Roy Choi, L.A.’s Street-Food King
The Los Angeles chef and restaurateur Roy Choi was once a gambler and nearly a gangster, and a stoner from youth who was quick to fight, slow to wake. Born in Korea in 1970, he came to California two years later and grew up amid the dangerous currents of immigrant possibility: at his parents’ liquor store in Koreatown, until it failed; at his parents’ restaurant in West Anaheim, until it failed; at his parents’ jewelry store in Orange County, which made his family rich.
He was surrounded by latchkey knuckleheads, smart kids with bad attitudes, Armenian gem dealers, drug connects, college students, dishwashers, too many card players. It was a chef’s education — hardly obvious at the time — because even as he gambled, fought and schemed, he ate, voraciously, from every larder in town. Nothing fancy. Quite the opposite: his parents’ hot pots; dinners of ketchup-fried rice and Del Taco takeout; pho and cheeseburgers; kimchi and milkshakes at dawn. It was a life of late nights.
Only a moment of clarity on a friend’s couch watching Emeril Lagasse on television when he was 26 saved him, Choi writes in his compelling new memoir and cookbook, “L.A. Son.” He was half drunk and high before noon again, filled with the usual self-hatred and self-pity, staring listlessly at this New Orleans chef with a New England accent cooking French food. Then bam! His future appeared as Emeril talked, it seemed, directly to him. Cooking would be his life.
“I saw myself in the kitchen,” Choi writes, with some amazement. “I saw myself at home.” He got up off the couch. A stint at the Culinary Institute of America followed, then a long run in hotel kitchens, followed by Kogi, the food truck that would bring him fame as the progenitor of the Korean-Mexican taco and a street king of Los Angeles cooking.
Choi, 43, describes his personal history in colorful language that owes some to Jack Kerouac, a little to Anthony Bourdain, who published “L.A. Son” under his imprint for Ecco, and plenty to the rhythm and swagger of early ’90s West Coast hip-hop. (It is expletive-heavy, and largely unquotable here.)
The recipes that accompany the stories are fascinating. They are not the dishes for which Choi is known — the tacos that first brought him triumph, or the beer-can chicken he serves at his A-frame restaurant on the city’s west side. Instead, they look back to what he cooked and what he ate in the years that led up to his success, to the varied and oftentimes unheralded food of Los Angeles itself.
And so here is instant ramen flavored with slices of American cheese, immediately recognizable to Koreans across their diaspora (and pretty great). Here is chili spaghetti, and kung pao chicken, carne asada, pork and beans, soybean-paste stew, even the potatoes Anna he cooked as a hotel chef — all the flavors of his family and the late-night and corporate experiences concentrated into something approaching a cuisine.
“People want to know where my cooking comes from,” he said. “I wanted to tell them, and this seemed the best, most honest way.”
Choi’s mother’s cooking hovers over all of “L.A. Son” and provides our menu here: the Korean braised-short-rib stew known as galbijjim, a staple of potlucks and church suppers, or in Choi’s words, “that meal from home that every Korean kid says his or her mom does best.”
His (hers) is rich and deeply flavored, thickly sauced and pungent with sugar and spice amid a thrum of soy and garlic. It is the sort of meal you could put together after lunch on a Sunday and allow to simmer away for much of the afternoon, then serve for dinner to accolades, or make on a Saturday, store overnight in the refrigerator and achieve the same result. A Friday-night braise leads to an incredible Monday night dinner. It is the best sort of family food.
Before cooking, Choi’s mother soaks her short ribs in water overnight to release their impurities. “It was almost as if she was soaking along with the meat,” Choi told me about watching her cook the dish. “She traveled along with the process, right along with the meat.” (I tried this method. I felt I got a similar result, minus the spiritual uplift, just rinsing the ribs a number of times before I got down to braise.)
The dish is simple to prepare. You make the braising liquid by puréeing scallions, ginger, onions and garlic with a combination of soy sauce, mirin and orange and apple juices. You simmer the ribs in the mixture for a few hours, then add shiitakes, chestnuts, taro, carrots and butternut squash, and allow the whole thing to come together into a crazy-delicious whole. Serve with rice.
“I’m not trying to prove anything with these recipes,” Choi said. “I just want people to cook.”