Blink as you drive by and you might miss it—hit the United Oil station and you’ve gone too far—but tucked onto a corner of Sunset Boulevard as it winds its way through Echo Park is Konbi, an extraordinary new Japanese sandwich and coffee shop. This part of the city is no stranger to good coffee; the original LA location of Intelligentsia is just down the way, and within a few miles either direction there are spots like Dinosaur Coffee, Winsome, Eightfold, Triniti, Dayglow, Woodcat, FrankieLucy Bakeshop, and many more, not to mention the Go Get Em Tiger on Hollywood, just past where Sunset curves west. And yet here, in this tiny little narrow room that feels flown in wholesale from Japan, owners Akira Akuto and Nick Montgomery have created a unique concept that’s already doing the rarest thing in spoilt-for-choice Los Angeles: drawing a crowd.
The first thing one notices walking in is the size. Much like the famous konbinis of Japan this cafe is long and narrow, pleasantly streamlined to keep the focus on the meal. Guests sit at a low lunch counter, facing into a long galley kitchen where the food is prepared. Coffee service at the front window is achieved in an incredibly efficient space. Their under-counter Mavam Espresso machine, Mahlkönig EK43 grinder, and Curtis brewer are all perfectly staged to minimize movement for the barista and keep the focus on customer needs as well as barista comfort. It’s like a tiny, efficient little miracle that this place works at all—and yet it does.
After the design, the second thing one notices is how quiet Konbi is. Even during the lunch rush, refrigerator doors don’t slam, kitchen wares don’t bang together, voices stay pleasant, and the atmosphere remains tranquil. This is all borne of intentional practice that is reflected in every corner of the restaurant—the walls are white, light wood abounds, and the space uses only natural colors.
The menu at Konbi is tautly focused. Sandwiches take center stage, including the rightly lauded (and heavily Instagram’d) pork katsu sandwich, which pairs perfectly with a small cup of miso soup. I actually preferred the egg salad sandwich—fluffy, ethereal, served on perfectly light bread from Bub and Grandma’s. Williamsburg Japanese tea stars Kettl Tea provides the shop’s range of tea offerings, including iced sencha and a stand-out houjicha latte, a tea-based steamed milk drink which lands somewhere in the realm of a chai latte, albeit less sweet and more roundly complex, with earthy, toasty notes.
Coffee service at Konbi comes courtesy of Camber Coffee, a boutique roaster based in Bellingham, WA and featured previously on Sprudge. Beverage Director Jacqueline Vaca (Intelligentsia, DTLA Cheese) vows to only serve coffees that are approachable—high quality drinks with accessibility at the forefront. Currently, Konbi is the only Camber-exclusive account in LA, but don’t come looking for retail whole bean sales just yet. “Where would we put it?” Vaca laughs—the restaurant is just that small. Each cup sparkles, brewed with the kind of conscientious precision that can only come from expertise and careful attention. Vaca wants every level of coffee and tea consumer to feel welcome at Konbi, and so each interaction is intentional, focused on helping the customer get the drink they want with a personal and intimate service style that’s a perfect match for Konbi’s intentional, seasonal food and traditional pastries.
Akuto and Montgomery both have strong restaurant backgrounds. They’ve worked as chefs in both LA and New York (including at Momofuku), but neither had worked in specialty coffee. Nevertheless, they intended to hold the beverage program to the same standards of excellence and knew they needed someone from the industry to helm it. They brought on Vaca as their Beverage Director, who first learned coffee in Melbourne 10 years ago. Today, there are only three full-time baristas on staff, and together they have an astounding 30+ years combined experience serving coffee, but they aren’t resting on their laurels. If someone is interested, Vaca has an open door policy about coffee education for everyone on the team. They’re all happy to pass along the wealth of knowledge that comes with such a remarkable level of experience.
Akuto and Montgomery believe a “staff-focused” approach is part of what makes Konbi special. “This is an egoless environment,” Akuto tells me—a tiny boat the team is all on together, where anyone is free to make suggestions. “Our motto is to make Konbi better every day,” Akuto adds. So far it’s working.
After a wildly busy fall opening (the restaurant literally ran out of food), today the neighborhood has settled in around the shop, albeit with a firmly Echo Park vibe. Regulars have long since become friends, but you never know who is next though the door. The nomadic foodie crowd has officially discovered Konbi, and people come from all over the world now, sometimes with their luggage in tow, each one finding their place in the narrow little room to eat delicious daytime foods, take in the calm, intentional vibe, and drink great coffee.
All photos by Alicia Cho.