Sandwich Supremacy and Pastry Perfection

Akira Akuto and Nick Montgomery served a Japanese-style omelet sandwich at one of their pop-ups, and customers couldn’t get enough.

By MACKIE JIMBO, Rafu Contributor

It’s 9:20 a.m. on a crisp Friday morning in September, and there is tension in the air. My mom and I join a group hovering near a small take-out window. As we wait, passersby either knowingly join our group or walk by with confusion. Suddenly, the athleisure-clad girl next to me loses her composure and a sheer look of panic spreads across her face. A hostess had magically appeared in the take-out window to deliver devastating news: the croissants were sold out for the day. 

This is the scene outside Konbi, a tiny daytime restaurant sandwiched between a gas station and a vegan bakery/crystal shop in Echo Park. Blink and you could miss it, except for the discreet forest-green sign perched above the take-out window and the usual crowd waiting on the sidewalk.  

On this particular Friday morning in September, the crowd was larger and more intense than usual, because a few days earlier, Bon Appétit had named Konbi its Restaurant of the Year. Konbi beat 50 other restaurants nationwide, winning the title for its meticulously crafted sandwiches inspired by those found in Japanese konbini. (Konbini are 24-hour convenience stores, like 7-Eleven and Lawson’s, in Japan that sell impossibly fresh packaged sandwiches, salads, and onigiri, a dizzying variety of bottled drinks, and even magazines and cosmetics.)   

Konbi’s Inspiration 

Akira Akuto and Nick Montgomery first met while working as chefs in New York City.

Konbi is the product of over a decade of friendship between chefs Akira Akuto and Nick Montgomery.  They met as chefs at David Chang’s Momofuku Restaurant Group in New York City. They eventually made their way to L.A. for the better weather, produce, and real-estate prices.  

Initially, Montgomery and Akuto hosted pop-ups for Italian deli sandwiches, which garnered mild success. Then, one day, they decided to serve a Japanese-style omelet sandwich, paying homage to the ubiquitous konbini sandwiches. Customers loved it, and with that, the idea for Konbi was born. 

Montgomery and Akuto spent the next four years developing the concept for Konbi.  

“The inspiration is taking the konbini food in Japan, and using really nice ingredients, and having that as a starting point,” Akuto explains. “In Japan, the accessibility of good food is a common trait for every level of price point. That doesn’t seem as common here. So, we wanted to take that availability at every corner, and put it in restaurant form in the U.S.”  

Akuto and Montgomery traveled to Tokyo often to research the concept. In addition to konbini, the chefs drew inspiration from Tokyo’s kissaten (old-school coffee houses where city dwellers go to read a newspaper or take a break) and third-wave, minimalist coffee shops. In particular, they wanted to emulate the look and feel of these shops and their efficient use of space. Colors seen around Tokyo also shaped the chefs’ vision for Konbi.  

“Wood, concrete, earth tones – and green. A lot of green. We kept seeing green in subtle places, like road cones and the JR line. I never noticed it before, and now, I can’t un-see it,” Akuto recalls.  

Konbi’s interior reflects these influences. It’s clean and minimalist inside, with exposed wood beams on the wall. It’s the most efficient use of a very narrow space, with a 10-seat counter bordering the open kitchen. There are also nods to konbini and kissaten culture scattered throughout: a vintage chef doll lounges atop a jar of Kewpie mayonnaise; a bowl of complimentary matchbooks with Konbi’s forest-green and white logo sits on the counter; and UCC coffee cans and Japanese design magazines line built-in bookshelves. A black-and-white framed print on the bookshelf reads “f**k perfection,” which I can only imagine is irony from Akuto and Montgomery, because everything about Konbi strives for perfection. 

Bite-sized canelé, custard cake with a caramelized crust, is among konbi’s most coveted desserts.

Konbi’s Cuisine

Akuto and Montgomery achieve that perfection, for the food at least, through a commitment to using the best ingredients and meticulous execution. Take the layered omelet sandwich, for example. Akuto and Montgomery played with several different techniques of preparing the omelet before settling on the traditional square pan, and folding each layer by hand with chopsticks. They use locally sourced eggs from Chino Valley Ranchers, and infuse the eggs with a dashi made from wild konbu foraged in Hokkaido.

“The goal of the sandwich is to suspend perfect, well-seasoned dashi in egg, and make it a little bit more savory,” Montgomery notes.

The omelet gets sandwiched (for lack of a better word) between two thick slices of white milk bread, baked specially for Konbi by L.A.’s premier bread purveyor, Bub & Grandma’s. And for the final touch, the chefs drizzle Dijon mustard and, of course, Kewpie mayonnaise on the sandwich.  

The result is sublime and comforting: reminiscent of the konbini sandwiches I remember eating in Japan, but elevated to near-perfection. 

Surprisingly, Akuto and Montgomery’s favorite sandwich is the least popular with diners. For the eggplant katsu sandwich, the chefs prepare an intensely umami vegetarian dashi containing burnt onions, dried shiitake, and soy sauce. They marinate sliced eggplant in the dashi overnight, and then coat the slices in panko and fry them to order for each sandwich.  

“You’ve got to try it,” Montgomery urges. “It’s tricky to make though, so I’m OK with only selling the amount we do. Production would become an issue if we sold much more.”   

The staff prepare for the day’s opening.

Though Konbi’s sandwiches receive all the attention, Akuto and Montgomery implore diners to explore the vegetable dishes on the menu. These change seasonally, which allows Akuto and Montgomery to experiment more and highlight Southern California’s bountiful produce.

On my last visit, for example, there was a beautiful chilled Meiji tofu, floating in dashi infused with the flavor of tomatoes at their peak ripeness. The dish tasted like late summer in a bowl, with some bites punctuated by sweet sungold tomatoes (each individually peeled) and crispy buckwheat.  

One vegetable dish that remains on the menu year-round is the potato salad. Konbi’s version incorporates a traditional Japanese ingredient in an unexpected way. Akuto and Montgomery top their potato salad with okara, a byproduct of tofu.  

“It’s a very common filler ingredient with potato salad in Japan, but we find it kind of gross to eat on its own,” Akuto explains. “So we wanted to do our own take on it.”  

Instead of mixing the okara into the potato salad, Akuto and Montgomery fry the okara until crunchy and sprinkle it on top. “Everyone says the okara tastes like hot Cheetos,” Akuto laughs.