takes on the traditional flavors of caramelized red pepper paste, ginger and garlic. A dash of Southeast Asian Sriracha sauce kicks up the heat, before freshly sliced cucumbers and a cool Greek tzatziki sauce mellow out the proceedings. Cucumbers are a Korean food staple and are oftentimes served with Korean barbecue, yet using the yogurt and cucumber-based tzatziki to balance the heat of Korean spicy pork is not only a ballsy move on paper — the tastes play against each other in marvelous fashion.
The “Beefy” reads a bit overwrought in theory: a stellar bulgogi is paired with an aioli that takes on the flavor profile of the beef marinade, and a tempura-fried onion adds a textural element to contrast the soft bun. Thankfully, the “Beefy” doesn’t taste nearly as complicated as it sounds: It’s a small (and simply tasty) bulgogi slider.
The word “simple” loses its more negative connotations when individual elements are so well-executed. A made-to-order “Katsu” bun contains a sinfully crispy panko-fried cut of juicy chicken breast. A “simple” side salad includes some mixed greens and a cornichon mixed in a miso vinaigrette, which could be inserted in any of the buns to lend another acidic counter-balance to some of the heavier meats.
But of all The Bun Shop’s culinary accomplishments, none match the heinously addictive “Shop Fries”: crunchy, garlicky, McDonald’s-width shoestring fries are served with a side of dill ranch sauce. There were no survivors.
Other menu items read like a list of Korean anju, or bar snacks: “Ba’corn Cheese,” a bacon-adulterated take on a Korean pub favorite, “Sticky Wings” that come with a side of pickled daikon radish and some of the better sweet potato fries in Los Angeles (The Bun Shop’s rendition comes seasoned with paprika and with a side of honey cream for dipping). All of these bar snacks lead to another point: The Bun Shop has yet to receive its beer and wine license — and yes, they are applying for one. The one advantage that The Bun Shop has over The Bun Truck is that they will have the ability to serve alcohol. Much of the storefront’s menu seems to complement a cold pint of craft beer (or any beer, really).
The overall direction of The Bun Shop’s menu is partially a Koreans vs. everybody fusion concept, but also a version of a Korean pub menu — and The Bun Shop already looks every bit the part of a pub. The ambiance is attractive, with smooth, black walnut wood booths and dangling ceiling lights. A wall-sized, graffiti-like mural pays homage to the shop’s food truck roots, with large storefront windows looking out at traffic on Western Avenue. The posh aesthetic is both sleek and smart, without being pretentious. A storefront such as this looks like it belongs in Downtown or off La Brea or Fairfax — instead, it’s situated in Koreatown, where competition is cutthroat and turnover moves at a breakneck pace. But with such culinary finesse and a deeply-rooted Korean pub concept, you get the feeling that The Bun Shop on Western wouldn’t have it any other way.