Konbi has mastered the art of French pastry and photogenic egg salad
My senior year of high school, I worked behind the counter at a strip-mall greasy spoon in New Jersey. Whenever someone would screw up, the owner, Frank, would scream swear-laden epithets at the mostly high school-aged staff that made the father in A Christmas Story look like America’s Dad Tom Hanks. One Saturday morning, a customer asked for an egg sandwich on a hard roll, which, if you’re not from New Jersey, is actually a squishy round roll that no sane person would ever call “hard." Something short-circuited in my groggy 16-year-old brain, and I made him an egg salad sandwich instead. As Frank began to lay into me with a string of insults, the man turned to him and said, “You know what? I actually love egg salad for breakfast,” and went on his way.
This being the mid-’90s, when my breakfast oeuvre was limited to scrambled eggs, Eggo Waffles, and Honey Nut Cheerios, I thought to myself, “What weirdo eats egg salad for breakfast?”
Well, I’m now a proud egg-salad-for-breakfast-eating weirdo. As is all of Los Angeles. And maybe soon the world, because it’s 2018 and we can eat whatever we want, whenever we want. So Extra Crispy’s best breakfast restaurant of the year isn’t one of those sunny all-day cafes serving fancy (cough, expensive) toasts. No, the honor of the best breakfast restaurant of 2018 goes to a 500-square-foot space in LA’s Echo Park neighborhood that serves Japanese convenience-store sandwiches made thoughtfully and with high-quality ingredients.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Instagram and Los Angeles food world sensation Konbi, where you’ll find fried cutlets of Duroc pork nestled onto milk bread, next-level French pastries, and coffee served on ceramic trays that give the casual spot a touch of fine-dining-level service. Since it opened this past October, the ten stools at Konbi’s counter have been consistently filled, often with a line of folks waiting on the sidewalk to get in.
Now, if you don’t think the words “Japanese convenience store sandwiches” and “French pastries” don’t make sense together, consider this: “The Japanese think French pastry is the best, so a lot of chefs stage there. You’ll find classic pastries all over Tokyo,” Konbi’s chef-owner Akira Akuto told me, continuing, “In Japan, cafes don’t open until 10 or 11, so people will pick up sandwiches at the convenience store in the morning, but it’s all delicious. So Konbi is our interpretation of the best versions of the two: French pastries and Japanese sandwiches.”
But overall, what makes Konbi so special is that Akuto and and fellow chef-owner Nick Montgomery have put an extraordinary amount of care into their sliver of a restaurant, from the layout of the narrow kitchen to the logo done in a particular shade of forest green found all over Tokyo to the specially designed takeout boxes that snuggle their sandwiches cut into equal thirds. “Everything is in an intentional place,” Montgomery says, explaining that the idea for Konbi developed five years ago when a Japanese-style omelet sandwich the duo served at a sandwich pop-up became a hit.
Take the level of thought that went into that egg salad sandwich, for instance. You’ll find egg salad sandos wrapped in plastic at 7-11’s and the like all over Tokyo, but Konbi’s version is the Cher Horowitz to their Tai. Like all of the other sandwiches at the restaurant, it’s served on milk bread created for the restaurant by local breadmaker Bub & Grandma’s. The egg salad itself is made with Kewpie mayo, rice wine vinegar, creme fraiche, Dijon, and scallions. But the piece de resistance—and what made it instant Instagram fodder—is the way two medium-boiled eggs are sliced so that the golden yolks shine out from the middle of each sandwich slice. You’ll see folks eating and ‘gramming them all morning.
The more traditional “breakfast” sandwich that started it all, the omelet, is equally deliberate: Montgomery mans two traditional Japanese square-shaped pans set atop induction burners, folding and flipping four layers of an egg and housemade dashi mixture to create a rectangular omelet. The finished omelet is then pressed twice with wooden blocks to get it to fit perfectly on mustard- and mayo-drizzled milk bread. Montgomery estimates that he now makes 40 to 50 of them a day.
Even the pastries took an inordinate amount of testing—and a trip to Japan—to get right. After admiring his work on a research trip last fall, Akuto and Montgomery recruited pastry wizard Rihito Maruhashi from Tokyo’s Path restaurant to help them get their offerings just right. The result: shatteringly crisp, and airy croissants, golden caneles, and a chocolate croissant where the bars of baking chocolate are smartly stacked so you get chocolate in every bite. Brilliant.
I could go on about all the other details that make Konbi killer: the satisfying crunch from the Katsu sandwich’s panko-coated pork cutlet; a Kewpie-dressed potato salad topped with fried okara; the burnt ginger that enlivens their rice milk-based take on horchata; the one-of-a-kind Hacha ceramics from Guadalajara they use. Akuto and Montgomery are even launching a traditional Japanese breakfast set in the coming weeks, which will include a broiled piece of fish, rice topped with housemade pickles, a buckwheat tea-cured egg, Romanesco coated in an almond-sesame dressing, and some other odds and ends, all served on a forest green lunch tray.