Perched above busy Wilshire Boulevard in L.A.’s Koreatown, chef Roy Choi sits at a table on the outdoor terrace of Commissary, one of the latest additions to his growing restaurant empire, and analyzes the art of choosing just the right parking spot.
“In L.A., because it’s such a bustling, big city, it makes sense to put the truck right on the streets,” the soft-spoken King of the Food Trucks explains. “But in Orange County, people aren’t hanging out on the streets. They’re going directly from work to home.” So Choi positions one of his pioneering Kogi Korean taco trucks outside O.C. apartment complexes to greet residents as they arrive home after a hard day at the office.
“If you’re dealing with a place like Orange County, where there’s a whole culture already, it’s not our job to bring L.A. culture there,” he says. “It’s our job to understand Orange County … and be an asset to the culture and residents of O.C.”
In a typical itinerary, a Kogi truck leaves downtown L.A. at 4 p.m., braves rush-hour traffic, and arrives at a Ladera Heights apartment complex at 6 p.m., where a crew of three to five employees, all clad in black tunics, prepares and serves Choi’s signature tacos and burritos for as long as three hours. Then on the way back, it might stop somewhere such as Westminster.
“We know Orange County,” Choi says. “We know when it’s important and where it’s important to put the truck.”
Choi, in fact, is intimately familiar with the county, partly because his parents opened a Korean restaurant in Anaheim when he was 8. After the family moved to affluent Villa Park, he attended Cerro Villa Middle School and Villa Park High School. He graduated from Cal State Fullerton with a degree in philosophy, and still has friends in Orange, Anaheim, and Fullerton. While his schedule now includes trips to places such as Denmark, where he recently addressed a MAD Symposium for food-service professionals, he still gets extensive body art done at the Tattoo Gallery in Huntington Beach.
Choi got his first taste of the culinary world at his parents’ Silver Garden restaurant, and at school, where he faced the challenge of being an ethnic outsider. According to Choi, he owes his survival in part to his ability to analyze. Or, as he puts it, “I figure shit out.”
“Whether or not I was ostracized in a foreign environment … I figured things out. I don’t cower from situations,” he says.
Now 45, Choi is as adept at analyzing cultural trends as he is at analyzing the menus for his food outlets. In addition to four Kogi trucks, they now include the rice-bowl spot Chego in L.A.’s Chinatown; the A-Frame chalet in Culver City; the Caribbean-inspired Sunny Spot in Venice; the 3 Worlds Cafe in South Los Angeles; the Kogi BBQ at LAX; and three restaurants—Pot, Commissary, and the Cafe coffee shop—at Koreatown’s hip Line Hotel. He can launch without much prompting into expletive-laced riffs about Orange County’s cultural attributes that sound like hip-hop versions of Chamber of Commerce handouts.
“When people say ‘Orange County,’ ” he says, “all they think about is one section of O.C., which is usually Newport Coast, Laguna. … But there’s also Anaheim, Fullerton, guys working on the car in their garage, there’s men’s fast-pitch softball leagues, there’s parks, all kinds of skating, all kinds of drugs, Latinos, the whole Vietnamese community in Westminster, the whole punk rock/hard-core tattoo community in Huntington Beach, the whole fucking crank-and-crack-and-hooker community in Stanton on Beach Boulevard; there’s Chicano communities in Fullerton and Buena Park and Anaheim and Orange.”
Since Choi’s foray into curbside cooking—he started out in 2008 with one Kogi truck parked late outside nightclubs on Sunset Boulevard—his ascent to celebrity chefdom has been astounding.
Now he’s facing perhaps the biggest test of his analytical powers as he prepares to launch Loco’l, a healthful fast-food chain that he and partner Daniel Patterson, chef-owner of Coi in San Francisco, are hoping will someday rival McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell. Given that the restaurant landscape is littered with fast-food failures, this could take a lot of figuring out—just as it takes a lot of work to figure out Choi.
