Quietly tucked inside of a bustling swapmeet in East Hollywood, you’ll find Nabi, a fast-casual counter serving Korean comfort fare with a Mexican twist. The menu features traditional Korean dishes such as bibimbap -- rice bowls topped with seasoned vegetables and proteins -- as well as the enticing allure of culinary mashups such as Korean tortas and quesadillas, and grilled cheese with kimchi.
Nabi, which translates to butterfly in Korean, is owned by Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee, a food writer for both local and international publications, and the author of both Korean and Mexican cookbooks who was nominated for a coveted James Beard Award. Just this past February, Lee opened the restaurant inside the Union Discount Swapmeet on Santa Monica Blvd. near Vermont Ave. Inside the sprawling building is a colorful hodgepodge of frugal fashions and electronics, a travel agent and acupuncturist, even pet shops, graffiti supplies and a small stand across from Nabi serving Oaxacan and other Mexican dishes.
Everything at Nabi is made in-house by Lee, including the spicy fermented gochujang sauce for bowls and a Meyer lemon, onion and ginger dressing for her salads. As a notable cookbook author and frequent Los Angeles Times contributor, Lee has always aimed to make Korean food more accessible to the public, and she sees Nabi as an opportunity to connect with more people on a personal level and introduce them to new flavors at an affordable price.
“My goal in life has been introducing Korean food to lots of people and with my books and articles, I've been doing that, but it's sort of like being a musician and recording in the studio,” Lee explains. “Having a restaurant is like going out to play live where you get the feedback immediately.” Lee says that while she knows when her cookbooks are sold, and may occasionally hear from a reader looking for clarification on a recipe, she doesn’t really have a sense of how people are responding to the food. “When you serve the food directly to a person, the most satisfying thing is when they come back with an empty bowl and they've eaten everything,” she adds. “You get the feedback right away. The whole point is making sure that people enjoy the food.”
Born outside of Seoul, Lee moved with her family to the United States in 1977 when she was just seven years old. Initially the family arrived in Pennsylvania, but very soon after they moved to Los Angeles, settling in Koreatown. “I always helped my mom in the kitchen since I was about 4 years old,” Lee says of her initial forays into cooking. “My parents would have a party and invite 80 people, so I'd spend two hours making flat cakes. I've always helped, but at seven was my decision when I really wanted to learn how to cook.”
Taking the initiative to cook herself was born partly out of a desire to cook, but also out of necessity, Lee explains. “Because they were immigrants — my mom worked in a sweatshop downtown and my dad used to fix cars because he had been an airplane mechanic in Korea — they were never home, so we were latchkey kids,” she says of herself, her older sister and younger brother. Often left alone with only TV dinners to eat, Lee eventually had her fill of the instant meals, “I said, ‘I've had one too many Hungry Man dinners, I'm not going to eat another Salisbury steak dinner again.' So I remember scooting my chair to the counter because I couldn't quite reach and making rice at about seven years old.”
Lee recalls another pivotal moment in her lifelong culinary journey, when her parents owned a Mexican grocery store in San Fernando while she was in high school. “That was the first time I wanted to learn to cook something that wasn't Korean food, I was really interested in Mexican food,” she explains. “I always say, ‘Mexican food is my first love and Korean food is like family, it's always there.”
At the giant market, Lee says her family would sell an array of Mexican ingredients, including fresh tortillas and at least a hundred cases of tomatoes a week. They also sold piñatas, and she recalls Mexican banda music playing constantly. “I was curious about nopales, the piloncillo (brown sugar cones), the jamaica, and all that stuff and I wanted to know what to do with it,” Lee says. “That's what really got me into learning about food.”
Betty Serranos, who cooks with Lee at Nabi, says her interest in cooking also emerged out of necessity around the same age. “Around seven or eight years old, I had to cook for my four brothers so I had to learn my own way,” Serranos says. “My mom was busy doing other work as a single mom, and so I didn't have much choice. I would have hot dogs, tortillas, and eggs, so I'd put them together. And they would say, it's so good.' So that's when I started enjoying cooking and seeing people enjoy my food.” Serranos arrived in the U.S. when she was two with her family, “We came from Nayarit in Mexico and she originally came from Guadalajara, so I'd see my mom making pozole, enchiladas, mole and all of that I learned from my mom.” Serranos happened to stop by Nabi one day when Lee was in need of additional help, and she practically hired her on the spot. The two now laugh together mischievously like old friends.
