Food & Drink

Konbi: Offering a refined take on the classic konbini sandwich

by Claire Williamson

Staff Writer

Of the many konbini (convenience store) classics available on store shelves — from onigiri rice balls to ready-to-eat paper cups of fried chicken — you can’t go wrong with the quintessential konbini sandwich.

With katsu (cutlet), egg salad, ham and lettuce, or even fruit and cream stuffed between two triangular halves of crustless, fluffy white bread, the konbini sandwich remains a cult favorite with even the late, great Anthony Bourdain among fans’ ranks. And now you can find an upgraded, updated version of this classic fare at Konbi, a Japanese-style sandwich restaurant in Los Angeles.

Konbi, which opened in October 2018, is the brainchild of owner-chef duo Akira Akuto and Nick Montgomery. After a stint working together at Momofuku, a New York-based restaurant group, in 2007, the two went their separate ways but stayed in touch, knowing they wanted to open a restaurant together since they were “in sync with how a restaurant should look and feel.” Montgomery ended up in LA, which he lauds for its “growing chef community,” fresh produce and comparatively affordable rent, and the pair began doing pop-ups about three years ago, through which they explored Japanese sandwiches.

“(Konbi is) the best interpretation of what we want a Japanese restaurant to feel like,” says Akuto in a phone interview together with Montgomery.

Like many Japanese restaurants, Konbi is intimate, with just 10 counter seats stretching along its narrow 46-square-meter space, which Montgomery and Akuto designed from scratch.

Making convenience classy: Nick Montgomery (left) and Akira Akuto are the duo behind Japanese sandwich specialist Konbi.
Making convenience classy: Nick Montgomery (left) and Akira Akuto are the duo behind Japanese sandwich specialist Konbi. | ALICIA CHO

Patrons can either eat in and watch their food being prepared in Konbi’s compact open kitchen, or walk up to the cheerful burnt umber take-out window and get a meal to go.

Although the menu is inspired by sandwiches and other items found on konbini shelves, rather than attempting to replicate the sheer volume of konbini offerings it’s a judiciously pared-back take on the concept.

Konbi’s main offerings are four Japanese-style sandwiches, all of which are made with traditional milk bread, the basic shokupan’s sweeter cousin and, according to Montgomery, a “signature” aspect of the Japanese sandwich. Other parts of Montgomery and Akuto’s sandwich paradigm include portability and whether the sandwich would feel out of place in a Japanese store; a flexible mindset that leaves the two chefs room to experiment even though, Montgomery continues, they are “sticking with things somewhat traditional (at Konbi) for now.”

The pork katsu sandwich is made with brined pork, cabbage marinated in lemon and Japanese Bull-Dog Sauce-brand tonkatsu sauce, a Worcestershire sauce-like condiment traditionally slathered on pork cutlets. Then there’s the eggplant katsu, an atypical “veggie homage” to the meaty original, and a layered omelette sandwich, designed to be “like the middle course at (a sushi restaurant) but not as sweet.”

When asked if the duo ever needed to explain what, exactly, a Japanese sandwich is to customers, Montgomery says that while “initially it was a challenge” — once they were asked if a Japanese sandwich was “like a banh mi” (a Vietnamese sandwich made with a baguette) — customers have been “more receptive and open than (the pair) originally thought they would be.”

Nowhere has this open-mindedness been more apparent than with the online attention given to Konbi’s fourth sandwich: a cold egg salad that pays tribute to the Lawson sandwiches Akuto grew up eating. Cross sections of the sandwich, with its perfectly placed, cheerfully golden egg yolks, have taken over Instagram; there’s even a recipe for it on the NYT Cooking website.

An intimate setting: Konbi
An intimate setting: Konbi’s 46-square-meter space has a single counter that seats just 10 at a time. | ALICIA CHO

“The egg salad took on a life of its own lately,” says Akuto. Originally it was supposed to be a cold, make-ahead dish to break up the hot line. The two had “strong arguments” about whether or not to even serve it, especially when they decided that it had to be made to order so as not to compromise on the taste.

“We had zero faith in that sandwich,” Akuto says with a laugh.

Beyond the four main dishes, Konbi’s menu is bolstered by a selection of vegetable-centric side dishes (such as a vegan kabocha pumpkin salad with miso dressing) and a selection of pastries, including a croissant that Rihito Maruhashi, from the Tokyo-based restaurant-bakery Path, helped them develop.

According to Akuto, when visiting Path about two years ago they had a “superior” croissant he became “obsessed” with having. So the two tapped Maruhashi, who went to LA on a working holiday, to help them find a croissant recipe and shaping technique that would work in Konbi’s close quarters but still produce a high-quality, flaky pastry.

“I can say with confidence that there’s nowhere else in (America) that’s so small and so busy that produces croissants at this level,” Akuto says.

But, ultimately, what Montgomery and Akuto hope to deliver at Konbi is a level of service and hospitality that is “welcoming and genuine.”

“I think Japanese people would really get (Konbi), and that’s our metric for success,” Akuto affirms. “It’s our homage to Tokyo.”

For more information about Konbi, visit konbila.com.

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