Named by both Bon Appetit and Food & Wine as one of 2019’s best restaurants of the year, Konbi owners Akira Akuto and Nick Montgomery don’t know what all the fuss is about. They’re just two guys who like sandwiches that don’t make a mess.
The tiny daytime sandwich shop in Echo Park that serves Japanese–style egg and pork sandwiches as well as French pastries and seasonal vegetable dishes has developed a cult following, unintentionally fueled by their wonderfully Instagrammable sandos.
“We want our food to be simple but technically perfect,” Montgomery tells L.A. Weekly, sincerely surprised at the wild response their little cafe has garnered. “You obviously want that to happen, but we really didn’t know if people were going to understand it or like it at all. I was worried people might think ‘Oh, this is just a dumb sandwich on crappy white bread.’ Overhearing people sitting at the counter discussing a fishy omelet on bread with a little sauce is kind of bizarre.”
The pair worked together in New York and wanted to move west to open a sandwich shop, inspired by Japanese convenience store sandos wrapped in plastic to eat on the go.
“I love eating sandwiches,” Akuto tells the Weekly under the persimmon tree of his Highland Park home. “They’re portable and you have to define what you want to have in a sandwich for yourself. We have specific things for a sandwich we want our shop to be. The amount of work that goes into the sandwich is the same amount that goes into a fine dining dish. The thought process is the same, it just goes between two pieces of bread. For us, it’s to be able to take all the ingredients we’re used to working with but making it in a way that’s not pretentious, so that more people are able to eat it at a price point we’re able to feed our friends, who are regular people.”
The partners spent five years developing the concept, which included wandering in and out of many a Japanese convenience store, where the sandos are a more pared-down version. The popularity of the distinct sandwiches has resulted in Konbi knock-offs around Los Angeles.
“We didn’t just go and see these convenience store sandwiches and say let’s open a sandwich shop because it’s trendy,” says Montgomery, who grew up in the South, where egg salad is a vehicle for mayonnaise and French’s mustard, he claims. “We wanted to do something that was unique at the time and execute it at a very high level, which is why we chose those sandwiches, pastries, coffee and tea. Four years ago nobody was making these kind of sandwiches, but we don’t get sidetracked by what’s popping up around us.”
Despite the fun visuals, delightful textures and the fact that they just taste good, convenience and simplicity is at the core of Konbi.
“We don’t want a messy sandwich that gets all over your hands if you’re driving,” says Akuto, who moved to the U.S. from Korea as a child. “It should be clean and everything about it should be portable and easy to eat. More is not better for a sandwich, that’s why we cut it into three — not for visual purposes. It just easier to eat three pieces. Maybe you like crusts, maybe you don’t, this gives you an option. We’re not going to get into the crust game, and bottom line it’s got to fit into the box. We cut it this way because it’s easy and it works. It should look simple.”
So what’s their recipe for the perfectly boiled egg, not runny but still a good amount of orange?
“We cook ours for about eight minutes and 45 seconds,” says Montgomery. “And don’t drop them into cold water. That’s a terrible idea.”
“You want your water at a constant boil when you put them in, and we take them directly out of the fridge, adds Akuto. “Take them immediately out of the water after eight minutes and 45 seconds and drop them into ice water with plenty of ice. The more time they spend in the consistently boiling water, the easier they will be to peel.”