The Korean Barbeque sat quietly in its spot in the back corner of the Town and Country Village for over two decades. Outside, dusty tan-colored chairs cluttered around an array of marble-topped tables, and occasionally, Palo Alto High School or Stanford students who lined up by the nearby pavement. Inside, there was an open-top glass counter with trays of food, the refrigerator flanking the left wall and a kitchen hidden behind a cloth curtain to the right. But over Labor Day weekend, visitors could see something new too: two signs that announced the closing of the homestyle restaurant on Aug. 31.
Although the restaurant was founded in 1991, it wasn’t until nine years ago that the current owners, Ashley Hong and her husband, Richard, took over.
Growing up in South Korea, Hong discovered cooking and it immediately became a part of her life. It started off as a hobby and pastime, but it eventually became a career.
“While I lived in South Korea, I was a culinary instructor,” Hong said through a translator. “It’s different from just cooking, but even in South Korea, my career was related to food and cooking. Even before this restaurant, cooking was a hobby that I enjoyed, and it was my career, teaching people how to cook.”
At first, the overseas venture to manage the restaurant was a move to support her son, who graduated the University of California, Davis, and has recently applied to medical school.
“Our only son came here first to study, and we came here to support him almost nine years ago,” Hong said.
Yet after the first few months of transitioning, the restaurant established its place in the Palo Alto community, and the business became a lifestyle.
“The restaurant opened in 1991 as a family business for income, but as time went on, the locals really liked the Korean cuisine and, as you know, Korean food is very healthy, which the people also liked,” Hong said. She attributes the continuation of the restaurant not to any extraordinary circumstances but to local appreciation of their food.
Their customers became regulars, their habits became cyclical, and, similarly, their passion for owning the restaurant never ceased, according to Hong.
Using homestyle Korean food as the conduit between the Korean and American cultures, the restaurant created an international community within Palo Alto . Hong said that she greatly valued the visits she received from high school students who used to eat at the restaurant and came back to visit after graduating.
Even as Hong reflected on the restaurant, a regular customer interrupted to embrace her and thank her for her years of warm-hearted service.
“Good luck, and thank you,” the customer said. “Thank you for everything.”
Asian Box, a new addition to the bevy of Town and Country restaurants, recently opened across from Korean Barbeque. There has been much speculation that the competition with Asian Box led to the closure of the Korean Barbeque. However, there may have been more significant factors causing its closure.
Recently, according to Mrs. Hong, the management at Town and Country decided to undergo construction on the buildings in and around the Korean Barbeque in Town and Country.
“The management told us that they couldn’t lease the spot to us anymore because of the construction,” Hong said. “So we said we’d wait until construction finished, but they said they wouldn’t lease such a small piece of land.”
Hong said they reacted to the news with surprise and offered to take the empty store space next to the original restaurant site as well, but the management refused that offer as well. They were unable to fulfill the management’s request to quadruple their 452 square feet lease to 1800 square feet.
“That was too expensive and too big,” Hong said. “Our regular customers, and we agreed, [said] that an old, small restaurant like this had its own story, and many community members liked its style, but the shopping center seemed to want big, fancy restaurants, which is regretful.”
“Our main hope is that after the construction is over, since we weren’t given enough warning time to really relocate, that Town and Country will let us have our lease again,” she added.
Despite this minor speed bump, their story and their restaurant, which share a common theme of bridging people, communities and culture, are far from over. The Hongs are determined not to end their careers just yet.
“On such a short notice, I have no idea what we’ll do now,” Hong said. “We do have to look into a new location, but we really want to stay near here because our customer base is regular, and they want our food.”
Paly students especially loved the restaurant for its cheap prices and great food. Students would flock to the back of Town and Country for its delicious food every lunch. Hong said she tried to accommodate Paly students to the best of her abilities, keeping the prices stable and food at good quality.
“Korean Barbeque had sentimental value,” junior William Yang said. “My friends and I would go almost every day.”
“It was a great restaurant,” sophomore Ryan Huang added. “It allowed us to eat different types of food and was a great place to get cheap Asian food.”
Hong and her husband embraced the community by creating their own, and for that, the quiet restaurant that sat in the back corner of Town and Country, will be remembered.