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Follow the wafting aromas of Japanese curry to the back of Shopkeepers—a minimalist boutique run by fashionista Seda Nak.Push past the shelves of magazines, hanging garments, and glass cases holding high-end stationary to find a four-seat counter where Chef Hiro Mitsui is frying up pork belly at Conbini Café by UZU.
Mitsui came to D.C. to play semi-pro basketball for the Washington Madness five years ago. Though Korean, Mitsui grew up in Nagoya, Japan and started playing basketball in junior high school.
After settling into D.C. and calling it quits on the court, he fell into cooking and started working under Chef Erik Bruner-Yang (who is also Nak’s husband) at Toki Underground, and later at Maketto and Paperhorse Ramen. But something was missing. “D.C. has sushi, it has ramen, but I miss Japanese comfort food.”
Enter Conbini Café’s simple menu: Japanese-style curry and rice topped with either vegetables or pork belly on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and okonomiyaki Fridays through Sundays. Okonomiyaki is a type of Japanese street food (most popular in Osaka and Hiroshima) consisting of a savory pancake that comes artfully topped with a swirl of sauces. Coffee and tea are also served.
Soon Conbini Café will proffer grab-and-go snacks like onigiri (rice balls) and pork katsu sandwiches—much like you’d find in a 7-11 in Japan. “Conbini” is what the Japanese call convenience stores, but unlike in the U.S., even the most discerning food snob can make a meal from what’s on the shelves.
“At conbini in Japan you can go relaxed, you don’t need to worry about make-up or changing clothes,” Mitsui says. “You can wake up and go straight there for a milk tea and onigiri.”
Right now a refrigerator at Conbini Café is stocked with mochi, a Japanese soft drink called Ramune, udon noodles, and other items for purchase, but expect more in the following months as both Shopkeepers and the café are in soft-open mode.
As for the second half of Conbini Café’s name, “by UZU,” the three-letter word refers to a partnership between Mitsui and another chef, Takashi Nakajima. They worked together at Honeycomb in Union Market, which is owned by Bruner-Yang. Mitsui made okonomiyaki on Sundays and Nakajima still cooks ramen there full time. According to Bruner-Yang, UZU’s mission is to “share the journey of self discovery in a foreign land.”
“We’re all in the EBY [Erik Bruner-Yang] family,” Nak says. Her store, which she calls a showroom, is a mix of home goods, clothing, stationary, books, magazines, and more all meticulously laid out. The idea is to shop a little and then grab a quick, comforting meal in a relaxed atmosphere.
This is not Nak’s first retail project. She most recently sold home goods at Akae above Sally’s Middle Name with the restaurant’s co-owner Aphra Adkins.
The building that holds Shopkeepers is in the hands of long-time D.C. developer Indrit Bregasi of SQB Development. It went through a complete renovation after serving as a long-time corner store.
Conbini Café and Shopkeepers are open Wednesday-Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Shopkeepers/Conbini Cafe, 1231 Florida Ave. NE, shopkeepersgallery.com