21 November 2017
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Eat Me DC: An Interview with Toki Underground’s Chef, Erik Bruner-Yang

“A series of unconventional questions developed from local buzz and research.”

Apron on and in the confines of Toki Underground, Chef Erik Bruner-Yang shares his take on chef-driven restaurants and his vision for the future of H Street, plus he reveals who “Toki” really is.

Ariell Kirylo: If you could be anywhere else in this very moment, where would it be? Honest.

Erik Yang: I’d be at home with my pit-bull, Ernie. My girlfriend and I rescued him from the humane society.

AK: You played guitar in a band, you’re a DJ, an artist, a restaurant chef/owner – tell me something you can’t do.

EY: Well, I like to say I’m good at many things, but a master of none. My only goal now is to become the best chef and restaurateur I can possibly be.

AK: I heard somewhere that restaurants these days are totally chef-driven. Do you agree?

EY: It depends. I like the Americanism of chain restaurants, and, having worked in many of them, I’ve learned a lot from their corporate-business structure that has helped me understand how to run my own. While chef-driven restaurants are fun and have more room to be creative, they are much more high risk, because they are based on a particular personality and sometimes a limited skill set. How iTunes has changed the music industry, the Food Network has definitely changed the restaurant industry.

AK: Explain the concept behind Toki Underground in a couple of sentences or less.

EY: Not celebrity chef-driven. Everything I love about being Taiwanese. Everything I love about Asian culture, food, art and fashion.

AK: In Japanese toki means “time of opportunity” – when did you know ramen was yours?

EY: Actually, our translation of toki in Korean means “rabbit” and is represented by our logo (points to a picture of an anime-esque blue rabbit on a Toki designed comic.) The restaurant is HIS hangout. Funny enough, the restaurant opened nine months late and ended up in the year of the rabbit.

EY: Originally, the concept was to serve a variety of Asian street food. When my grandfather was passing away, I returned to Taipei, and my uncle got me a job at a ramen shop.  That’s where I got my inspiration.

AK: Explain this phenomenon: Your restaurant is called “Underground,” but it’s very clearly, well, upstairs.

EY: I suppose it might be confusing to noncreative and linear people!

AK: Toki Underground is part of a new H street. How do you envision the area in 10 years?

EY: If more retail and bar-type establishments open, maybe another Adams Morgan. It’s already a show on the weekends. Now that I’ve stopped drinking, I just think it’s obnoxious.

AK: So you hope a classier version of Adams Morgan?

EY: I like Smith Commons, but I don’t want every restaurant to be a Smith Commons. Though it’s nice to have a classy place like that on H Street! This area is often thought of as “divey.” But now that rent is so high here, it only really leaves room for big-budget places that ultimately stifle the element of creativity, giving way to that cookie-cutter modernism.

AK: Using a bowl of ramen as a symbol for a deep message, what would yours be?

EY: Don’t let women dip in your ramen, because they’ll always ruin your career. Don’t eat naked, because the soup is hot!

AK: Tell me about a person in DC who has inspired you.

EY: My landlord, Tony Tomelden, who owns the Pug downstairs. He is a pioneer on H Street and an older brother/father figure to me. He opened one of the first bars when no one was out here. He struggled with sales but stuck it out. Toki wouldn’t exist without his help.

Special SHOUT OUT to two DC celebrity chefs, Mike Isabella and Spike Mendelsohn: Chef Erik Yang says “he was giddy like a little kid” when they came to visit Toki Underground.

Erik’s DC Bites

Name a DC location you would …

Take your family to: Graffiato. My family loves the idea of the celebrity chef. Mike Isabella has been to Toki twice already, and I am excited to check out his new diggs.

Eat alone: The Queen Vic. Chef Adam Stein is a great friend. I love just hanging out with him and [complaining] about people. Their burger is a mix of lamb and heaven.

Propose to your girlfriend: The tasting table at Sushi Taro. I’ve already started the plan. I will have the ring embedded in bluefin tuna at the fish market in Japan. When that fish makes it to Sushi Taro, Jin the GM will call me, and I’ll make a reservation.

Burn down: RFK. I pray that the city will one day invest in a DC United stadium.

Read our full review of Toki Underground.

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  1. […] “Chef Erik Yang has done a great job over at Toki Underground. I’ve been to Toki a couple times and I love the Ramen soup.” […]