Nothing is cheffy or pretentious. "I'm a cook. At the end of the day, I want to serve people the food that I want to eat," she says.
The three top hits since opening are Korean fried chicken, which evolved from her grandmother's recipe; grilled bacon-wrapped rice cakes with a jalapeño ponzu dip; and the nachos.
Nothing like the drippy American combination of tortilla chips and cheese, this is a version of the Korean rice cake dish called tteokboki. Lee fries the rice cakes until crisp, adds a complex chile cheese sauce and braised pork, then tops it off with kimchi salsa and Korean peppers.
Lee, who was born in Arizona, was director of catering for the Marmalade Café chain in the 90s. More recently, she did a stint on "The Next Food Network Star," guest-cheffed at the Breadbar and in June started the Ahn-Joo food truck. "Before we knew it, we were going through 500 pounds of chicken a week," she said.
Then she was invited to take over the mall space by the management company of Americana developer Rick Caruso, for whom she had once catered.
Meanwhile, Lee was writing Seoultown Kitchen (Kyle Books; $24.95), which came out in October. The subtitle is "Korean Pub Grub to Share with Family and Friends," and its 89 recipes include the top hits from Ahn-Joo.
Laced with stories about her family, the book presents the sort of food Koreans really eat. "We don't eat galbi every day," she says. "We're community eaters. We do a lot of small plates together."
The recipes include skewers, pancakes, dumplings, rice dishes, noodles, kimchi, seafood and meats, including pork belly dishes and her grandmother's meatloaf.
"In Los Angeles alone, there are more than four thousand Korean restaurants and bars within a radius of a few miles," she writes. The Korean pub, called sool-jeep, is more than a drinking hole. It's a social center with a wide assortment of food. "In fact, the sool-jeep is a daily stopover for Koreans as opposed to the BBQ house, which we reserve for special occasions," Lee says.
Here from the book are chicken meatballs that Lee has dressed up with a Korean magnolia berry (omija) glaze. The magnolia berry syrup called for in the recipe is available in Korean markets and online.
Chicken Meatballs with a Magnolia Berry Glaze
From: Debbie Lee
1 pound ground chicken
1 small yellow onion, pureed in a food processor
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon white pepper
2 cups panko breadcrumbs
Vegetable oil, for deep frying
For the Magnolia Berry Glaze:
1 quart chicken stock
1 cup magnolia berry syrup (available in Korean markets)
¼ cup soy sauce
¼ cup seasoned rice wine vinegar
½ cup mirin
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons onion powder
1 teaspoon finely ground chile powder (gochugaru)
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 bunch chives, chopped
1 tablespoon black sesame seeds
1 tablespoon roasted and salted sesame seeds
1. In a large mixing bowl, combine the chicken, yellow onion, egg, soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic and onion powders, sea salt and white pepper. Mix to incorporate well. Add the breadcrumbs a little at a time. If the mixture seems too wet, add a little more breadcrumbs to bind it. Place in the refrigerator to chill for about 15 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine the chicken stock, magnolia berry syrup, soy sauce, rice vinegar, mirin, garlic and onion powders, ground chile and paprika. Bring to a low boil and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the sauce has reduced by a third. Remove from the heat and set aside.
3. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Remove the meatball mixture from the fridge and form 18 meatballs. Arrange on a sheet pan and place in the freezer to chill for 10 to 15 minutes.
4. In a large stockpot, pour in oil for deep-frying and heat over medium-high heat until it reaches 375 degrees when measured with a candy or deep-fry thermometer. Remove the meatballs from the freezer and deep-fry until golden brown, about 3 to 4 minutes.
5. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the meatballs to a large mixing bowl and add the glaze. Toss well and arrange the meatballs on a baking pan. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the ground chicken is cooked through.
6. Transfer to a serving platter, garnish with the chives and both kinds of sesame seeds, and serve hot.