March 23, 2016
Chef. Owner. Husband. Father. Erik Bruner-Yang is a very busy man. He helms two thriving District hotspots: Toki Underground, a haven for those craving quality ramen; and Maketto, a communal space with a café, retail section and 60-seat restaurant. In addition, he owns Honeycomb Grocer, an unassuming shop stocked with Asian ingredients for the home cook.
Situated towards the back of Union Market – an upscale warehouse packed with vendors selling locally produced items, from pastries to cheeses to Korean tacos – Honeycomb is the ideal setting to chat about Erik’s culinary roots and the Washington DC food scene.
His first gig in food was making caramel popcorn at a local mall. Flash forward to today, and he is a James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year semi-finalist. His passion for the food industry is refreshingly simple: “I always just liked working in restaurants because the harder you work, the more reward you get.”
He adds: “I’ve worked for a lot of amazing people, and everyone and anyone that I’ve worked for has been a great mentor, but I think I’ve just always had this internal drive to be the best I could possibly be at anything that I’m doing.”
Honeycomb’s shelves are lined with sauces, vinegars and snacks like matcha-flavoured Pocky. Showcased inside a glass-panelled refrigerator are neatly stacked containers of homemade goods. Classic kimchi, sweet potato miso and kombucha stand at attention. Nearly two years old, Honeycomb is the dream pantry for Asian cooks.
At the front of the humble shop, Erik himself tends to inquisitive customers as his wife rings them up. His daughter – a toddler – patters around. It’s a family affair.
In between – and even during – our chat, Erik interacts with patrons: announcing the steamed bun filling (roasted pork), how much they cost ($3 apiece), directing people (on the left, sir!) and just generally ensuring that all is running smoothly.
Clad in a T-shirt that exposes his forearm tattoos, Erik expounds on the evolution of the restaurant scene in the National’s Capital.
In high school, he and his friends used to come to DC from Virginia for prom dinners, but there were only a handful of quality places to dine. To Erik, the food landscape has expanded tremendously. The city now hosts a younger crowd with a more entrepreneurial sensibility, which Erik credits to President Obama.
Able to walk to all three of his establishments from home, he makes it a point to focus on the importance interacting with the city as a business owner. “It’s about engaging and being a part of the community. We opened these places as a way for the community to have more access to different things.”
Maketto’s philosophy is closely tied to the District’s past. Erik explains: “The history of H Street is that used to be basically Georgetown before the Martin Luther King riots. That fourteen blocks, it was a really happening retail district. If you wanted to get a haircut, buy a suit, go to a nice restaurant – that’s what Northeast DC was. And after it all burned down, everything migrated. So Maketto is kind of a throwback to kind of what H Street was 50 years ago.”
We asked Erik about his favourite haunts in the city, while he focused on a set of plump, steamed buns in front of him:
For comfort food, “we like Indigo, here in Northeast. Kind of like a mom and pop Indian carryout.” Another household favourite is a “new place called Frescas that opened by our house. We really like those two.”
Regarding libations, Erik is thoughtful: “If we’re going to go out to drink – and have a nice drink – I’d want to go back to Columbia Room that just re-opened, and PX.” Both spots offer artisan cocktails, like the “Give Me a Home,” made with Bison grass vodka, fresh-pressed apple juice, spiced apple foam and caramel lace – currently on the menu at Columbia Room.
As for brunch, Erik does not hesitate for a moment: “Maketto for dim sum.”
A Shake Shack burger fan, Erik shares a bit about a local chef who he respects: “I like a lot that Cedric [Maupillier] does at Mintwood and Convivial because of the quality and the consistency. The consistency is always the hardest part, and it’s always really good and really consistent.” Crowd-pleasers include the wood-grilled, dry-aged, bacon cheeseburger and the Petit Cassoulet, at each respectively.
Another place high on his list is Sushi Taro. “If you want to go and get something really, really nice, that’s the first place I think about that I want to go to,” says Erik. He pauses then adds, “my wife really likes Sakuramen.”
Heading to one of Erik’s establishments? Be sure to try his personal favourites:
At Maketto: “Our Cambodian soup – the kuy teav – that’s for lunch. It’s just something that we had a lot for breakfast in Cambodia. There’s really no shop in DC doing that soup. Most people here in the U.S. eat it for lunch, but you’re supposed to have it for breakfast to early lunch.”
At Toki: “Classic Ramen. It’s still my favourite,” he declares.
At Honeycomb: “Shrimp chips. We also make all our own kombucha, so I love having the kombucha every once in a while.”
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