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Roy Choi, the guy behind the Kogi truck fleet, expands his repertoire but stays true to his vision
I’m not sure how long I could sustain the argument, but Roy Choi may be the most noteworthy chef in Los Angeles. When his first Kogi truck introduced the masses to the satisfactions of kimchi-stoked quesadillas and Korean short rib tacos three years ago, it was a case of a loser’s last hand miraculously beating the house. Before that he’d been “a nameless, faceless hotel chef for 12 years,” as Choi once put it. His food plumbed the ethnic richness of the city and reveled in the kinds of improvised dishes that kitchen staffs have long been fixing for themselves at the end of backbreaking shifts. (When I worked at Citrus, a line cook would make us exquisite sandwiches of ciabatta, Caesar dressing, and the leftover ends of roast veal loins.) What if he pulled back the curtain, looked to the streets for inspiration, and made the point of sale a roving lonchera? You can’t stick these 3 a.m. thoughts into a business plan. You get the wheels, crank the engine, and see what the hell happens. Choi created a juggernaut—a five-truck fleet whose graffiti-tagged flanks and tweeted whereabouts combine the authenticity of a taco truck with the in-the-knowness of an underground club.
So it was a surprise when Choi opened Chego, his first restaurant, last April. Weren’t those rigs with their lines of customers and low overhead a repudiation of the more traditional brick and mortar? Not that Choi was at risk of seeming like a sellout. Located in a generic strip mall off Overland Avenue, Chego has no liquor license, you get your own disposable cutlery from the kitchen’s stockroom, and the decor—a trove of Run DMC records and drained fifths of booze lining a lengthy shelf—makes you think of a back room where a teenager might be quietly going to seed. Even the food, a pan-Asian onslaught of dishes like fried meatballs scattered with shaved green onions, hedges its bets, arriving in cardboard containers so it can be taken to go. Still, the place has a door and not a couple of axles.
His newest venture, A-Frame, is several rungs up the evolutionary ladder. Opened four months ago in a repurposed IHOP on Washington Boulevard, it too features self-serve cutlery, but at least the knives and forks stand in holders on the table. And they’re metal. Planks of pale knotty pine sheath the walls, while the patchwork of windows that fills one apex has a churchlike feel when you’re by the courtyard fire pit. Black-and-white nudes hide discreetly among the bar bottles, as if this were a neighborhood standby where old salts might gather. (Choi’s partner is local bar owner David Reiss.) In a clever touch the dishware is a prettified version of the hardy enamel plates that would be at home around a campfire. While Chego’s idea of service is ordering your food at the register and waiting for a guy in a knit cap to bring it out, A-Frame has a smiling bunch of servers, one or two busboys, and hostesses who occasionally grind their hips and sway their arms to the music.
From time to time Choi wanders into the dining room, comfortable in a quilted plaid cholo jacket and backward Dodgers cap as he continuously checks the movement of his trucks on a pair of cell phones. If he approaches diners, it’s guardedly, almost as if he finds the exchange too awkward. The lack of affectation works in the neighborhood, a length of Washington where Culver City, Mar Vista, and Venice fade into one another. Though the always crowded Waterloo & City is on the next block, it is a hoary tackle shop across the way that seems the more fitting neighbor, given the restaurant’s seaside slant. “A-Frame is a place that came from the feeling I used to get when cracking crabs on Redondo Beach Pier as a youth,” Choi writes in a passage printed on the menu. “The salt air, the cement benches. Newspapers and wooden mallets. Family and friends.” This is deep SoCal, as evocative as the beach sand you’d leave in the furrowed seats of Mom’s station wagon.
Something fried and spicy dipped in a cool, creamy dressing has been a union that has delighted since the first buffalo chicken wing was served with a bowl of blue cheese dressing. Choi’s style operates on this basic level, where primary flavors ricochet off one another. With his chicken wings he amplifies the heat so they practically hiss when dunked into the blue cheese. Even better are the wedges of seared Korean sweet potatoes served with kimchi-spiked sour cream that, with Choi’s flair for bringing strangers together, soon transform groups at the communal tables into chatting, food-sharing friends.
