Photo courtesy of Kendal & Anthony DeLaura

Who knows Monterey best? Locals do. We asked locals what they love most about Monterey County. Whether you are a resident looking for new spots or a visitor looking for some local gems, meet our Monterey locals and hear their recommendations of the best things to do. Every month we will share favorite local spots to eat, shop, drink and explore outdoors in our series, Inside Monterey.

Explore an unknown side of Monterey County and get the inside scoop from the people who live here to start adding these local favorites to your next itinerary.

This month, we celebrate AAPI Heritage Month by honoring and supporting AAPI-owned businesses. One standout in our community is Ashley Wolff, the proud owner of Jeju Kitchen. She is also our featured May Inside Monterey local, recognized for her innovative approach to Korean cuisine, her dedication to using locally-sourced ingredients, and her commitment to fostering community through her restaurant.

Meet Ashley Wolff

Ashley Wolff was born in Seoul, South Korea. As a child of a military family, she moved to Monterey County shortly after birth due to the active military base in the area at the time. Following her parents' separation, Ashley's father, originally from Queens, New York, moved back to Queens. Consequently, Ashley spent school breaks and holidays in Queens in an area known as "Little Colombia." Ashley is of mixed heritage, half Colombian and half Korean, with a small percentage of German and Italian ancestry.

Since age one, Ashely has lived in Monterey County in various locations, including Marina, Seaside, Pacific Grove, and Carmel Valley. Ashley's mother worked incredibly hard to ensure she could attend the Carmel School District. Growing up in a predominantly Caucasian area, Ashley often faced curious looks when bringing traditional Korean lunches such as kimchi, spam, and rice to school. Learn more about Ashley below.

What Inspired Jeju Kitchen

Jeju Kitchen Korean Restaurant Carmel-by-the-Sea

My mother sold her third restaurant, Pangaea Grill, here in Carmel just a few years ago. Before that, she owned the coffee shop in the Carmel Plaza and then a steakhouse at The Crossroads when I was little. In the last two restaurants, she was the first to introduce locals to Korean/Asian fusion food. When we were making the menu for Pangaea Grill, she put 'Kimchi Jiggae' on the breakfast menu. I told her, 'Mom, no one will eat kimchi soup for breakfast like Koreans.' Her response was, 'You just watch.' And she was right! Pangaea took off and, in its first three years, won 'Best New Restaurant in Carmel' and 'Best Korean Restaurant.' Pangaea only had six Korean dishes on the menu.

Starting Jeju Kitchen, I knew I wanted to dive deeper. The menu is fun, combining family recipes, traditional dishes, and fusion items. It's rewarding to experience people gravitating toward our food. And indeed, nothing fancy; this is how we cooked at home growing up. Every dinner, whether it was steak, lasagna, or Thanksgiving dinner, there was always kimchi soup on the stove and rice in the rice cooker. People always ask me, 'Is this how you ate growing up?! You're so lucky!' my response is always, 'I'm not skinny for no reason!'

Favorite Dishes on the Jeju Kitchen Menu

Kimchi Pancake is a must-try. It's a fun traditional dish that I grew up with. It's simple and addicting! Gangnam Tots is another great appetizer; it's an Asian spin on 'animal-style fries.' The Spicy Bulgogi Chicken is a big favorite among my friends. Everyone asks me to make this or share the recipe whenever we have BBQs. No recipe sharing, but now it's on the menu!

This is an image of the jjajangmyeon noodles at Jeju Kitchen in Carmel-by-the-Sea

Photo courtesy of Joshua Rose

Oh, and Jajangmyeon Noodles! It's an old traditional noodle dish with lots of history. Chunjang (black bean sauce) tossed with veggies and noodles. It's what Korean kids eat, similar to how Americans eat Mac n Cheese or Alfredo. It's a Chinese dish that became a part of Korean culture after WWII. During the depression in Korea after the war, noodles were the cheapest way to fill your tummy. At one point, Jajangmyeon was more affordable than buying a beer in Korea.

I'm also excited about two new recipes I've been working on: the Kimchi Mac n Cheese and Creamy Miso Cacio Pepe. The first bite of both makes you feel good. Then there's the Salmon Rice Bowl, featured in the New York Times, and the Jeju Garden Salad. I love adding lots of color and veggies to a plate. It's a great way to eat healthy and enjoy delicious food.

