The Dragon Lady Lounge reminds me of Hot Topic in dining form, adorned with punk-emo furnishings and modern Asian decor. Self-described as a “Vegan-Vegetarian-Korean Latin Fuse,” the restaurant (unsurprisingly) caters to a distinctive audience, but tattoos and a vegan lifestyle shouldn’t deter you from dining here.
Owner Robert Castillo took ownership of the lounge from his aunt Sue nearly three years ago. Although their menu is largely Korean-inspired, Castillo has incorporated Latino flair into his entrees and appetizers. “Latino and Korean flavors go great together,” he explains, “I have been in training—cooking Korean Vegan dishes—for the past 4 years. I am now the head chef at the Dragon Lady Lounge. Sue will come by occasionally to say hello, check up on things and to greet patrons, so she very much stays involved.” Rob calls his cuisine KorLatino (Korean Latino), and while the Lounge isn’t completely vegan, he admits, “We do love our veggies.”
I attend their Thursday vegan buffet, a monthly affair quite popular among its devoted patrons. When I arrive, the restaurant’s already packed with eager diners, nursing their beers and cocktails while hungrily eyeing the empty buffet table. But we didn’t wait long before the food arrives in splendid fashion: pickled and spiced daikon, cauliflower, cucumber, mung beans, sweet potatoes, and watercress for the cold dishes. For the warm entrees—tofu, green beans, grilled bell peppers, potatoes, eggplant, and fried dumplings. Kimchi hummus, slow-stewed vegetable soup, and sweet-battered pineapples finished the assortment. My favorite dishes included all the spiced kimchi vegetables, which tasted exactly like the banchan I purchase in bulk at H-Mart. The liberal use of garlic, sesame, and spice suited my adventurous palate wonderfully, and I was pleasantly surprised by the authenticity of the flavors (though I really shouldn’t have).
It’s a wait-in-line policy, so I chat with Rob while diners scramble into queue. A design engineer by trade, Rob’s a clean-shaven, amicable man with an enormously relaxed presence. He tells me the lounge is truly a family business—he lives upstairs, and the bartender, cook, and wait staff are all personal friends. They host a variety of community events, including learning sessions, concerts for local bands, and drag shows. Though the Dragon Lady Lounge is mostly a neighborhood joint serving the vegan and/or health conscious community, Rob tries to appeal to other clientele as well.
But business fluctuates, and Rob admits the restaurant industry is a fickle trade. He lacks the budget for marketing or advertisement, so all new restaurant traffic stems social media or word of mouth. Nonetheless Rob says, “On this journey, we have made so many friends who love the Lounge, and who have continuously been by our side through the ups and downs.”
And loyal his diners are. As I chat with a few of the guests, I realize that food doesn’t fully explain their enormous devotion. They rave about the sense of community, the friendly and nonjudgmental environment. Rob tells me that he once admonished a diner for bashing against meat-eaters. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re vegan or not, we accept everyone here,” he says. Typically, I’d brush off such comments as an elementary gesture of tolerance and diversity, but I refrained. Here I was—business professional, avid meat-lover—actually getting along dandy with tattooed teens, older LGBT folks, Mexican chefs, Asianphiles, PETA-supporters. And I felt accepted.