The One-of-a-Kind Rise–and Rise–of Roy Choi

L.A.’s most ambitious chef remakes A-Frame and aims to change fast food with Loco’l
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Saying that Roy Choi can’t stop, won’t stop is an understatement along the lines of saying that some people find Kanye West disruptive.

On a Saturday morning in May, I found Choi at A-Frame getting ready to deal with the crush of customers coming in for the restaurant’s first day of all-you-can-eat pancakes. The night before, he had been up late slinging Cuban sandwiches at his El Jefe pop-up collaboration with Jon Favreau at the Grove. He would go back to his mobbed pop-up that night and the next night and the next night.

“That’s why they call me the gardener,” Choi said that Saturday, smiling, a man happily living in the weeds.

That was about six months after I saw Choi at A-Frame, standing at the pass to make sure food was coming out quickly enough at his own book party. It was more than two years since I saw Choi at the Pebble Beach Food & Wine Festival, the week he got on Twitter and managed to follow everyone who followed him that weekend, tweet nonstop, chase other chefs for photos, and marvel at the results while doing bumps of caviar at parties and, oh yes, cooking at multiple events.

So is it at all surprising that yesterday, on the day that Favreau announced he would back Choi and Daniel Patterson’s socially minded Loco’l fast-food venture, I found Choi at 5:30 p.m. at A-Frame, where he had unveiled a new Hawaiian menu last Friday.

Choi thinks deeply about everything he does, even when he’s asleep. He once told me that Sunny Spot, his Caribbean restaurant, came to him “in a dream.” Loco’l is one of his forums for addressing food-supply issues and income equality. He wants to open in Watts and feed people for 99 cents while supporting a higher minimum wage. He still thinks of Kogi and Chego as the soul of what he does, and Koreatown, where he has Pot and Commissary, is always a source of inspiration. He told me that changing A-Frame was a “really emotional” decision.

Choi and new A-Frame chef Johnny Yoo, who had a stint cooking in Hawaii, aren’t fools. They know that their Culver City spot isn’t far from Rutt’s, a no-frills restaurant and catering service known for its cheap, authentic Hawaiian food. But Rutt’s and A-Frame are extremely different animals, even though they’re both neighborhood restaurants inspired by the islands.

Saying you don’t need one because you have the other is like saying Shake Shack shouldn’t exist in a world that already has In-N-Out Burger. It’s just silly.

It’s much better to live in a world where you have both the platonic ideal of a food and the dressed-up, strong-willed hottie version you think about getting messy with. A-Frame makes its own green and red sriracha. It serves a loco moco with curry gravy and pickled pearl onions that both contribute to sweet and sour elements you don’t expect. Ask for some of the red sriracha if you want heat, too. There’s a pork belly lechon ssam that includes island chimichurri sauce and green sriracha that enhance your DIY lettuce wrap with herbs and the crunch of both crispy pork skin and cucumbers.

This is food that’s fun to eat. Like everything that Choi makes, it tastes like L.A.

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