Roy Choi

Roy Choi loves his community. Kogi BBQ, his revolutionary Korean-Mexican food truck, was born out of a desire to represent – and feed – cosmopolitan LA, while projects like neighbourhood restaurant Locol and his Broken Bread TV series use food as a vehicle to bring people together. For The Local Tongue, the influential Korean-born, American-raised chef lifts the lid on Koreatown, the diverse LA neighbourhood that features prominently in the Kogi story.
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Koreatown 101

The immigration of Koreans en masse to Los Angeles happened in the late 60s, early 70s and throughout the 80s. For three decades, a lot of people never really recognised Koreatown other than those of us that lived in it: mainly Koreans and Latinos. Food has been a bridge for a lot of people to learn about the culture that was always here. LA is a very, very big city landscape-wise. We don’t have a CBD. Geographically, the city’s like a quilt: a patchwork of different environments, different cultures and different neighbourhoods. It can be really hard to really understand or figure those things out without some sort of olive branch. It took a long time, but food became that olive branch over the past 25 years and really brought people together. From a larger consumer perspective, [LA Times food writer] Jonathan Gold had a lot to do with it, as did the food revolution of blogging and social media.

An Easy Introduction To Koreatown

A good entry to Koreatown would be barbecue at Chosun Galbee. It’s a big grand indoor and outdoor restaurant with barbecue tables. It’s a very traditional style of service, but again casual. It feels very high end but they have lunch specials that won’t be more than $15. It’s probably got the best quality food as far as ingredients go in Koreatown. A lot of the time you can’t trust the meat in Koreatown because there’s a lot of all-you-can-eat BBQ places that are cutting corners. In life, when something’s too good to be good, it usually is. If a place is offering you a $9.99 deal for all the meat you can eat, you gotta remind yourself that, this doesn’t add up.

The Importance Of Specialised Restaurants

Although Koreatown has a lot of all-purpose restaurants, the way Koreans eat is really all about specialised individual places. If you’re just looking for a bowl of soup, you go to a specific spot. If you’re just looking for thinly sliced pork or intestines, you go to another spot. It’s a really beautiful and important thing that, as you get more advanced and move from the novice level to the intermediate, you really seek out the specialty places that only do one thing. A great example of that is a place called Hanbat. It basically serves one thing: a cloudy beef soup called shul lung tang that’s cooked like pho. It’s medium-sized, not fancy, very clean and it’s full of beautiful smells. And it’s always packed. You get your food in a minute. Korean restaurants aren’t the sort of places where the waitress comes and says, “Hi I’m Janet, let me tell you about the specials today.” It’s right to the point. Sometimes people order as they’re coming in. Some people even call from the car and order so when you sit down the food is already there.

All About Korean Fried Chicken

There are a couple of forms of Korean fried chicken. One is a whole chicken that is split down the middle, soaked in milk and beer overnight and fried spatchcock-style. There’s no batter or breading and the chicken is very similar to what happens with a Peking duck: the skin gets ultra crispy and the meat stays ultra juicy. It’s usually eaten with pickled radish, shredded cabbage, salt and pepper, sesame oil and a cold beer. There’s an old folklore that pubs with leftover beer in their kegs would just throw the chickens in there overnight before throwing them into the fryer the next day. The other kind of fried chicken is the one you’ll see around the world and features wings and drumettes that are tossed in a batter and covered in a sweet, spicy sauce. For the whole fried chicken, you’ll want to go to The Prince. It’s the best place: late-night. Lots of beer and alcohol. A very fun, inviting mix of old and young people. For the other style, there’s the popular chain called Kyochon and another place called BBQ Chicken LA. That place is pretty famous as well.

A Taqueria Rite Of Passage

There’s a taco place called El Taurino that I’ve been going to since I was a high-schooler. That’s a great place for every youngster in Koreatown. It’s like a rite of passage. You go there on weekend mornings for tostadas and menudo (tripe soup from Mexico) and then you go there on weekends for drunk food like tacos and burritos made with carne asada (grilled steak), al pastor (spit-roasted pork) and lengua (beef tongue). 

