When Angel Barreto was first setting up the accounts with suppliers for Anju, the restaurant he helms in Washington, D.C., a salesperson didn’t believe that he was serious when he ordered 150 pounds of salted shrimp. Even though the store had the ingredient in stock, the salesperson said he didn’t think that Barreto actually “needed it.” It’s not the first time (nor will it be the last) that someone was surprised that Barreto, who is half Puerto Rican and half Black, with a grin that stretches ear to ear, runs one of D.C.’s most popular Korean restaurants. “There’s very few [chefs] who look like me that cook Asian food, especially Korean food,” he says, with more empathy than frustration in his voice.
Korean flavors were a part of Barreto’s childhood. Both of his parents lived in Korea while serving in the military; his mother, a formidable cook, fell in love with the country and would try her hand at re-creating Korean dishes at home. “She loved the flavors, the dynamism of the people,” he explains. “She loved everything.” As a young cook, Barreto also found himself drawn to the cuisine, often hanging out in Korean barbecue spots until 3 or 4 a.m. “I love the freshness, the crunchiness, the funkiness of it,” he explains. Barreto actively bristles at the stereotypes and stigmas that are placed upon people who are of certain cultural backgrounds and at the idea that it’s strange for him to be cooking Korean food. “Your diaspora does not dictate what you can do in life.”
If someone had any lingering doubt about Barreto’s grasp on Korean cuisine, it would melt away the instant that food arrived at the table at Anju. Thick, hefty wang mandu—the Hulk of the Korean dumpling pantheon—are served in sets of three, bursting at the seams with a clever filling of Impossible meat thickened with leftover fried rice, handfuls of ginger, soy, and scallion, which marinates for a full day before being stuffed into dumpling wrappers. The dumplings are crisped, set into a pool of sweet soy sauce, and then scattered with a confetti of chili crunch made with fried garlic, perilla seeds, and black pepper. The result is a complex, thoughtful, and flavorful deployment of Barreto’s expertise. (Though Barreto would argue he is no expert: “I am a student of Korean food first and foremost.”)
His mastery is especially evident when the fried chicken arrives at the table. There has been no dearth of excellent Korean fried chicken around the country in recent years, but Barreto’s is somehow both crispier and lighter than the rest. He brines the meat with Korean long peppers, garlic, onions, salt, and sugar and dredges it twice: once in all-purpose flour, the second time in a mixture of starches (roasted soybean powder, potato starch, and cornstarch), which creates the shatteringly crisp skin. The chicken is also fried twice and then tossed in a sticky-sweet and spicy gochujang glaze and drizzled with an unexpected ingredient: white barbecue sauce by way of Alabama. “It cuts through the sweetness and spiciness of gochujang-based sauce,” explains Barreto. “It adds a layer of richness.”
Before he started making fried chicken, Barreto had a strong interest in politics and was convinced that he was going to end up as a lobbyist one day. He had been accepted to George Mason University and planned to study international relations, but he found he hated it in practice during an externship. Barreto learned a friend was attending culinary school at Johnson & Wales, and he decided to enroll in cooking school at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Maryland, closer to his home in Washington, D.C. “I was immediately more happy cooking food and learning about food,” Barreto recalls. “I brought my camera and took pictures of everything. I was probably the most annoying person in class.” Though he studied French food, he found himself gravitating toward Asian flavors and eventually landed a spot at The Source, Wolfgang Puck’s now-shuttered pan-Asian behemoth, where he spent nearly six years and worked his way up to executive sous chef.
It was during this time, through chef Scott Drewno, that he met chef Danny Lee, who approached him to run the new restaurant he was opening. Anju, which means “drinking food,” is intended to educate and inform diners about Korean cuisine, showing them what the food can be beyond Korean barbecue. The food is modern—honey-lacquered sweet potatoes are served with a mound of fluffy sesame whipped cream straight from an iSi canister; a tender, salty kimchi potato pancake is paired with plenty of crème fraîche—but always rooted in tradition. “For us, it always had to be related to something tangible based in Korean food and society,” Barreto explains. When it comes to Korean food, Barreto is always studying the old as well as the new, bringing back older techniques and recipes, like a snappy and gently bitter banchan made from bellflower root, to the menu.
He is also a practicing Buddhist, which deeply informs his approach to leadership in the kitchen. “One of the things with Buddhism that’s kind of healthy to learn is slowing down sometimes,” Barreto explains. For him these days, that means taking time for “radical self-care” and making his mind and body a priority. He is hopeful about the future of the restaurant industry, if leaders are honest with themselves and embrace change. “We always say we’re in the hospitality industry,” he says. “But sometimes that hospitality doesn’t extend to our workers. I wish truly going forward that we extend it—not only just to our guests, but also to our staff members.”
Photos by Alex Lau