This Khachapuri Shop Inside a Banh Mi Restaurant Is the Pinnacle of Pop-Up Culture
If you’ve ever wanted to dip Georgian flatbread into Vietnamese dill ranch, go to Hollywood.
Banh Oui was started by L.A.-born chefs Casey Felton and Armen Piskoulian, who met when they were young cooks at Casey Lane’s The Tasting Kitchen. Felton has also cooked at Providence and Red Medicine, and Piskoulian’s career includes stints at Michael’s in Santa Monica and Scarpetta at the Montage Beverly Hills.
The chefs decided to go more casual and started serving banh mis together. Felton and Piskoulian had spent some time in Sydney, Australia, where a lot of chefs from Southeast Asia have migrated. Banh Oui was born out of Felton and Piskoulian’s cravings for the bold flavors they fell in love with there.
Banh Oui’s sandwiches became a big hit at downtown’s Smorgasburg food market. One popular sandwich with braised pork belly, chicken liver paté, pickled carrot and daikon, pickled Fresno chiles, and herbs on a lovely French roll is an expertly balanced combination of meat, fat, tang, spice, and sweet. The sandwich is simultaneously soft, crunchy, and creamy, and it's delightful.
Felton and Piskoulian, who've also done tasting-menu pop-ups that don't involve Vietnamese food, were at Smorgasburg for two years. They also sold their sandwiches out of an auto-body shop in Silver Lake and on the rooftop at downtown’s Standard hotel. Then, last July, they opened a Banh Oui restaurant in Hollywood—a venture that’s been entirely self-funded by the chefs, who collaborate on every item while also running every aspect of their business together.
“Smorgasburg was a $5,000 investment, which is a lot of money for two cooks,” says Felton, who once had to shut down at Smorgasburg for six weeks because Banh Oui’s van got stolen. (It turns out that somebody was living in the van.)
Opening Banh Oui in Hollywood cost Felton and Piskoulian $20,000 each. They had made some money at Smorgasburg, and Piskoulian also sold his burial plots at an L.A. cemetery to come up with his share of the funds. His first-generation immigrant parents had purchased the plots, which they saw as a good investment opportunity. For Felton and Piskoulian, $40,000 might as well be $1 million. This restaurant is everything to them.
“We’re not going to throw away this money,” Felton says.
Having their own brick-and-mortar location has allowed them to add items like a crowd-pleasing burger and tender, fall-off-the-bone cumin-braised ribs with Vietnamese caramel. The restaurant has also given them the freedom to use their kitchen “as a lab” to experiment with food that isn’t Vietnamese.
“That’s the best part of having a brick-and-mortar to be honest,” Felton says. “It becomes a playground for us.”
So the chefs have opened Tony Khachapuri, a restaurant within a restaurant at Banh Oui. Khachapuri, a cheese-filled Georgian flatbread, is something that Piskoulian, who is Armenian, has been eating all his life. He remembers his grandmother’s version of it. (Armenia is adjacent to Georgia, and a lot of Armenians head to the beach in Georgia during the summers.)
The open-faced flatbread “is supposed to mimic kind of like a boat,” Piskoulian says. “And then the egg yolk is supposed to mimic the sun shining off the ocean.” One great option at Tony Khachapuri is a flatbread with slices of soujouk, which is a spicy beef sausage that reminds him of childhood. His grandmother used to make soujouk in bulk.
“It just reminds me of Sunday mornings,” says Piskoulian.
At Banh Oui, you can order Vietnamese food and Georgian flatbreads simultaneously. You can put house-pickled Fresno chiles on your flatbread or dip pieces of your khachapuri into Vietnamese dill ranch, chipotle hoisin, or a side of the same garlic spread (made just with garlic, lemon juice, salt, and oil) that’s already at the bottom of your khachapuri. And because these are L.A. chefs in the kitchen, you can also get khachapuri with chorizo, or kale and cauliflower, or mushroom and shallot. Piskoulian sees Georgian flatbread as a vessel for many things. It’s not unlike, he says, how California Pizza Kitchen put barbecue chicken on pizza or how Wolfgang Puck put smoked salmon on pizza.
Whether you tear Tony Khachapuri’s flatbread, eat it with a fork, or pick up the whole sturdy boat-shaped thing and start chomping (it holds together well with its three-cheese blend, egg, and everything else), you’ll notice how well the khachapuri is engineered. The bread has a nice chew, and the creaminess and rich flavor from the cheese and butter atop it are wonderfully comforting on those rainy winter days that L.A. has been enduring. The garlic spread at the bottom adds some kick without being overwhelming. Each khachapuri is served atop paper with a stamp that says, “I’m not pizza, I’m khachapuri!” You can get the crust plain or with sesame seeds, salt, za’atar, or everything-bagel spice.
One thing about doing pop-ups or having a restaurant inside a restaurant is that it makes chefs more creative. And chefs with experiences similar to Felton and Piskoulian’s have also taken unlikely paths that have led to them serving some of L.A.’s most compelling food.