A Primer On Korean-Style Sushi

Korean sushi doesn’t focus on the same fatty type fish used in Japanese sushi. Instead, it places the focus on very lean, thin fish like fluke and a lot of roe, eggs, livers and innards. Things like that. It’s a very different experience but there are a couple of places. Noshi Sushi seems to be pretty popular and serves the whole gamut. There’s also A-Won Restaurant that serves something very popular called a fish egg rice. It contains five or six different types of fish egg served over warm seasoned rice. You’ll have tobiko (flying fish roe), salmon eggs and caviar served with a spicy hot pepper sauce and chunks of lean fish that’s all mixed together.

The Place To Go For A Drink. And Food.

Chapman Plaza is home to four really popular drinking establishments: Quarters, Ho Dong, Escala and Gaam. It’s not a thing to go to a bar just to drink. Everything involves food. There are no bars in Koreatown that don’t have a kitchen. Even the dive bars have better food than most normal kitchens.

A Snapshot Of Food In LA (Circa 2019)

Right now, LA is going through a bit of an ice-cream moment where people are getting very creative in the way they’re using Californian produce. They’re not Californian spots, but they’re places like Jeni’s (Columbus, Ohio) and Salt & Straw (Portland, Oregon) that have emigrated here. Doughnut places like The Donut Man or Sidecar Doughnuts are also getting very creative with the way they’re using produce. One of the biggest things that has come to define LA-style food post-Kogi is a place called Sqirl. That’s been one of the biggest kind of mash-up, character-defining restaurants that describes what it feels like to be in LA. My go-to order is the toast with ricotta and jam and the rice bowls. Coffee is also a big thing here. We’ve got a lot of great coffee shops like Go Get Em Tiger, Dinosaur Coffee, Endorffeine Coffee.

The Newest Member Of The Family

My newest place is called Best Friend. It opened at the Park MGM in Vegas on New Year’s Eve 2018. It’s our biggest project to date and a culmination of the last 10 years of everything from Kogi until now. I’ve put everything I’ve had into it and, for many reasons, feel like it’s our best restaurant. First are the budgets we were allotted to build a place of this scale. There’s also the ability to have fun in a place like Las Vegas, and not just be solely focussed on the culinary high-minded foodie aspect of what a restaurant needs to be. Sometimes as chefs and restaurateurs, we get a little convoluted and treat restaurants as our own personal trophy validation items. In these pursuits of excellence, we don’t always think of the diner. Best Friend is the complete opposite of that. It’s like a fun, big pizza parlour after a Little League game, or a place you want to go with your grandpa and your grandma and your aunt and uncle and cousins for a birthday party. Everyone’s welcome. It’s Korean food meets stoner food meets LA food meets my food. It’s a place of celebration and you come as you are. Being able to serve quality food in a fun environment is something that I’m really proud of.

Classic Los Angeles Eating Experiences

There are a lot of classic LA things to eat. I think you should go to the Santa Monica or Hollywood Farmers’ Markets when you’re in LA. That’s an amazing thing to experience. So is finding taco stands and taking a chance on the street. You just have to drive around and look for it. We have al pastor taco trucks here. One that’s very popular here is Leo’s. Another popular one is called Taco Zone in Echo Park which is famous for its carne asada, buche (stomach lining). There’s also Guerrilla Tacos in the arts district that does a lot of vegetarian tacos. The great thing about LA: sometimes it’s about specific places but more often than not, it’s about going into a specific area and then walking into any place. You can pretty much pop into any restaurant in Little Tokyo, Koreatown or Chinatown and have a good meal. You can stop at almost any taco stand or taco truck and have a good meal. You can go to any farmers’ market and visit any stand and have a great piece of fruit or a great meal from one of the vendors. You’re going to find your chef-driven restaurants in any other guide, but in this guide, I’m recommending taking a chance and really experiencing LA how we really live: go into a neighbourhood and just go into the place that feels best to you or looks the busiest.

Selected Works: Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix (2017), L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food (2013).

Profile Photography Credit: Emari Traffie

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