Choi may have felt he was wasting his life in those hotel kitchens, but he was building the foundation of his success. Though Kogi’s food is mobile, it depends on long hours of food prep done in a commissary. This is textbook restaurant cooking, where a successful dish is only the last step in a meticulously executed plan. If you strip away the coverage-generating elements of his trucks, you have a damned fine professional kitchen. Such efficiency—the delicate balancing of price point, volume, and the time spent on any single step of a dish’s preparation—has enabled Choi to keep A-Frame’s prices low. Few of the plates that fly out of the small kitchen cost more than $15, and most emphasize at least one key element on which the bandanna-ed cooks can concentrate in order to provide a memorable note.
The dusting of kaffir lime-laced salt shifts the Peel-N-Eat Shrimp from hearty to refined. The blue crab cakes soar not because of the lemongrass crème fraîche (that’s just a condiment) but because the disks of crabmeat have been seared until they ooze when you bite into them. The resulting contrast is pure flavor saturation. If Phil Spector created a wall of sound, Choi has created a wall of flavor. Coolness is slung around heat, sweetness wound around spice. Nowhere is this skill clearer than in the signature kettle corn, which is draped with butter, powdered with sugar, propelled by seaweed’s marine kick, and scattered with the kind of soy-glazed puffed rice snacks you’d find in a Hawaiian Gardens corner store. Addictive as anything, the bowl sics umami on your epiglottis and won’t let go.
However, there are moments when such efficiency presents drawbacks. Choi can go to the well too often with certain gambits. The sugar that sparkles invitingly in the kettle corn obliterates the note of aniseed in the heirloom pickles, reducing the flavor to one dimension: sweet. Choi is also overly fond of what he calls salsa verde. An olive oil emulsion, thick and green from blended herbs, it tastes like a rather bland mayonnaise and lacks the anchovy wallop of an Italian salsa verde or the sprightliness of a tomatillo sauce. Puddled under slices of ahi, its herbal freshness plays off the thick spears of grilled pineapple. But you start getting tired of it by the time you see his salsa verde under the charred lamb chops and the otherwise really good hunk of cornbread bearing a ladle of juicy sausage ragout. Served with the “Peruvian-style” beer can chicken, the sauce is an outright mistake. The bird is already oily (they’d ridicule the description at Pollo a la Brasa in Koreatown, where “Peruvian style” means tender birds roasted to crisp perfection on a wood-burning rotisserie); accompanying it with an oil-based sauce only gums up the
What sets Choi’s best dishes apart is an unassuming yet nimble touch. Pancetta bits have enough fat to mirror the texture of the chopped clams in each lush spoonful of the green curry chowder. The twice-baked potato filled with creamy pomme duchesse sounds like a wan choice from a hotel banquet menu, but Choi’s version is exciting both for its own richness and because it is set off by a thin layer of browned Parmesan shavings. That’s a lot of finesse for $4. The meat of the air-dried baby back ribs offers just enough resistance to prolong the eating so that by the time you put the bone down, your palate is maxing out on flavor even as your lips are growing numb. It’s twisted and beautiful.
Choi has shown an affinity for Latino culture since the first Kogi rolled out. Each truck bears the name of a color in Spanish, and if, say, the Rojo isn’t serving lunch that day, the Web site will read “No almuerzo,” without bothering to translate. At Chego’s cash register, bottles of Jarritos, the most popular Mexican soda, share space with cans of Korean drinks like crushed pear. Choi insists on calling himself “Papi Chulo,” a nickname he acquired in a distant kitchen that means “hot daddy.” His Chu-Don’t-Know-Mang dessert confidently co-opts the tradition of churros by tossing blocks of pound cake into the fryer and serving them with malted chocolate milk. Choi barely takes his foot off the pedal with the fried apple pie drizzled with Southern Comfort caramel sauce and finished with a scoop of cheddar ice cream. It is probably unnecessary to say that these offerings are heavy, but they are in keeping with an atmosphere that’s fun and slightly over-the-top, too.