LOS ANGELES — In a Hollywood strip mall, with a cramped kitchen and a shoestring price range, the tiny restaurant Baroo introduced a singular, experimental spirit to this metropolis’s meals scene.
Shortly after Kwang Uh and Matthew Kim opened it in 2015, the restaurant critic Jonathan Gold endorsed Mr. Uh’s cooking in a assessment, praising his use of fermentations to construct flavors. Certain, you ordered from a hand-scrawled chalkboard, then paid on the counter earlier than discovering your individual seat. However in 2016, Bon Appétit named Baroo one of many 10 greatest locations to eat within the nation.
As Mr. Uh’s star shortly rose, the understaffed restaurant scrambled to maintain up with strains out the door. All of the whereas, Mr. Uh and Mr. Kim saved their costs low relative to the meals’s high quality and complexity — most dishes had been round $10.
The mathematics ultimately caught up with Baroo, which served its final meal on Saturday. However the restaurant leaves a compelling legacy. Till the tip, it pulled off a uncommon balancing act in eating tradition: heat, affordability and experimentation, all hand in hand.
“If I did the same concept in Korea, I don’t think I’d have had the same support,” mentioned Mr. Uh, who’s 37 and got here to the USA from Seoul in 2007 to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
Baroo served contemporary noodles with oxtail ragù and gochujang, proper alongside a grainy, beet-stained porridge with koji. The meals was neither Korean nor Italian. It was experimental, laborious to arrange and technically achieved, however merely introduced and priced like a restaurant sandwich. It was, in brief, a hard-to-categorize restaurant, epitomizing the scrumptious idiosyncrasies of Los Angeles.
For native cooks, Baroo was the working mannequin of a inventive imaginative and prescient executed on one’s personal phrases.
The chef Akira Akuto labored there in 2016. Along with his enterprise accomplice and co-chef, Nick Montgomery, he now owns and operates Konbi, a small, Japanese-style cafe that opened in early October in Echo Park. “What resonated was that the food was ambitious, without apology or explanation,” Mr. Akuto mentioned.
Earlier than opening Konbi, he and Mr. Montgomery ran a pop-up inside Baroo on Sundays, when the restaurant was closed. They refined and developed their very own concepts there, together with one in all their present best-sellers, a sandwich full of a fragile omelet that has been poached in dashi.
Minh Phan, the proprietor of Porridge & Puffs, which opened a couple of month in the past in Historic Filipinotown, was a daily who admired Baroo’s chef-driven spirit. “They were always so understaffed, it was always a little chaotic, but there was also this sense of solidarity,” Ms. Phan mentioned. “I felt an inspiration and a kindred spirit there.”
Mr. Uh mentioned that whereas the lease had barely risen in any respect since 2015, and enterprise hasn’t slowed down, Baroo was by no means sustainable. Although he and Mr. Kim employed part-time employees to assist in the kitchen and work the register, one of many companions needed to be on web site always for the restaurant to operate.
“If we hired more people, we could work less, but then we couldn’t pay ourselves,” Mr. Uh mentioned throughout one in all Baroo’s final days, nonetheless fighting the paradox. Being understaffed meant fixed burnout, sudden closings, normal havoc and little or no time to strategize and develop the enterprise.
Earlier than Baroo, Mr. Uh had lengthy dreamed of opening a restaurant, however a number of traders checked out his résumé and handed. It had some massive names on it, together with the world-renowned Noma, in Copenhagen, but it surely was only a résumé, they informed him. Mr. Uh lacked a repute as a chef. He wanted to show himself.
He and Mr. Kim determined to open a small place with no exterior traders, as a sort of testing floor. In Los Angeles, they discovered an previous Thai noodle store by a 7-Eleven on Santa Monica Boulevard, the place the lease was about $2,000 a month.
Their tight price range dictated Baroo’s sparse aesthetic, and so they used primary open shelving within the eating room for Mr. Uh’s fermentations — a number of flavors of kombucha, chile pastes and dried fruits.
Mr. Uh says he didn’t anticipate the restaurant to stay open for greater than a yr. He was overwhelmed by its success.
In 2017, he briefly left Baroo to apprentice himself to Jeong Kwan, a Zen Buddhist nun and a chef on the Baekyangsa temple in southwest South Korea, who makes a speciality of Korean Buddhist temple delicacies. Some days, Mr. Uh can be accountable for cleansing all of the previous, conventional ceramics. Different days, he would dig greens within the backyard, or scrub down your entire kitchen.
Mr. Uh stayed on the temple for seven months. Mr. Kim saved Baroo up and operating, hiring two part-time cooks to cowl for Mr. Uh.
Jeong Kwan greets everybody visiting her on the temple in the identical means, Mr. Uh mentioned. “Did you eat?” she asks them. If the reply is not any, she affords them meals. “That’s what I learned from her,” Mr. Uh mentioned. “She spreads her spirit, soul and philosophy through cooking and food.”
Throughout his keep on the temple, Mr. Uh met Mina Park, a chef and author. The 2 plan to open a brand new restaurant with extra seats and extra employees than Baroo, constructing a extra sustainable enterprise mannequin from the beginning. They’re contemplating Los Angeles, the place Mr. Uh feels a connection to Baroo’s diners, but additionally South Korea.
“It’ll take time,” Ms. Park mentioned. “We need to find funding, figure out the location, and we’re still talking about a few different concepts.” Ultimately, she and Mr. Uh need to broaden with a small farm the place diners can keep the night time, not not like on the temple the place they met.
“Spirit-wise, soul-wise, it’s going to be Baroo-like,” Mr. Uh mentioned. “This isn’t the ending.”