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As excited as Lee was about cooking and exploring new cuisines, she ultimately began her college career as a biochemistry major at UC San Diego in hopes of becoming a pediatrician. Her father was also an acupuncturist, and Lee wanted to find a way to bring together Eastern and Western medical practices to help children and babies. Once she realized she would have to spend years and years training in both practices, she decided it wasn’t the right path for her. Instead she shifted her future career plans to her other major, visual arts, where her focus was on painting, installation and conceptual art.
After graduating, Lee looked to writing as a day job to help support her work painting and creating public art, and to avoid the 9 to 5 grind of an office. “I'm just not built for that,” she admits. “I'd been writing since I was a little kid, so I went to the library and got out every book I could on how to be a writer, and read copiously for a month. I must have read 30 or 40 books that month just on how to write.” An avid reader of the L.A. Times food section since she was nine, Lee decided to pitch an article about kimchi, a topic she had never seen covered in the paper. “And they said, we can't pay much, but we can give you front page coverage,” says Lee who was both surprised and thrilled by the opportunity. “Since then I've been writing for the L.A. Times about Korean food and other stuff. I got really lucky. I figured, start at the top with the biggest paper in town.” Serranos adds that she began reading the food section of the Times around nine as well.
Lee admits that moving more into the creative fields of art and writing, ultimately paved the way towards opening a restaurant. “My restaurant is sort of like an art project to me,” she says. “I'll have an idea, and then I take that idea and figure out how to make it happen. That was true of any art installation I did or public art project, and here it's the same. I had an idea of what I want to feed to people and a niche that I feel isn't being filled, and decided to open a restaurant.”
While she hasn’t received any formal training, Lee says she’s learned a lot through trial-and-error, as well as from her upbringing with Korean parents. “In some ways, it's just part of life, you just cook,” she says. “You're making kimchi and you have to spend all afternoon peeling a case of garlic. You just do it. I don't think of it as training.”
Lee also saw the restaurant as an opportunity to share Korean cuisine with people outside of Koreatown, where she grew up. “My whole writing career has been about introducing people to Korean food who don't know it, so I wanted to be in a neighborhood where there's no Korean food in about a five-mile radius,” she says, added that she also wanted a location that had parking and an already built-out kitchen as she was paying out-of-pocket. “I don't have any big investors, I'm just a normal human being with an idea and trying to do a thing.” She found that fit with the Union Discount Swapmeet.
At the East Hollywood marketplace, Lee says she encounters people daily who are completely unfamiliar with Korean food or at least have never tried it before. “There's really no fast-casual Korean food,” Lee says of both the neighborhood and the city at large outside of Koreatown. “Every day people ask, 'What's kimchi?' So I have to give a primer on that and explain to them what gochujang is, and if I had a dollar for everyone who was looking for chow mein, I'd be rich.”
On the more traditional side of the menu, Lee offers several variations on the classic Korean dish of bibimbap -- which translates to mixed rice. The Traditions bowl offers the choice of white or brown rice topped with seasoned beef, carrots, spinach, green onion, sprouts, eggplant, mountain vegetable, zucchini, and a fried egg, served with a side of gochujang sauce. Customers can also opt for variations such as The Dictator with extra meat, The North South with chicken and pork, Green with Envy with a salad base and tofu, or customize their own. Lee says she still gets requests for fried rice and teriyaki bowls from those unfamiliar with the Korean dish. “It's such an uphill battle,” she says. “But I don't mind, I love the fact that we're able to feed Korean food to people for the first time, which happens every day.”
