It’s been a long road to Chinatown for Stephen Le and his partner, Matthew Tong.
The restaurateurs are the masterminds behind the small and successful poutine chain The Kroft, with locations in Anaheim and Long Beach. They are poised to open their first LA location on Broadway, on the ground floor of the Jia Apartment complex, at the entrance of the Dragon’s Gate.
“We’re at the final stages of construction,” Le said.
“Construction is done. We’re waiting on equipment, which is backlogged. We’re probably four weeks out and then two weeks to staff and train. It will probably be sometime in November for a soft opening.”
The Chinatown project was in the works in March 2019, when the pair opened their second location in Long Beach.
“Oh, man, this project has been the monkey on my back for the past five to six years,” Le said with a sigh.
A proposed food hall, adjoining their unit on Broadway, lost funding, and the entire development was delayed for several years. A lawsuit and ensuing settlement put the project back on track to open in 2020 — until the pandemic.
“We were hoping to open in 2020, but the pandemic threw everything out the window. It’s been the hardest buildout in my 12 years of being a restaurateur,” Le noted.
“We were in the final stages of getting our blueprints and plans approved by the city. When we were ready to submit, the pandemic happened and the offices started closing. That was the biggest (problem) we had to work through. We were pulling hair out, we were pulling teeth out, just to get answers.”
During the pandemic, the duo lost half of their staff. Since they fired up, they’ve had a hard time finding employees.
“That’s a killer,” Le said. “Anaheim is up to 90% (of its prepandemic business) and Long Beach is about 70%, but we can’t find employees.”
Le and Tong are self-made restaurateurs. They are not chefs. Instead, Le has a biotech sales background, while Tong is a real estate broker.
“I love cooking,” Le said. “My partner loves cooking. We always wanted to open up a restaurant.”
Their first venture was SWSH Shabu Shabu in Irvine a dozen years ago. They were into Japanese hot pot.
“I said, ‘Damn it, why don’t we open a Shabu restaurant? We don’t need a chef. We have a small kitchen. The only thing we need to do is prep,’” Le said.
“So, me and my partner and three friends opened up SWSH Shabu Shabu in Irvine 12 years ago. That was really successful. After two years, I wanted to do something else.”
That “something else” was poutine — the icon of Canadian street food that features a pile of French fries slathered with gravy and cheese curds. It seems like an unlikely transition for two successful Shabu hustlers.
“I was a very avid snowboarder,” Le said. “I would go to Vancouver at least once a year to go snowboarding. And that’s where I was introduced to poutines.”
The dish suggested the type of concept that Le wanted.
“What’s a concept that I can create that would be a niche market, something creative, something that can be fused with other cuisines, something that’s mainstream and something that we could put our own flair into? Poutine! We can make poutine more gourmet.
“So, we refined the poutine and put our little spin on it.”
The menu at The Kroft includes a variety of crafted hot sandwiches as well, and Le is adamant about the care that goes into the food.
“We make everything in-house,” Le said. “We make our own beef broth. We make our own gravies. We trim our own proteins and veggies.”
Their bread is provided by Bread Artisan, and their French fries are custom-built and supplied in volume by another wholesale vendor, Simplot Foods.
“The funny thing about it is, when we first opened The Kroft, me and my partner and my team, we spent probably a good 15 hours just making the French fries,” Le said.
“We probably did a good 300 pounds, and the next day we sold out. It wasn’t feasible. We sell over 750,000 pounds of French fries a year.”
There are seven poutine combinations on the menu at The Kroft, priced $9 to $12. Besides the classic gravy and cheese curd version, more exotic options include the loco moco with meatloaf, a fried egg and onions; the chicken tikka masala, garnished with cilantro and sour cream; and the country-fried chicken poutine with fried chicken nuggets in a country sausage gravy with cheese curds and green onions.
Six hot sandwich choices ($11 and $12) include the French dip, with sliced rotisserie beef and caramelized onions with horseradish mayo on a French roll; the fried chicken sandwich with garlic mayo and jalapeno slaw; and the porchetta with roast pork belly, cracklings, salsa verde and caramelized onions.
Additional toppings are available, including bacon, mushrooms and pickled red onions. Beer and wine are offered by the glass. The beer list typically includes selections from craft breweries in Long Beach and Anaheim.
The new Downtown location will include menu experiments.
“Once LA opens, we’re going to relaunch our breakfast line,” Le said. “We’re going to do one- or two-day-a-week lunch and dinner specials. We’re going to launch a prime rib dinner on Mondays for $20.
“Be prepared to have some good homemade food. We’re excited to be a part of the LA community. LA is an iconic city. For us to be a part of that solidifies what we’ve achieved, what we’ve become. So, we’re excited. We’re very, very excited.”
629 N. Broadway, Los Angeles