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The sandwiches from Ok’s Deli, an East Bay-based pop-up from chef Albert Ok, have amassed a growing fanbase during the pandemic. While some describe Ok’s creations as Asian-inspired and Asian fusion, Ok prefers that people think of them simply as Asian American.
For Ok, labelling his fare Asian American gives him leeway to dabble in all sorts of culinary directions. In February 2020, when I first spoke to the chef about the pop-up, then called Ok’s Sandwich Shop, he used the wordy, somewhat vague description “culturally inspired chef-driven sandwiches” to avoid being pigeonholed as to what he could cook.
Whatever you call them, the chef’s sandwiches are a reflection of his personal experience, and not strictly his ethnic heritage. Ok is Korean American and currently lives in Alameda, but he was born in Oakland and grew up in Richmond. As a kid, his father traveled a lot for work, and his mother spent long hours working at a bank, so Ok said that rather than home-cooked meals with the family, he often had to make do on his own when it came to eating — “I was raised on Costco,” Ok said.
Despite this, Ok always had an interest in food. While studying studio art as an undergrad at UC Irvine, he worked at a sushi restaurant, starting as a dishwasher, host and server, but eventually training with the sushi chef. During his last year of school, Ok found himself at a crossroads; he had to decide between continuing in art education or going fully into the culinary field. He chose to move back to the Bay Area and take culinary courses at CCSF, but dropped out after two semesters, deciding that getting more hands-on experience cooking in restaurants made more sense than paying to learn how to do it. “Money was always an issue,” he acknowledged.
That decision ended up working out. For the past 13 years, Ok worked in the kitchens of some of the Bay Area’s most lauded fine-dining restaurants, including Iyasare and Corso in Berkeley, Aina and Namu Gaji in San Francisco, Maum in Palo Alto and Mago in Oakland, where he was working as a line cook until halfway into the pandemic. But a few months before COVID-19 hit, Ok was also operating his pop-up, selling sandwiches at breweries, what he thought of as a stepping stone to get him to his original goal — a brick-and-mortar sandwich shop.
The chef’s concept was to provide “really well-executed food at a lower cost.” And by making sandwiches, priced at $14-$19, Ok felt he was “providing food everyone can try.”
Ok’s sandwiches are noteworthy because he makes nearly every component from scratch — the sauces, the proteins and, often, the breads. One of his original menu items is the Spam Mi, his rendition of a Vietnamese-style banh mi, but stuffed with thick slices of his housemade pork loaf. Ok said — like most Asian and Asian Americans — he’s always loved Spam. He makes his version with pork, pork fat, ham, garlic, ginger, sugar and salt, and given that it’s not preserved in a can, the resulting product has a fresher, more sausage-like texture than its gelatinous, Hormel-made kin.
While he was gaining traction with some customers at the brewery events, Ok found that these types of pop-ups weren’t quite the right fit because sales were sporadic, as most of the people weren’t necessarily there to try his food — their primary interest was drinking. It wasn’t until the pandemic started that Ok’s Deli found its footing.
“A new pop-up culture happened during quarantine,” Ok said, explaining that when restaurants closed due to the shelter-in-place orders, not only did more pop-ups emerge, but diners became accustomed to seeking them out and taking the extra steps to try their offerings — including pre-ordering food online and scheduling pickup during a specified time.
Earlier this year, Ok’s Deli operated out of Berkeley’s Fish & Bird Sousaku Izakaya for a few weeks, but in February it moved to Mago, where the pop-up is still currently stationed two days a week, on Fridays and Saturdays. Ok currently has a team of two or three helping him with the pop-up: Kelvin Choy, who he met at Namu Gaji; Hoang Le, formerly of Broke Ass Cooks; and sometimes Ok’s girlfriend, Karis Kochi, who works at Mago.
The week’s menu goes online at noon on Mondays, and usually offers two to three sandwiches and a small number of other items, like a side dish, hot sauce, special drink or dessert. Ok likes to experiment, trying out new ideas on a whim and the frequency of changing sandwiches on past menus reflects his creative spirit, but the chef says he plans to slow down the rotation. Not only does he want to give new customers a chance to get to know his best offerings, he wants to quell his own perfectionist tendencies, too.
“I have a lot of anxiety when I put a new menu on,” Ok said. “I want to be 100% confident … to make sure it’s solid.”
So far, customers seem to be satisfied with whatever Ok offers, whether it’s the Sichuan Hot Chicken (Ok’s current favorite sandwich, made with Taiwanese-style fried chicken coated in Sichuan spices, smashed cucumbers, iceberg lettuce, cilantro and honey mustard on a sesame bun), the Black Tiger Ebi Katsu (a thick, panko-fried patty with big chunks of Black Tiger shrimp, shaved cabbage and tartar sauce on a Hawaiian bun) or the Wagyu Roast Beef (slow-roasted wagyu with provolone, shaved iceberg, red onions and crispy onion, housemade pickles, and caramelized onion dijonaise on pillowy sliced milk bread).
Even though he’ll steady the roll of his sandwich rotation, Ok will continue to change his hot sauces regularly. He makes a big batch, which he numbers (right now he’s on sauce #10 — a orange-hued mustard, habanero and banana pepper-based concoction) and sells till he runs out. The condiment can be added on for $2 for a 2-oz bottle. Ok says he still has about 10-15 more hot sauce recipes he’d like to make in the coming days.
Ok’s Deli has recently taken off in popularity — sandwiches can sell out mere hours after the menu goes live on Mondays. Ok considers himself “old school” and personally doesn’t care for social media, but he recognizes that Instagram plays a large role in marketing his business. (Ok’s Deli’s Instagram account is run by Le, who Ok calls “a people person”). What Ok says he doesn’t like about the hype-machine that is the internet is that it can “dumb down” food and underrepresent the craft behind it. “Sometimes people forget how much work goes into cooking,” he said.
With pandemic restrictions starting to lift and dining rooms reopening, Ok knows his days sharing space at Mago may be numbered. He’s still looking for a brick-and-mortar location, hopefully in Oakland, where he thinks his concept fits the city’s diverse demographic best. He intends that the restaurant-to-come will be a counter-service, fast-casual operation, but with a big, airy, open kitchen, like the one at Mago.
And while he hopes to one day — “lots of years out” — open an upscale restaurant, for now, Ok plans to stick to sandwiches.
“I just like sandwiches,” he explained. “Everyone likes them, they have universal appeal.”
Ok’s Deli starts taking orders online at noon on Mondays for pickup from 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at Mago, 3762 Piedmont Ave. (at West MacArthur Boulevard), Oakland