James and Jenny Pyo are on a bun-filled, ramen slurping, sushi roll. Now with the opening their seventh restaurant, Harumama in Carlsbad, they are bringing their whimsical character buns (think pandas and Hello Kitty) to more hungry customers in North County.
The pair is well established in San Diego County and this newest venture is in addition to a Harumama location in Little Italy, along with restaurants Love Boat Sushi in San Marcos, Blue Ocean Robata & Sushi Bar in Carlsbad, and two Pokewan locations. But it’s the adorable specialty buns created by the power couple that have drawn Instagram fame in flavors including mushroom, purple sweet potato, chicken, pork, and few Carlsbad-specific treats.
Along with buns, the Carlsbad Harumama will feature ramen, bowls, and sushi, incorporating cuisine from Japanese, Chinese, and Korean cultures.
So what does Harumama mean? Despite many thinking it is Japanese, it is actually Korean, and Jenny noted, “ ‘Haru’ means ‘a day,’ and ‘Mama’ means ‘mom,’ so it actually translates to ‘Mom’s daily food,’ and we strive to make our dishes like how a mom cooks daily for her children.”
PACIFIC caught up with the busy couple to ask about their new venture, their character bun inspiration, and the proper way to eat a bun.
PACIFIC: Over the course of opening seven restaurants in San Diego County, what have you discovered about the taste buds of locals and what they like?
JENNY PYO: What I discovered from my experiences is that local people like fresh ingredients and dishes that are made daily with our effort in making them feel like they are at home.
Also, since the beginning and growth of social media, people like to share their experiences of anything, and of course their dining experiences. Even if they go to eat a hamburger, they like to take photos, and share their story on their social media platforms.
They love to share everything like the location and ambiance of the place, why and how they got there, the food quality, service, etc. Thus, Harumama became famous with our cute characterized buns, which were voted Most Instagrammable spot for San Diego Magazine back in August.
Customers love to come in with their family and friends, take a photo with our buns and share them on their social media, which gives them happiness and smile together. I think it’s very important to be happy and bond with family and friends while eating food together! And I’m happy that I can bring happiness to my customers!
What’s the inspiration for the fun character buns? Something personal to you?
JENNY PYO: As a restaurant owner, I like to travel to different areas and countries to taste the variety of foods, and about two years ago, I came across the buns while I was visiting Hong Kong. I thought it was cute, interesting, and fun! I got the idea from there but modified the characters and the fillings to fit people in America.
What’s the difference between the character steamed buns and Bao Bao buns?
JENNY PYO: To put them simply, bao bao buns are like mini tacos, and character buns are like dim-sum, closed buns with fillings inside; fillings are ground beef, pork, or chicken (where as the meats inside the bao buns are sliced meat or whole shrimp, chicken bites, etc) but just the face part is characterized as totoro, pig, panda, chicken, kitty, the flours are made with Hong Kong flours (sweeter than the bao buns).
What’s the proper way to eat a bun? With chopsticks or fingers?
JENNY PYO: With your hands, because it’s easier to grab them, think of it as a taco, would you eat a taco with chopsticks? :)
For someone who has never tried buns, what would you recommend starting with?
JENNY PYO: I would recommend starting with the bao bao buns, especially the one with pork belly, fried shrimp, or the kaarage (fried chicken bites). I’m sure very few people will feel awkward eating the bao bao buns because America is already filled with variety of foods from all different cultures, so they will feel comfortable eating the newbies at our restaurant.
You also offer a range of ramen, bowls, and sushi. Jenny and James, name your favorite dish on the menu at Harumama:
JENNY PYO: For ramen, it’s High noon, which is one of our spicy noodles because I like the spicy soup. For bowls, the Salmon Teriyaki Bowl
JAMES PYO: For ramen, it’s Me So Hot. For bowls, the Chicken Katsu Bowl.
What’s a few must try menu items a newbie to Harumama should get?
JENNY PYO: The Gyoza Haus, Shrimp Bao buns, and Flying Pig ramen.
JAMES PYO: The Kaarage, any of our character buns!, & Me So Hot ramen
What’s something you would like people to know?
JENNY PYO: Many people have complained that our buns are expensive, two for almost $8, which does not fill them up. I’ve explained many times that we do have certain staff that strategically make all the buns, including fillings, sauces, and garnishes by hand, and they are handmade daily, not frozen what-so-ever! We invest tremendous amounts of time, practice, and labor into the production of each Character Bun. Our philosophy and goal is to provide a happy dining experience, with a story to tell your friends and family. They are not easily pumped out of a machine, but they are hand-made one by one with love and care.
Carlsbad (opens Dec. 5): 2958 Madison St., 760.720.7874; Little Italy: 1901 Columbia St., 619.269.7122, harumamasd.com