Restaurateurs From SMHS Are Well Served by Their Travels

Chris Yang and Maggie Ho, who both graduated from San Marino High School in 2008, recently opened their dream Chinese fusion restaurant, Yang’s Kitchen, in Alhambra. The menu results from their years of training and travel throughout the world of cuisine.
Photo by Zane Hill / OUTLOOK
Chris Yang and Maggie Ho, who both graduated from San Marino High School in 2008, recently opened their dream Chinese fusion restaurant, Yang’s Kitchen, in Alhambra. The menu results from their years of training and travel throughout the world of cuisine.

At Yang’s Kitchen, a new fast-casual Chinese eatery in Alhambra, you’ll find options that are, by the purveyors’ admission, “something you’d never find on a Chinese menu.”
So perhaps a better description of the fare offered by San Marino High School alumni Maggie Ho and Chris Yang, who present such items as pork strozzapreti and a beef scallion pancake wrap that rather resembles a taco, is “Chinese fusion.” The restaurateurs are heartened by the turnout so far.
“Since the start, we kind of struggled with classifying what kind of cuisine we’d be,” said Yang, the chef of the namesake restaurant and, like Ho, a 2008 graduate of SMHS. “We knew that it was going to be food we ate growing up, so a lot of it is inspired by authentic Chinese or Taiwanese food, but some of it is inspired by being in Los Angeles. It’s such a melting pot.”
Ho, now 29, said she was 2 when her family moved to San Marino from Taiwan, whereas Yang was born here and lived just outside of town, though within the boundaries of the San Marino Unified School District. The two met at Huntington Middle School and started dating while at SMHS. They began to develop an appreciation of cooking and more discriminating tastes at about that time. (Yang said his mother first taught him her signature fried rice at this age.)
“Both of our families go back to Asia a lot,” said Yang, also 29. “My family goes back to Hong Kong and China, and Maggie’s family goes back to Taiwan. Going back, there’s just so much great authentic Chinese and Taiwanese food. Once we moved past our junk food stage, it kind of set the benchmark for us when we’d travel back.”
After graduating from UC San Diego in 2012 with degrees in management science, Ho said she worked as an accountant for a startup firm, while Yang joined the Little Tokyo restaurant Spice Table as a stage, or an unpaid sort of intern learning the ropes of a new cuisine.
“I was picking herbs, doing basic tasks to get acquainted with the kitchen,” Yang said. “It was hard for me in the beginning because it was totally different from cooking at home. It was much more of a job. Things are a lot more operational than creative, but I learned a lot.”
Within the year, Ho and Yang decided to pull the trigger on their dream backpacking tour of East Asia. The couple started in Japan, home of their favorite cuisine since college (“It’s simple food but it tastes good,” Ho deadpanned), before moving onto Mongolia, following the Silk Road throughout China and then working their way back to Hong Kong and Taiwan, all in five months.
“We tasted a lot of different cuisines,” Ho said.
“There’s definitely a lot of inspiration and a lot of ideas when you go traveling,” Yang said. “The funny thing is, I guess at that time, around 2013, food was really starting to get big. On Instagram and everything, it was kind of blowing up. So by the time we got back and were like ‘Oh, we have all these ideas. Why don’t we bring the cuisine from that country back home?’ People had actually started doing that already, especially in L.A.
“It’s definitely good for food that there are more and more varieties in L.A.,” he added. “It just makes L.A. that much more special and interesting, but for us, it kind of meant that we had to ask ourselves what our identity was. It was a good thing, because it really made us ask ourselves what do we want to do that’s different.”
Upon returning, Yang “learned my chops as a line cook” under chef Roy Choi — famed for helping popularize gourmet food trucks with his Mexican-Korean fusion Kogi — at his Koreatown restaurant Pot. Yang then joined the former chef-owner of the now-closed Spice Table to open the Southeast Asian restaurant Cassia in Santa Monica.
“Eventually I worked my way up to be sous chef,” Yang said. “After that, Maggie and I started doing this.”
One of the Spice Table-Cassia owners had happened to buy what is now the Yang’s Kitchen location years ago, when it was Mosaic Lizard Theatre. After the owner failed to find a lessee for the property, Ho and Yang approached ownership about starting Yang’s Kitchen.
The location once was shrouded in black paint as a small-stage theater, but the interior now sports a clean eggshell layout, complete with wooden seating and backdrops, cacti, succulents and houseplants in handmade ceramic pots and what looks to be an original wood ceiling. Large storefront windows allow natural light to glow throughout, setting a calm atmosphere for the on-the-go diner.
“It’s a great location,” Ho said. “It was just a lot of work that had to happen within the space.”
Menu items include the Chinese staple of scallion pancakes, in addition to cold sesame noodles and classic braised pork rice and beef noodle soup. The set meal at Yang’s asks guests to pick a protein to go along with a plate of rice, sweet potato, house-made pickles, soy egg and tomato seaweed soup. In addition to soft drinks, there is kombucha on tap and a soft-serve machine. A cold deli case includes roasted root vegetables and what the menu calls miso tasty cucumbers. (They hope to have up to six deli case offerings in the future, in addition to various specials and perhaps breakfast one day.)
Ho and Yang said they wanted their menu to also reflect how they ate — healthfully, locally sourced and responsible. As they searched for products, one network connection led to another, which is how they came to have pasta — from Pasadena-based Semolina Artisanal Pasta — on a Chinese-based menu.
“During that process, we also included a local flour miller in Pasadena,” Yang added, referring to Grist and Toll. “That’s kind of how all these things landed on our menu.”
Yang worked with fellow L.A. chef Joseph Marcos to prepare the menu, and Marcos still contributes daily to prep work. Ho and Yang said they run the eatery very much like a mom-and-pop establishment, often turning in 15-hour workdays and having to answer for every little thing that goes wrong.
“You can’t let those things freak you out,” Yang said. “You’ve got to put in long hours, because that’s the only way to do it. It’s never going to be a thing where you own it and you sit there and you watch it. You end up having so much responsibility that you had better make sure you want to do it.”
Ho serves as the general manager.
“I’m new at being a manager, too, so I’m learning,” she added.
Management had proved an interesting experience for the two 29-year-olds, from conducting a tough hiring process to being there to celebrate the successes of their staff.
“When you allow them the chance to take ownership of something, they make something better than you could have thought it would be, so that’s fun,” Yang said. “What’s not fun — this is just commonplace across the food industry — is when employees call [in sick]. That’s just the worst, because it’s physical work. If the dishwasher is out, those dishes still need to be washed. It’s not like an office where the guy can come back the next day or say, ‘I’ll finish my paperwork tomorrow.’”
Given the success Yang’s Kitchen has had since opening its doors, the longtime couple may have arrived at a winning formula when they asked themselves what kind of restaurant they wanted to be.
“When we opened, we weren’t sure how busy we’d be,” Yang said. “We’re in an area where Asian food in general is really, really competitive. There are a lot of Asian restaurants, and a lot of them are competing in portion sizes and price. We wanted to do something with a little bit more quality in the ingredients and healthier foods. We weren’t sure if people would be willing to accept it, so that’s why we kind of braced ourselves for a slow start. People around here have embraced us a lot faster than we expected them to.”
Yang’s Kitchen is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 11 a.m.-9 p.m., and closed Mondays and Tuesdays. It is located at 112 W. Main St., Alhambra, and the full menu can be viewed on YangsKitchenLA.com. The restaurant is also on Instagram at @yangskitchenla.

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