The windows advertise shave ice and homemade waffles, but there’s a bowl of mandu-guk on nearly every table at Spoon by H. The cozy 15-seat Korean cafe, sandwiched between a Papa John’s and a GameStop in a Fairfax District strip mall, is experiencing what you might call the “David Chang effect.”
Six months ago, the Momofuku chef and food world hype maker declared to his 1.1 million Instagram followers that Spoon by H, a spot few in L.A. had heard of, was his restaurant of the year. Beneath a photo of glass noodles and pork dumplings in a milky broth made from oxtail and marrow bones, he wrote, “In a year of incredibly delicious things eaten…this version of mandu-guk (만두국) was the most 😋.”
Spoon by H was supposed to be a dessert shop, and in many ways it still is. Mountainous frozen treats and elaborate fruity beverages steadily parade through the kitchen doors. An ethereally crispy waffle crowned with brûléed bananas remains the cafe’s signature dish. But soon after opening in 2012, Korean American customers began asking owner Yoonjin Hwang to cook savory food, so she obliged, rolling out a tantalizing array of specials like an unorthodox kimchi carbonara and a comforting take on the labor-intensive dish tteokgalbi, seared patties of minced short rib enlivened with bulgogi spice. Most are home-style Korean dishes done with a dash of flair—something your cookbook-obsessed aunt might whip up for company.
Hwang grew up a piano prodigy in Seoul—she studied the pipe organ at Oberlin—and opened a massage parlor and two cafes in Korea before relocating to L.A. in 2012. She runs Spoon by H with her brother and parents (Mom makes the kimchi) although Hwang does wear most of the hats, from head chef to dishwasher to maître d’. On a recent visit she remembered not only that my dining companion had been there before but where he sat, whom he was with, and what he ordered.
Astoundingly, nearly everything on Hwang’s lengthy two-page menu is made in-house, from the milk tea ice cream to the dehydrated fruit medley she uses in her blueberry hibiscus tea. She even crafts flavored ice cubes to enhance her seasonal drinks. The level of detail makes you wonder if there are adorable Pixar characters helping in the kitchen. On Saturdays, when a line of Chang fans extends out the door, regulars often help Hwang at the cash register.
“I’m an amateur,” she explains with trademark modesty. “I didn’t learn [to cook professionally], so that’s why I have to work two or three times harder.” And she does, arriving each morning at 5 and staying until midnight. As for the attention Chang has brought? “I’m so grateful,” she says, “but I worry about what people will think. We don’t even have a bathroom!”
With that, she turns her focus back to the kitchen. It’s going to be another long night. A Hollywood producer has friends in town for the Oscars and he’s bringing them by for dinner.
7158 Beverly Blvd., Fairfax District, spoonbyh.com.