Audio by Trevor Baumgardner
When Cal Poly alumnus Matt Yoon first moved to San Luis Obispo, 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 at Cal Poly.
It was around this time that he began learning how to cook since there weren’t any Korean restaurants in San Luis Obispo at the time.
“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 [kimchi recipes].”
Eventually, Yoon met his wife, Hope Yoon, who encouraged him to open a restaurant.
“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 amidst the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Unlike other businesses, Yoon believed it was an opportunity, rather than an obstacle, since takeout food became popular and it was the push he needed to finally open a restaurant.
Once restrictions were lifted, Bap Jo transitioned from doing takeout to events. Currently, the Thursday night farmers’ market is the only event that Bap Jo participates in.
“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.”
Yoon’s wife stepped back as she began teaching, but Yoon met another Korean-American, David Jang, who had his own pop-up restaurant in San Luis Obispo.
“Two Korean guys doing pop-ups in San Luis Obispo? I [had] to meet him,” Yoon said. “So, I reached out on Instagram. I think it was almost a year ago when I did that, and it kind of struck our friendship.”
Jang’s parents owned restaurants while he was growing up, but he became a designer at a local firm. However, he told Yoon that his 2022 resolution is to transition from designing to food.
“[David] really helps,” Yoon said. “He has all the flavors and the understanding of all the experiences I’ve had that my wife doesn’t.”
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.”
Regardless, many look forward to trying whatever Bap Jo has to offer.
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.
“I haven’t had Korean food before,” Nunez said. “But I’m excited.”
Another customer, California State University, Fullerton sociology junior Fabian Mora, 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,” Mora said. “The beef is actually spicy, but it’s sweet at the same time, and the rice is good.”
Mora said she believed the long wait was worth it and would definitely visit again.
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.”
Bap Jo’s food is available at the Downtown San Luis Obispo Farmers’ Market on Thursdays, from 6-9 pm or before they sell out.