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‘Our Communities Depend on Each Other:’ Olivia in K-Town Is Using Food to Unite Korean and Latino Cultures

11:26 AM PDT on July 18, 2022

Olivia is a vegetarian restaurant that opened five months ago in Koreatown, Los Angeles, co-founded by entrepreneurs Danny Oh and Chef Mario Alberto. Their cuisine is vegetarian and vegan, and they focus on the Korean and Mexican flavor palette as Danny and Mario are Korean and Mexican, respectively. They don’t like to label their cuisine as fusion, though, but rather as just “Angeleno food.” 

Mexicans and Central Americans have been living in Koreatown for several decades by this point, and as Chef Mario Alberto says, “our communities are dependent on each other…at El Taurino, you have Mexicans cooking for Koreans, and at KBBQ, that's where they feed us.” 

This interconnectedness is what Danny Oh drew on in the naming of the place, aptly named after the olive branch but in Spanish, hoping to extend a welcoming hand to all residents of Koreatown so they may have a healthy, delicious meal. 

Sunchokes, mustard seeds, chickpeas. Photo by Vladimir Santos for L.A. TACO.
King trumpet 'pulpo.' Photo by Vladimir Santos for L.A. TACO.
Kimchi jalapeño pizza at Olivia.
Kimchi and jalapeño pizza at Olivia. Photo by Vladimir Santos for L.A. TACO.

The story of how they started this venture together is a familiar one, but with a slight twist. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Danny Oh was taking a break from his gym, Fast, Lean, Fit, to meditate on the current state of the world's affairs. He took some shrooms, and a thought came to him “be the light,” he says it said. 

In the city of supposed angels, undergoing an uprising after the George Floyd killing and rampant Asian hate crimes, he wanted to “fight the negativity” and enlisted the help of one of his gym clients: Chef Mario Alberto. Chef Alberto had just finished up a stint working for Cafe Gratitude, redesigning their vegan menu and their kitchen floor plan, challenging himself to cook with vegetables to create dishes with “simplicity and integrity,” as he describes. They both spurred into action, cooking and distributing food to their hungry neighbors on Skid Row.

After seeing the talent and passion Alberto had for cooking, Danny Oh literally put his money where his mouth was, agreeing to secure a loan and bring a brick-and-mortar together so that two “L.A. boys, [could] do something positive for the community.” 

Danny Oh’s ultimate vision is to be a humanitarian, and he’s hoping to do that with food, especially since your diet can “heal or kill you,” as he says. He’s all about healing the community. When asked about how he feels the restaurant will do this despite the racial tensions of a neighborhood as storied as Koreatown, he says simply,” people love to eat, and that's the way to bring them together.” 

Jackfruit crab cakes.
Jackfruit crab cakes. Photo by Vladimir Santos for L.A. TACO.
Fried olives.
Fried olives. Photo by Vladimir Santos for L.A. TACO.

When talking to Chef Alberto about his Kimchi Pizzas with jalapeños, king trumpet “pulpo,” and ‘crabcakes with avocado aguachile,’ he poses the question: What is Mexican? What is L.A.? Morrisey and Tupac? What is Korean? 

The food is a reflection of his eight years in Koreatown. “Ktown is the first place that resonated with me." Despite living and being raised all over the Greater Los Angeles area. He studied philosophy and film in college, and that is evident in his cooking. He wants to make the restaurant a hub for the next generation of chefs, planning pop-ups that take a Dogme ‘95-approach to the integrity and direct approach to ingredients. 

When talking to the people that frequented Olivia on a weekday night, you could really see that Koreatown was well represented. Customers Roxy L. and Kain F., who were Dominican-Puerto Rican and Chinese-American, said it was their first time in, and as transplants from the east coast to K-town, they were glad they did not have to drive to the Westside for a vegan option. I asked Roxy L. about her experience so far as a Latinx transplant here in Ktown, and she said she felt very integrated into the community and that she “ [felt] like there is an invisible olive branch in Ktown between Latinos and Asians.” Her partner Kain F. agreed over a bite of the jackfruit-based crab cakes and an avocado aguachile garnished with fresh frisee from the farmers market.

Prepping trumpet mushrooms.
Prepping trumpet mushrooms. Photo by Vladimir Santos for L.A. TACO.

Muralist and artist Tommi Lam is also a customer. He comes in with a party of six, and Danny Oh greets him and introduces me after they are seated and eating. When asked about Olivia, he says it is “the first-of-a-kind place in K-town…[they] uplift the community. That’s why I fuck with [them].” 

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