Challenges in Establishing Jeju Kitchen

We just reopened in time for Mother’s Day after being closed for 3 weeks due to a conductive heat fire. Earlier in February, I was closed for three days due to a power outage and had to throw away a lot of food. Dealing with insurance and getting the necessary permits has been a learning experience, but it was valuable. If any business ever goes through a fire, feel free to reach out to me because I can walk you through the process of reopening.

Upcoming Innovations for Jeju Kitchen

As we transition from 'Carmel Burger Bar' to Jeju Kitchen, I'm excited to share some updates with you. The official name change is almost complete, and we're in the process of finalizing a few new menu items. Stay tuned for these exciting changes, and don't miss out on our upcoming pop-up events with friends and colleagues.

Favorite Hidden Gems

Culturas Hidalgo & Oaxaca Restaurant

El Milagro in Seaside, Culturas Hidalgo y Oaxaca in Salinas, Pezzini Farms (specifically their food truck parked in Castroville), Lucky Pho in Marina (definitely pay the extra for the homemade noodles), and COAST Gallery & Cafe in Big Sur

Favorite Thing About Living in Monterey County

people picking out fruits and vegetables at the del monte farmers market

The salad bowl of the world truly inspires so many chefs here. Mainly, a handful of private and Michelin background chefs emerged through COVID-19 and raised the bar. What's even cooler is that they are YOUNG! I love going to the Del Monte Shopping Center Farmers Market on Friday mornings. It's the best produce market, and you'll see all the chefs there stocking up first thing in the morning! That truly is farm-to-table, and working alongside these guys and watching their creations is inspiring and pushes me to want to do more.

Favorite Outdoor Activities & Scenic Locations in Monterey County

High Peaks Trail at Pinnacles National Park

I've been hiking since I was very young. By the age of 10, I had already hiked The Pinnacles and Cone Peak. One place I always recommend to visitors is Palo Corona Regional Park. It used to be a golf course but was bought by the county and turned into a public land. It's a beautiful hike with several trail options, ranging from short to long. The hike is known for its Inspiration Point, which offers an epic view of Carmel Bay and takes about 30-45 minutes to reach. If you're up for a challenge, you can get a permit online and hike up to 11 miles one way.

I also love the Soberanes Trail. It's a tough hike but the view from the top is definitely worth it. For a full-day adventure, Boronda Trail, also known as Tanbark, in Big Sur is great. The wildflowers in spring are stunning but be sure to take an allergy pill. It's quite challenging with a steep incline right from the start, no resting spots, and lots of sun, so bring plenty of water! After the hike, treat yourself to sourdough flatbreads and soft serve ice cream at COAST Gallery & Cafe in Big Sur.

Favorite Local Restaurants in Monterey County

Other Brother Beer Co. Seaside

I love hitting up Other Brother Beer Co. in Seaside; Josie always serves fun food in the snack shack. I’ve bought 30 of her homemade mozzarella sticks to keep stocked at home. I love Cultura Comida in Carmel for their carnitas tacos, specialized tequila, and mezcal bar. They have new seasonal specialty cocktails and crickets on the menu. Whether you need alcohol or caffeine, the bar at Chez Noir is a thing, and Ashley Havens will serve you the best cappuccino or Espresso Martini.

Favorite AAPI-Owned Local Restaurants in Monterey County

One of the AAPI-owned restaurants that stands out for me is Korea House in Seaside. It's not just the food, but the unique experiences that make it special. For instance, my mom used to work there when I was a baby. When she couldn't afford a babysitter, the cook would strap me to her back in a baby sling and cook while holding me. This place has a rich history, with Korean tour buses cruising through and singing karaoke during lunch. New Korean in Marina is also great. They've also gone through a few ownership changes over the years, and you might have to wait on the waitlist or the service, but their food hits well.

Favorite Way to Spend A Weekend Off in Monterey County

This is an image of two glasses of sparkling wine from Caraccioli Cellars in Carmel-by-the-Sea

Photo courtesy of  Leigh-Ann Beverley

My day usually starts with an early morning hike, followed by a visit to Caraccioli Cellars for a glass of bubbles, which usually turns into two. I always recommend Caraccioli to guests who are looking for high-quality wine. They have won the award for best sparkling wine in the US four years in a row, but their Syrah is also worth trying; there's something about the way a cold climate Syrah hits the pallet, yum!

One event I always look forward to is the Big Sur Food & Wine festival. I was the PR & Social Media Director for the event and helped with the culinary talent lineup for the last three years until recently. This event is unlike any other food and wine festival, with amazing locations, a great lineup of chefs, and the best wineries. It sells out quickly, so I recommend joining their mailing list for early access to tickets when they go on sale in mid-summer!