Lee says her desire to expand the menu to include more experimental dishes came from wanting to diversify the offerings as well as her passion for Mexican cuisine and creative tendencies. “I wanted something other than just bowls, and things that were a lower price point that's affordable in the $5-6 range, both for the neighborhood and just in general for people,” she explains. “And I get tired of eating rice everyday, sometimes I want a sandwich, so I wanted to mix it up a little bit with the menu.”
After months of recipe testing and refining, Lee added several culinary mashups and frequently offers limited time specials. She says her temporary foray with Korean nachos did well, but not nearly as well as the Korean tortas, which employ a beautifully soft and butter-toasted Mexican bolillo roll with cheddar cheese, caramelized onions, lettuce, house gochujang mayo and a choice of protein seasoned with Korean flavors. Her quesadillas feature large flour tortillas stuffed with Jack cheese, caramelized onions and a choice of protein or kimchi. The kimchi grilled cheese is also a big hit, and while seemingly straightforward, Lee says she took great pains to find the right combination of ingredients. “I went through four different kinds of bread and six different cheeses before I settled on that one,” she says. “It doesn't work with swiss, jack is too mild, it has to be cheddar, and it has to be Texas bread.”
“I think Mexican food and Korean food work really well together because they're both really bold flavors, and they both use seasonal ingredients, everything is usually done fresh,” says Lee. “And a lot of it is about what's growing regionally around you, and both are about balancing hot with not hot.”
Lee recalls an early appreciation culinary hybrids in middle school when her parents owned a pizza restaurant in Inglewood with a Mexican cook, “It was very L.A,” she says. “We would make kimchi pizza for us, for the family, but we never sold it. At that time there wasn't fusion food like that. My dad puts anchovies on his pizza and eats it with chopsticks still. He eats everything with chopsticks, hamburgers, everything.”
She also recalls that while growing up in ‘80s L.A., the term “fusion” was considered a dirty word. “It meant something was watered down,” Lee explains. “But now fusion is more about fun and trying different things. We would put kalbi in a burrito and wrap it up, that's just how we grew up, but we didn't call it fusion that was just lunch. And now, I don't think it should be some highfalutin' concept, it should just taste good and it doesn't matter where you're getting all of those flavors to make it work.”
Lee balks at the notion, held by some, that certain dishes or cuisines aren’t considered “authentic” if they borrow flavors or elements from other cultures. “What does 'authentic' mean, really? I'm Korean, I made it, and we also use Korean flavors, and seasoned meat,” she says. “It's a complicated idea about authenticity, because, who gets to decide? Are the Korean food police going to come and say, that's not authentic? Because even in Korea they're doing things like Korean fried chicken, which is a great example of taking American food and exporting back to Korea and then adding spicy sauce and green onion. That wouldn't have happened if we were so worried about keeping everything traditional and the same all the time.”
“For me, it is important that you keep your roots and that it's based on traditions,” Lee says, but adds, “I think there should be an evolution and growth in food anyway, and I love that we're living in a time now where there's so much globalization and it's okay to put a little bit of something different. I love that you can have Korean tacos in Indiana or that a French chef is using gochujang in his sauce.”
Lee embraces the idea that food has the potential to bring people together and offers a common ground for them to share their respective cultures and traditions. “I think food should be inclusive because when you share a meal with somebody, you get to know them, their personality and their culture,” she says. “I think food as a communicator is really important, and it's a conversation. You bring what you have and somebody else brings what they have and it all comes to the table together.”
“Los Angeles really has the greatest amount of variety of food from immigrants,” Lee says in admiration of the wealth of flavors found across the city. “I don't think it's a melting pot, I think that's B.S. because it doesn't all melt. Everyone keeps their cultural identity, but we all just bump up against each other and it creates more excitement. I've always said L.A. is the best food city.”
Looking toward the future, Lee says she’d love to open additional locations of Nabi, including the Westside, the Valley, or Orange County, and eventually maybe Chicago or New York. “It would be nice to take it and spread the love of Korean food everywhere,” she says with a smile. “That's my big giant, long term goal, but you gotta start small. Kitchen one is right here in this swap meet that no one can find in the middle of East Hollywood. And every day there's a rewarding experience.”
Top Image: Bibimbap at Nabi | Danny Jensen