Koreatown’s suddenly famous beer joint is shaking up L.A.’s culinary scene. Oh, and the fries are awesome.
It’s 9:30 on Sunday morning, and Jimmy Han quickly sweeps the black concrete floors, stopping only to wipe away beads of sweat: Last night was Beer Belly’s biggest night ever, and he has a pretty good guess at what drew the crowd. “Yesterday was National French Fry Day,” he smiles. Not exactly a bank holiday, but still, famed Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold included Beer Belly’s Death by Duck Fries on a list of five L.A. dishes for the occasion. Even in the quiet, sunny morning, it’s easy to imagine this casually cool wood- and metal-clad space—a converted tire shop—buzzing with fry-crazed foodies, mmm-ing over metal pails of crisp strings, topped with crispy duck-skin cracklins and smothered in duck confit, before sliding them through a thick berry condiment, a sweet counterpart to savory perfection.
The man behind the fries, Chef Wes Lieberher, saunters in, double-fisting Powerade and water; he greets Han and heads to the kitchen. He’s tired, too. For both, the banner night was the sum of a two-year whirlwind that’s landed Beer Belly atop restaurant lists, earned critics’ favor and even captured national airtime on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.”
Beer Belly’s skyrocket was entirely unexpected; Han says its popularity was the biggest surprise he encountered opening his first restaurant. It’s the sort of statement that might bristle veteran restaurateurs; after all, Beer Belly was his first brush with the food world.
A Koreatown native and a real estate guy with a thing for craft beer, Han wanted to turn his hobby (cracking open bottles and drinking along with online reviews, eventually collecting hard-to-find vintages and joining The Bruery’s rare-beer Reserve Society) into a new path. His vision was just a small mom-and-pop beer bar in his otherwise brew-vacant neighborhood—a family business with his wife that would support them and his infant daughter. Above all, it had to be affordable, not only to suit the area, but to be as recession-proof as possible. “The Korean culture is very ‘work hard, play hard,’ so there are a lot of places open late at night, a lot of karaoke bars, a lot of clubs. People in Koreatown love to eat and drink, so there’s a nice mini-economy of nightlife.”
He’d find a new after-hours niche with the beer angle, and, determined to be “hyper-local,” turn his taps over to Los Angeles breweries. “Two years ago, I wasn’t sure I could fill up 12 taps with local brews,” he says. But while Beer Belly took flight, so did beer in Los Angeles. “Now there are so many breweries, I basically have everyone on a two-week rotation.” SoCal taps from Eagle Rock, Haven and Smog City are regulars, and the cellar list holds gems like a 2006 Pike Old Bawdy Barleywine.
A foodie in his own right, Han met Lieberher at an L.A. sausage company (“Jimmy was my best customer,” Lieberher remembers). Han invited him to see Beer Belly, and when the young chef dropped by a week before the opening, he found Han in the kitchen rolling meatballs. “He said, ‘My chef didn’t show up.’ I told him I would help make him a menu, and he could see if he liked it.”
Lieberher’s classically trained in a hard-knocks sort of way: He learned the ropes in the humming kitchen of a family Italian restaurant in Philadelphia, later landing a sous chef (then executive chef) position plating upscale French cuisine for the white tablecloth set. There, he honed his skill with duck, now a Beer Belly motif from those duck-topped fries to the melty Duck French Dip. He also learned to cook with wine, a precursor to deftly splashing beer in his dishes. The sausage shop brought him to L.A., but it’s Beer Belly that’s keeping him here: “I’ve accepted that here I’ve found my niche in food,” Lieberher says.
That niche is a divine brand of beer-friendly comfort cuisine, and in a city known for “skinny,” Lieberher embraces the literal beer belly with fly-in-the-face-of-fitness indulgences. After all, who could resist a four-layered grilled cheese sandwich, warm Cheddar, Asiago, Gruyere and goat cheese oozing over crisp, smoky bacon; the lightly toasted, buttery bread still crisp against a thick drizzle of maple syrup? The oft-overrated gourmand mac and cheese is also a revelation here: Skillet-served and shareworthy, each heavy forkful of Fontina, Provolone and gooey basil beer whiz gets a crisp lift from bacon breadcrumb sprinkles and a sweet honey swirl. Lieberher is masterful with beer as an ingredient, from simple statements like a witbier-battered fish to expressive octopus in a brew-infused twist on a Bordelaise sauce. His falls-off-the-bone short rib soaks in Eagle Rock Solidarity for hours; the black English mild stands as the neutral background to deep-hued, tender slow-cooked meat; spicy chipotle snaps it into the moment. “It’s fascinating how much you can do with beer,” he says. “It’s probably the coolest ingredient I’ve ever come across.”
In spring, the restaurant’s beer got a few cool ingredients of its own. Patrick Rue, founder of Orange County’s The Bruery collaborated with Han on an anniversary beer, FUBRue (For Us, by Rue). The two scouted neighborhood Korean markets for inspiration, eventually landing on black sesame seeds, jujubes and azuki red beans; Rue brewed the beer and blended it with his own Oude Tart, a sour Flanders red ale. Han calls it a Korean-American brew, noting the fruity notes from the red beans and touch of toast from the sesame seeds easily married the sour. It’s just another success that’ll keep the world buzzing about Beer Belly. •