In 2015, Kwang Uh and Mathew Kim opened Baroo in a small storefront in a tattered strip mall near the 101 freeway on the eastern end of Santa Monica Boulevard.
Despite the unlikely location, the pair’s unusually creative cuisine sold at unusually reasonable price points soon garnered wildly popular local buzz and international media attention.
Uh’s fermentation lab served as the central catalyst for flavor, along with a variety of exotic ingredients that should have driven higher pricing. At the time, Uh adamantly said profit was not a motive behind his uniquely inventive and affordable presentation.
Uh is an alumnus of Daniel Boulud’s renowned Michelin-starred restaurant Daniel in New York and is notably a former test kitchen apprentice at Rene Redzepi’s mecca of avant-haute cuisine, Noma, in Copenhagen. In the midst of Baroo’s raging success in East Hollywood, Uh took an extended sabbatical in Korea, where he met American-born Mina Park, his current partner.
The two returned to Los Angeles. Baroo closed in October 2018, and the couple opened Baroo Canteen as an experimental pop-up that ran for nine months at the Union Swap Meet in early 2019. The couple had to call it quits with Baroo Canteen because the building was slated for demolition and redevelopment toward the end of 2019.
“We met at a Buddhist temple,” Park said. “(Uh) took a break while Baroo was still open. He left at the end of 2016 and he went to the temple. There’s a Buddhist nun there who is well known for her cooking.”
She’s referring to the nun Jeong Kwan, featured on Netflix’s “Chef’s Table.” She was “discovered” by famed chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin in New York.
A Harvard and NYU-trained lawyer, Park began staging her own culinary pop-ups in Hong Kong and traveled to Korea to study its regional cuisine to develop her culinary sensibilities.
“We met at the temple in early 2017, but I was living in Hong Kong at the time,” she said. “It was over a year later when we partnered up and I moved to LA. Kwang and Mathew decided to part ways, so we were looking for a new space.”
Shiku opened at the Grand Central Market on January 15. Make no mistake, it’s not another temporary pop-up.
“This is a permanent concept,” said Park, who has a child with Uh named Taehoon. “We hope it’s successful and is at the market for years to come. It’s very different from Baroo and it’s very tailored for the market. We’ve been working on it since before the pandemic. The concept is pretty faithful to what we had imagined from the beginning.”
The owners of Grand Central Market approached the couple in late 2019.
“Their mission was to really reflect the diversity of the LA community, so they really wanted a Korean vendor to represent the Korean community here in LA,” she said. “That was a priority for them, when they approached us.”
So, what’s the concept?
“We thought it would be really fun to do a more straight-forward Korean concept that had a broader audience,” Park said.
“Baroo was meant to be very experimental. We would never have called it a Korean restaurant, though some people did. At Shiku, we want to present very traditional Korean flavors and definitely try to introduce people to things maybe they haven’t tried before. We’re trying to entice people with what they’re familiar with and expand their understanding of Korean food with the other things on offer.”
In Korean, the word “shiku” means “the people you share food with,” and the menu focus at Shiku is on doshirak or rice boxes, often prepped for student lunches in Korea. There are rice box options that include a choice of three banchan or side dishes. The current rice boxes are LA galbi, grilled soy-marinated short rib ($15); Temple Tangsu fried pyogo (shiitake) mushrooms ($12); Maekjuk chicken traditional doenjang-marinated chicken thigh ($11); and Kimchi-braised pork belly ($13).
There is a changing list of banchan.
“Right now, we’re doing more traditional (banchan),” Park said.
“Later as we get more settled, we’re going to do more experimental banchan that are a little more in the Baroo spirit.”
There are eight on the menu, though some may be sold out. These range from traditional takes on kimchi ($3.50/$7) to naengi muchim ($10) made with the Asian green shepherd’s purse, a flowering plant belonging to the mustard family.
There are also a variety of prepared items under the heading Baroo Pantry. These include Baroo’s gochujang sauce ($13/$19), as well as authentic Korean imports like Kisondo’s aged soy sauce ($20); Queen’s Bucket perilla and sesame oils ($30/$37); and Badasoop’s gamtae ($13) roasted, seasoned seaweed. These pantry items have already proven to be popular online sellers.
“Another thing that’s really important to us and what we really love is the diversity of the market and the diversity of the vendors,” Park said. “To the best of our abilities, we’re trying to offer high-quality Korean food that meets our own standards but at a reasonable price. We want to be as accessible as possible. One of the things we connected over when we met was this idea that everyone should have access to great food.”
With the pandemic’s unexpected and confusing twists for restaurants and their guests, the recent opening of Shiku at Grand Central Market is an unexpected boon for Downtown gourmands.
“Shiku is about making accessible comfort food and trying to serve the community in a way that only a small restaurant can,” Park said.
“That’s generally our mission with our business. We want to create a really viable business so that we can contribute to the community.”