Opening an independently-owned steakhouse in the middle of corporate America is “scary,” but Joon Yang has done scary before.
Scary was quitting a successful career in finance and consulting to wait tables. That was 13 years ago. With a degree from Georgetown University, the Washington, D.C., area native had been following a career track that included working with a prominent consulting firm before going on to employment at Freddie Mac.
“Some people can do it, but after so many years of just going in and sitting in my cube and working on Excel spreadsheets … God bless everybody that can do it, but I am definitely a people person,” Yang said of his former career. “I love to talk, I love to smile, I love to laugh. It was getting to me.”
From then on, Joon went full-time into bartending, waiting tables and advancing into leadership positions. He went on to open Epic Smokehouse in 2012 with business partner Wayne Halleran. The establishment is still open near the Pentagon and, Yang said, “running like a fine-tuned machine.” In June, he and Halleran jumped on an opportunity to launch a second eatery in Tysons Corner. Yang assumed the title of managing partner while Halleran is corporate chef.
Their venture, American Prime, seats 250 and features indoor and outdoor spaces, a speakeasy style cigar lounge and a menu full of top notch charcuterie, artfully designed side dishes and, of course, steaks and other meats.
“Steakhouses have always been in my blood as well as in Wayne’s blood,” Yang said, explaining American Prime is their dream come to fruition. “When we finally had the opportunity to actually do this, we went ahead and moved forward.”
Employing about 45, American Prime is, as Yang describes it, a little fish in a big pond. Surrounded by corporate chains, the eatery must not only offer quality food and service but must also establish a foothold in the community.
One of the establishment’s key features is a members-only cigar bar that affords its guests a host of perks.
“They get treated like kings and queens, essentially,” Yang said.
Members can order off-the-menu items at will as long as the ingredients are on hand. If the order is one or two items off, Yang will personally go to the grocery store, purchase the items and bring them back. If there are too many items to purchase that night, the member will be asked to come back for his or her dish the next day.
Beyond the lounge, American Prime has 3,000 square feet of outdoor patio seating around any of the five large firepits. There is also an indoor, horseshoe-shaped bar – and a 200-bottle wine list – a main dining room that can seat 80, and two smaller private dining rooms.
Executive Chef Jeff Surma uses local produce as much as possible and is in the process of developing a fall menu. As a steakhouse, American Prime has some defining features.
“Not only do we have prime steaks here, we dry age our steaks in house as well,” Yang said. “We cure our own meats. We make our own bacon in house. We do our own salami as well as terrines and pates.”
Yang, who is the last of four children, said he is passionate about his new-found career.
“As a kid, I always imagined myself being some grand lawyer or business executive,” Yang said. “I started to grow to love the food and beverages industry and the services industry.”
That love began as a student when he was a bartender and waiter during college. He continued in the industry as a side hustle even during his corporate years. When he finally left his job, he waited tables first at Morton’s Steakhouse, then eventually became a corporate trainer. He went on to jobs at Capital Grille, Ruth’s Chris Steak House and the Palm as he rose to management level positions.
Yang said everything at American Prime so far is going great. Right now, his time for hobbies is limited, but when he does have the opportunity, he likes to play golf and have fun with his children, ages 10 and 12.
“What I really like to do is go to movies,” he added. “I don’t go there to overanalyze the movies. It’s just pure entertainment value. When I go to the movies, I just sit there and watch and I get entertained. I get a thing of popcorn and a soda.”
With a Korean heritage himself, Yang said he enjoys the diversity of the D.C. area and loves meeting people from different cultures and backgrounds.
“It’s a place that I love and I don’t think I’ll ever leave,” Yang said. “I don’t know how you can’t love it.”
So, what does a chef eat when he gets to select his favorite meal?
For Yang, the pick is Budae Jigae – Korean for “army stew.” The one-pot dish includes Spam, sausage, onions, mushrooms, green onions, Kimchi, sliced rice cake, ramen noodles, baked beans and tofu.
“During the Korean War when food was scarce for Koreans, the natives would be able to get extra food from the military bases and they would make a stew out of it,” he said. “Today, it has become a favorite of many Koreans as a comfort food to enjoy with the entire family.”