A couple of decades ago, the idea of a food-court meal consisted of a sad slice of pepperoni pizza from Sbarro, followed by a giant, frosted Cinnabon. Thankfully, the concept of the food courts has been redefined: They've become culinary destinations that are actually worth the trip to the mall (we’re looking at you, Westfield Santa Anita).
Now the folks behind a new food court in Koreatown are taking that idea one step further by importing some of the trendiest and most well-established South Korean restaurants — which are offering more than just traditional Korean dishes — directly to Los Angeles.
Square Mixx is a sleek, modern food court that takes up the entire third floor of the 213,000-square-foot Gaju Marketplace complex, which also houses Korean grocery store California Market and other retail shops. Since Square Mixx’s soft opening on July 7, six South Korean restaurant brands are up and running, and a few more will be rolling out in the coming months.
The name of the food court is apropos, as each vendor sells its own food specialty, resulting in a mix of different traditional Korean and Korean-fusion dishes. At Nipong Naepong, you’ll find jjamppong (Korean-Chinese noodles swimming in a spicy red broth) made with more global flavors, including ingredients you’d find in Thai or Spanish dishes. With Brown Donkatsu, an old-school restaurant brand that’s been around since 1986, tender Jeju black pork is used in fried katsu. Robot Kimbap offers healthy kimbap rolls made with brown rice and fresh vegetables. And just last week, Cafe Bora, which had gone viral in Seoul with its Instagrammable, purple sweet potato bingsu (Korean shave ice), soft-opened as well.
Eunice Tak, the co-founder of Square Mixx Inc., hand-picked each of these restaurant franchises more than a year. In Tak’s search for the eateries that meshed with her vision (restaurants with specialized food and a strong brand concept), she traveled to South Korea to scope out shopping malls and airports and scoured blogs for the latest trends. She trained at the headquarters of each restaurant. And then there were times when Tak thought she had found a perfect restaurant franchise until she went through the training and discovered the restaurant wasn’t the right fit for Square Mixx. When that happened, she would have to drop it from her roster of restaurants.
“We’ve been doing a lot of shuffling,” Tak says.
The fruits of her labor have resulted in the company she co-founded with partner Chris Yun, called Otion Partners Group, which owns a major share of Square Mixx. The company is now the master franchisee of more than a dozen South Korean restaurant brands and some U.S.-based ones, such as cajun seafood joint Blazin’ Crab. Many of these restaurants are or will be stationed at Square Mixx. Square Mixx also is partnering with other restaurant brands that just want to lease out spaces in their food courts — in the fall, they’ll be breaking ground on construction for a larger Square Mixx food court at the Source mall in Buena Park.
Building out the Koreatown and Buena Park locations from scratch has cost $3 million and $7 million, respectively. The team also has worked with the franchisers’ design teams to create on-brand aesthetics for the stalls, getting each restaurant's packaging shipped overseas and flying in franchiser teams from South Korea to train all the managers and employees of each restaurant on how to make their dishes.
Because Otion Partners Group is the master franchisee, it has the flexibility to mix and match brands and have the franchises share vendor stalls. The restaurant you see at a particular stall can be replaced. “We have more choices as a business,” Tak says. “I think it’s safe for us [to swap out the brands], rather than trying to deal with [a restaurant's that’s not working out].”
Most of the restaurants have a minimum of 10 locations throughout South Korea, and some have up to 90 outposts. Brand director Rae Hwang points out that at their franchise, Grill Thai, the Thai flavors have been modified to fit the palate of Koreans. He says Brown Donktosu was one of the first brands in the 1980s to stylize and Westernize meals for Koreans in a growing trend there at the time. For Cafe Bora, fresh sweet potato puree is prepared every day; it also carries red bean and green matcha for its desserts, from tiramisu to soft serve and bingsu. Sogongdong Tofu, a veteran restaurant chain, has an endearing story: Two generations of the same family have run this business together, and the father was the one who mastered a soondofu recipe that they use at the restaurant.
This food court is the first official Square Mixx in the United States. The Buena Park location is slated to open in early 2018.
Next up at the Koreatown location are noodles from Mimiyunga Soba, which is launching in mid-September, followed by Softree for soft-serve topped with honeycomb, and Curious Goldie with its fish-shaped, croissant-like taiyaki.
450 Western Ave., third floor, Koreatown; Squaremixx.com.