Johnny Lee started using a wok at the age of ten. The San Gabriel Valley native studied business administration in college, but ended up taking a job at a Chinese restaurant in Colorado after graduation. He moved back to Los Angeles, did stints at the Flying Pig Truck and Rivera, and is now the chef at Spirit House, a watering hole in the San Gabriel Valley that serves Asian-inspired cocktails and food.
Spirit House opened late March in Monterey Park's Lincoln Hotel, and it's become one of the few places in the area where you can grab a craft cocktail with some creative Asian fusion grub. The restaurant is owned by David Tewasart (Soi.7, Green Papaya), whose family also owns the Lincoln Hotel.
Drinks with ingredients like Calpico and Asian pear are served at a bar that's open from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., Tuesdays to Saturdays, and are courtesy of Sybil Lin of Far Bar. All the food is single-handedly made by Lee (although he says he's getting some help soon). Their goal? To be a full-fledged gastropub. We sat down with Lee and asked him about the gig and where he gets his culinary inspirations.
Squid Ink: How did you create the menu?
Johnny Lee: I approached it as food that's conducive to alcohol. There's an emphasis on fried foods, but I try to do stuff that's really accessible. We do have some people who are foodies, but not enough to justify more unconventional stuff or items. I'd say the menu has stayed fairly conservative. I have a big interest in Japanese cooking — I wanted to focus on Japanese, but I somehow shifted to Chinese. The Fung Brothers actually started influencing me to do modern Chinese food.
SI: What's been the most popular menu item so far?
JL: The Panang curry fries is the most popular choice. The owner of Spirt House works at Soi.7. They make a really good panang curry and I suggested we put it on fries. To be honest, it's kind of a reluctant bestseller because I don't really care for it. But I made it from scratch and people like it.
SI: If not the fries, what are you most proud of?
JL: The tacos. They're basically pork shoulder cooked for 24 hours and a sauce that's reminiscent of Japanese char siu, with soy, sake, mirin and dashi. It's topped with salsa verde — a technique that I learned at Rivera.
SI: And you also have lotus root chips and chili honey sauce wings on the menu. What are your inspirations?
JL: Half of it is me, and then a lot of the times it's inspired by food I eat. The main thing is that I want to try to make something that I love.
SI: What's one menu item that failed?
JL: I was doing a cumin lamb sausage on Chinese flatbread. I made the flatbread myself — but no one ordered it so that went away.
SI: How did you get involved with Spirit House?
JL: It was really a meeting of chance. David was selling an immersion circulator on Craiglist. I met him at the bar while he was still renovating it and I guess he knew I knew about food and asked if I wanted to be a chef. I just drafted a menu from there.
SI: And you're the only chef? Do you do the dishes too?
JL: Yes, I'm the only chef. I'm actually bringing on a friend. It's not too bad right now, but there are days when it gets a little hectic.
SI: How's business so far?
JL: The word is still not out, but we're getting repeat customers and every day we get a lot of new faces. We host a lot of parties.
SI: Your plans for the future?
JL: We're eventually going to revamp the interior. Everything right now is a hand-me-down. We want to work on the wood; we want to rip it out and put in real seats and tables — I see a potential.
Follow Squid Ink at @LAWeeklyFood and check out our Facebook page. Clarissa blogs about Asian food at clarissawei.com. Follow her on Twitter or on Facebook.