When chef Elena Yamamoto moved to Tokyo in 2013, she lived in an apartment that was so spartan it didn’t even have a refrigerator.
But luckily, it was in a prime location: above a 7-Eleven store, which became her de facto fridge. She’d stop in for onigiri and coffee on her way to work or deep-fried spicy chicken cutlets, oden, and limited-edition Dorito flavors that you can’t find in the U.S. She fell in love with Japan’s culture of eating quickly — but well — at convenience stores.
Yamamoto, who later moved to New York City and ran Japanese restaurant Karasu, packed her things this fall and moved to San Francisco to work with chef Deuki Hong. Together, the two created a pop-up love letter to convenience store cuisine and an unapologetic celebration of their own Asian American identities: Sundays Snacks & Convenience, opening this Friday and Saturday in the back of Boba Guys on Fillmore Street.
Yamamoto, who’s half Japanese and half white, spent her childhood in New Jersey trying to figure out where she fit in the world. Hong was born in Korea and moved to the U.S. at a young age, growing up in Texas, Alabama, and New Jersey. He’s now the chef and founder of the Sunday Hospitality Group in San Francisco.
“There are so many versions of what it means to be Asian in America. It’s really foolish to say that every experience is the same,” Yamamoto says. “Being able to bring in different flavors from not just my life but from Deuki’s life, from other team members — I think that’s exciting to make a space where someone can see themselves and feel a part of something bigger, even if it’s not a perfect reflection of what they experienced.”
Take the Sundays chashu sandwich, Yamamoto’s take on a Jersey sub “remixed” with Japanese ingredients. It comes with thin slices of soy-braised chashu, banana peppers, shredded lettuce, and mayonnaise mixed with leftover braising liquid on housemade shokupan bread. Or the tomato-egg musubi, inspired by Yamamoto’s onigiri habit but reinterpreted through the lens of a classic Chinese flavor combination: tomatoes roasted with ginger, garlic, and shaoxing wine, wrapped in an egg crepe with rice.
“We’re not trying to be a Japanese convenience store. We’re not trying to be a Korean convenience store,” Hong says. “We’re Jersey kids but culturally we’re Korean, we’re Japanese. What does that look like?”
Ever since Hong traveled to Korea for the 2018 Winter Olympics, a question has nagged at him: Why doesn’t America have the same convenience store culture as Asia? For years, he would ask friends and people in the industry. No one had a good answer.
“Elena and I are trying to create the satisfactory answer,” he says. “At some point, [we said,] ‘Let’s stop talking about it. Let’s do something about it.’”
Sundays Snacks & Convenience is geared toward grab-and-go food, a perfect fit for pandemic eating. The chefs want to promote the mindset that quick, prepared food doesn’t have to be of inferior quality. The menu includes a chicken katsu sandwich with umeboshi mayo, a teriyaki mushroom sandwich with American cheese (Yamamoto’s homage to portobello mushroom burgers of the 1990s), popcorn chicken (a Taiwanese-Korean mashup of deep-fried chicken thighs with rice cakes tossed in spicy kimchi salt, from the menu at Hong’s temporarily closed Sunday Bird pop-up), spam musubi, oden and Japanese canned coffee. They spent the last several months obsessing over the shokupan bread recipe, going through dozens of iterations with Elaine Lau of Sunday Bakeshop. Down the line, they’ll add more shelf-stable snacks and other kinds of sandwiches and musubi.
Growing up in New Jersey, there was no Japanese grocery store, so Yamamoto’s family shopped at a Korean market.
“My family would use traditional Japanese ingredients but also cross the aisle and grab other things,” she says. “Sometimes I think assimilation is seen as this negative thing, but I see it as survival and a way to find moments of familiarity and comfort as best you can in an environment where you’re far away from home.
“I think that’s so exciting as a chef to use all these different ingredients in non-traditional ways, in new ways,” she added.
The pop-up’s launch coincides with a string of violence against Asians in the Bay Area, and debate in the restaurant industry over culinary and cultural authenticity. After Lazy Susan, a new takeout-only Chinese American restaurant, opened in Hayes Valley last month, Clarence Kwan, the Toronto-based author of Chinese Protest Recipes, took to Instagram to criticize the project. This prompted Lazy Susan chef Eric Ehler to share on Instagram his own story as a Korean adoptee whose sole connection to Asian culture growing up in rural Iowa was through local Chinese restaurants. (Kwan later apologized for misrepresenting Ehler’s identity.)
The Sundays team itself, with Filipino, Chinese, Korean, and Malaysian employees, represents a multitude of East Asian and Southeast Asian American identities. The pop-up is “inspired by our favorite Asian convenience stores, but not bound by any one culture,” the website reads.
Yamamoto understands the need to draw a static line around people’s identities — she experienced it herself growing up half Japanese — but, with Hong, she hopes to spur a more nuanced conversation around what it means to be Asian in America today.
“There’s a clear distinction between authenticity and what’s genuine. For us, we’re shooting for the latter,” Hong says. “We didn’t grow up in Asia. We grew up in America. We want to own that 100 percent.”
Sundays Snacks & Convenience will continue to pop up on Fridays and Saturdays at Boba Guys. The chefs aren’t sure whether it will evolve into a brick-and-mortar operation, so, they are embracing the idea of Sundays as an ephemeral experiment. Regardless of its future, they hope the pop-up helps convenience store culture take hold in the Bay Area — so that way when people are bored of their fridges, they’ll turn to snack stores when they’re hungry.
Sundays Snacks & Convenience is open at 1522 Fillmore St. for pickup only from 11 a.m. until it’s sold out. hellosundays.com
Elena Kadvany is a contributing writer for SF Weekly. Twitter @ekadvany