Chef Hunter Pritchett, who used to run the umami-powered GoldenBoys Chinese roving pop-up with Adam Midkiff, is now cooking exuberant modern Angeleno food at the stunning Atrium in Los Feliz. Atrium, which is part of prolific restaurateur Beau Laughlin’s Eastside empire, serves plump Baja prawns in a bath of clamato and pickled mirepoix. Pritchett’s hamachi crudo pops with passion fruit nuoc cham. There’s a ton of uni pasta in L.A. right now, but Atrium’s spaghetti cacio e pepe with uni is an excellent idea that’s executed well. So is the Sichuan au poivre sauce on the restaurant’s Flannery Beef steaks.
And consider former Bestia pasta cook Avner Lavi, whose Cento pasta bar is a lunchtime sensation that exists inside downtown L.A.’s Mignon Wine Bar on Wednesdays-through-Saturdays. Lavi changes his menu often at this three-year-old residency, but he’s become known for resplendent beet spaghetti and also one of the best plates of uni spaghetti in L.A.
Burgers Never Say Die, a new Silver Lake hot spot with habit-forming smash burgers that taste like a better version of your fast-food memories, is something that originated as a pop-up in founder Shawn Nee’s backyard. This underground sensation, where guests often waited two hours for a double cheeseburger, has turned into one of L.A.’s buzziest restaurants. BNSD’s fries, cooked with a blend that includes beef tallow, and its CVT soft-serve are also terrific upgrades over what you’ll find at fast-food chains.
On the fancier side of things, Andres Dangond (the culinary director for Lynx Grills and the executive chef/partner of Orange County burger spot The Cut) has started his monthly Dinner with Dres pop-up at an undisclosed perch atop a downtown L.A. building. The 14-seat feasts will change seasonally, and the first installment is “Within the Wild,” which is based on Dangond’s experiences living and cooking in Alaska. It’s a meal that’s at once rustic and luxurious. One standout dish, known as Burning Alder & Shrooms, is an alder-smoked mushroom consomme with matsutake and wild rice. It’s earthy and umami-rich, and you can imagine how something like this would warm your soul in frigid Alaska. Other highlights include hamachi ceviche, olive oil-poached salmon, and grilled bread with Cinco Jotas Ibérico ham. A dish called Those Aren’t Shooting Stars, featuring green star fruit and chorizo, is inspired by Dangond looking up at the sky in Alaska and seeing what he thought were shooting stars. (They were satellites.)
Pop-ups are often about pushing the limits of your imagination. And perhaps no chef is better at that than L.A. pop-up king Laurent Quenioux, whose backyard tasting menus in Highland Park are legendary. Quenioux's upcoming dinners include cassoulet nights on March 15-16 before he starts his spring menu on March 22. Plus, he’ll be doing dinners at the St. Supery wine boutique in Beverly Hills on May 2, 9, 23, and 30 with ingredients like fresh langoustines, Flannery beef, caviar, white asparagus, morels, soft-shell crab, and Brittany turbot. Quenioux will also have his famous cheese cart with raw-milk selections from France.
Chefs who are always looking to push boundaries and offer non-traditional experiences are a big reason why L.A. dining is such a pure adventure in 2019, of course. One day after I visit Banh Oui and Tony Khachapuri, Felton e-mails me with some thoughts about the Michelin Guide returning to L.A.
She and Piskoulian have been looking around for a possible location in downtown L.A., and a recent conversation about that reiterated what it means for them to be chefs in L.A. Through Banh Oui and Tony Khachapuri, Felton and Piskoulian are voicing their love for the city’s “diverse palate.”
“We hope that our city doesn't get swept up into the white tablecloths that are less representative of our city,” Felton writes. “I suppose there is always a happy medium!”
In L.A., where dipping Georgian flatbread into Vietnamese dill ranch is as exciting as fine dining, there definitely is a happy medium. Felton and Piskoulian have cooked at many upscale restaurants, but what they want to eat all the time are dishes like the fried egg salad at Thai restaurant Ruen Pair.
“That to us is the champion dish,” Felton says. “When we go out to eat, we love to eat the exact same thing.”
Which is to say, they enjoy “well-rounded” food that’s bold and acidic and spicy and funky and surprising. So do a lot of people in L.A., of course. This is exactly the city where there should be a restaurant serving chorizo khachapuri that you can top with pickled Fresno chiles inside a banh mi shop.
“Everything was born out of our palates,” Felton says. “That’s why we became business partners. We both know how to cook. We both have business sense. But at the end of the day, our palates match.”
I ask if there might end up being a third restaurant inside Banh Oui.
“We’ll probably do something else,” says Felton, who adds that one idea they have is a tent that sells ponchiks, which are Armenian donuts. “We love to eat a lot of things.”
Banh Oui, 1552 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Los Angeles, 323-645-7944