Audio by Trevor Baumgardner
When Cal Poly alumnus Matt Yoon first moved to San Luis Obispo in 2011, he said he immediately noticed the lack of Korean food. Having moved from the Los Angeles area, he found himself miles away from the nearest H Mart, a Korean-American supermarket chain, and more importantly, his mother’s home-cooked meals.
“That was when I finally missed my mom’s cooking,” Yoon said. “You know, you take it for granted when you live at home.”
Yoon graduated from Cal Poly with a bachelor’s in journalism in 2013. He had expected to return to the Los Angeles or Orange County area, but he instead accepted a job as lead video producer for Cal Poly.
It was around this time that he began learning how to cook.
“I [told myself] I better figure something out [otherwise] I won’t be able to eat a lot of things I want to,” Yoon said. “So, that’s why I started making kimchi in 2015 by googling recipes.”
Eventually, Yoon met his wife, Hope Yoon. He had no intention of opening a restaurant, but his wife encouraged him to do so.
“She rarely had Korean food,” Yoon said. “And as we were dating, I was making all these Korean dishes for her. She was like, ‘Whoa, I’ve never had anything like this before. This will do really well in SLO.’”
Thus, Bap Jo was born.
Bap Jo opened its doors amid the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Unlike other businesses, Yoon believed it was an opportunity, rather than an obstacle. Suddenly, people were clamoring for takeout food. It was the push he needed to finally open a pop-up restaurant.
Once restrictions were lifted, Bap Jo transitioned from doing takeout to events. Yoon used to do pop-ups at local breweries, but had to stop. Figuring out where and when to sell had been a learning process and his availability was limited due to his day job at Cal Poly. However, Bap Jo does participate in San Luis Obispo’s downtown Thursday night Farmers’ Market.
“We only do Farmers’ because it’s such a massive event. It takes the whole week to prepare,” Yoon said. “We would love to do more than Farmers’, but we literally can’t even make enough food to last two hours.”
Recently, Bap Jo shifted its focus on more traditional Korean food over fried and fusion foods. A typical menu at the pop-up consists of bibimbap, which is a Korean fried rice bowl with a variety of toppings. Bap Jo offers New York steak bulgogi bowls for $16 and spicy pork bulgogi and Korean fried chicken bowls for $14 each.
When Yoon’s wife stepped back as she began teaching, Yoon found himself in a difficult situation.
“For a long time It was very hard because I didn’t intentionally come into this to do it by myself,” Yoon said.
Then, Yoon met another Korean-American, David Jang, who had his own pop-up restaurant in San Luis Obispo.
Jang is also a Cal Poly alumnus, graduating with a degree in graphic communication. His parents owned restaurants while he was growing up, but he now works as an art director at a design agency in San Luis Obispo. Towards the end of 2020, Jang opened his own burger pop-up called Hot Meat Society.
“I was doing a pop up for a little bit with my friends and I met Matt through that,” Jang said. “We were just food vendors at local breweries together. One day, I went to his booth and had his food, and we became friends. Then he was like, ‘Hey, you want to help out?’ It’s a very organic kind of process of how we got to know each other.”
Jang started helping out at Bap Jo in the beginning of 2022. He said his main role is to be Yoon’s right-hand man and aid with any necessary tasks.
“If [Matt] needs me to go get a bag of rice, if he needs me to slice me or cook or whatever. I’m really just here to support him in whatever he needs to be successful,” Jang said.
One of the main struggles of Bap Jo is finding supplies, according to Yoon. Some Korean dishes call for certain ingredients, like soybean sprouts, that cannot be found at local grocery stores.
“We’re trying to do a Korean restaurant in a place that has no Korean infrastructure,” Yoon said. “We [have to] rely a lot on sourcing from LA or San Jose, but only stuff that lasts long: soy sauce, gochujang — things that are shelf-stable.”
Another challenge that Bap Jo faces is meeting people’s expectations, Yoon said.
“People hear you do Korean food and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I love fill-in-the-blank,’ and they kind of expect you to fulfill that,” Yoon said. “But I’m just one guy with a pop-up that is open one day a week.”
According to Yoon, customers have asked him to open a restaurant, but he said the pandemic would make this difficult.
“We look around and [see] COVID has decimated businesses. People [have] shut their doors,” Yoon said.
Regardless, many look forward to trying whatever Bap Jo has to offer as a pop-up.
Animal science juniors Daisy Nunez and Natalie Gonzalez said they were both drawn to Bap Jo’s farmer’s market stand due to the appetizing smell and joined the long line.
On Thursday nights, Bap Jo’s queue can reach around 50 or more customers.
“I haven’t had Korean food before,” Nunez said. “But I’m excited.”
Another customer craved Korean food after having Korean BBQ the day before and had to try Bap Jo’s beef bibimbap, a Korean mixed rice bowl.
“The kimchi is spicy and I don’t like kimchi, but I actually really like this one because it’s spicy,” customer Fabian Mora said. “The beef is actually spicy, but it’s sweet at the same time, and the rice is good.”
According to Bap Jo’s website, “Bap Jo is an informal way to say, ‘Give me food,’ in Korean. It’s something Matt would say to his mom when he was hungry.”
Those interested can try Bap Jo’s food at the Downtown San Luis Obispo Farmers Market on Thursdays, from 6-9 p.m. or before they sell out.