How do you square the articulate, studious son of Korean immigrants, who grew up in one of Orange County’s toniest communities, with the dude who favors black T-shirts, wears his baseball cap sideways, sports hard-core tattoo sleeves, and uses gangsta slang with consummate ease? “If you saw me walking down the street, I might literally ‘step to’ you,” he says, recalling his darker, pre-chef days as a gambler and heavy drinker. “You wouldn’t be safe around me. I would be, like, ‘What the fuck? That’s a nice watch.’ ” Los Angeles Times food writer Jonathan Gold describes Choi’s sartorial style as “somewhere between skate-punk, Koreatown dandy, and East L.A. veterano.”
The hip-hop persona might seem calculated to appeal to many of the customers attracted to Choi’s food trucks. It infuses his recently published autobiography, “L.A. Son,” which hit a New York Times bestseller list and won him an award from the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association. But to hear Choi tell it, he is, much like his Kogi tacos stuffed with Korean-style meat, a genuine fusion of cultures—from the gritty streets of Koreatown to the sprawling mansions of Villa Park and the skate parks and gang hangouts of Anaheim.
“I have my own voice and my own style.”
“I’ve had my own style since I was young,” he says.
After emigrating from South Korea in 1972, Choi’s parents peddled jewelry door to door around Los Angeles. For two years, until he was about 7, Choi was a latchkey kid, free to explore Koreatown, Little Tokyo, and other neighborhoods. “At a very young age, I had to be aware of my surroundings and be able to maneuver within them,” he says.
He was 8 when his parents started work on the Silver Garden in West Anaheim, where, according to “L.A. Son,” the real estate was cheap and there was a “small but fierce community” of Koreans. At the restaurant, Choi “picked up on the feeling that food was important, and not just a meal to fuel yourself to do something else.” But with the neighborhood turning into the “seedy motel capital of the West Coast,” his parents closed up shop when he was in sixth gradeand returned to the jewelry business.
The Chois were so successful at selling bling to wealthy Koreans that, in 1983, they moved into baseball legend Nolan Ryan’s former home in Villa Park. And there, as a seventh-grader at Cerro Villa, young Roy had to cope with extreme culture shock: He was one of only three Asian students. “I had to figure it out as a 13-, 14-year-old … to, like, absorb it and be a part of it and not be foreign to it,” he says. “Oingo Boingo, Depeche Mode—this was not music I was totally into, but I was going through it.”
In high school, Choi joined a mostly Latino youth gang, the Grove Street Mob. But he also took honors classes and “had my whole Villa Park vibe as well. I played baseball, played Little League. But then I would sneak out at night and hang out on the street. So I had a multilayered life.”
Grove Street exposed him to alcohol, drugs, sawed-off shotguns, and brass knuckles, but also to, as he describes it in his book, all manner of tacos—“al pastor, carne asada, carnitas sauced with salsas verde and roja, all eaten with a side of pickled carrots and washed down with a crisp horchata.”
That gastronomic experience may have laid the foundation for the Kogi taco. But as a young adult, Choi lost his way, becoming what he calls a “true degenerate fucking dirtbag” who gambled at L.A.-area casinos and partied to excess. He was, he believes, trying to fill an empty place in his heart.
“That void was, ‘What am I supposed to do in life?’ ” he says. Although he had a job selling mutual funds, it didn’t interest him, and he wasn’t “good enough or skilled enough to actually be a hustler-on-the-street type of thing. I can’t run an illegal business.” He filled the void with vices—alcohol, drugs, girls. And then, he says, “cooking came. And that connected everything.”
His epiphany came after a night of partying. Choi woke up on a friend’s couch, turned on the TV and saw Emeril Lagasse, one of Food Network’s early stars, creating a stew. “The moment Emeril waved those herbs at me, my whole world clicked into place and I saw what had been in front of my face this whole time: food,” he writes in “L.A. Son.” At age 26, after attending a local culinary school two nights a week, he enrolled at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and continued his training at New York City’s Le Bernardin restaurant, the luxury La Casa del Zorro resort in Borrego Springs, and the Beverly Hilton, where he was chef de cuisine.
With Mark Manguera, who at the time was food-and-beverage director at The Langham Huntington in Pasadena, he came up with the “Korean taco”—which he calls “Los Angeles on a plate … Koreatown to Melrose to Alvarado to Venice to Crenshaw, crumpled into one flavor and bundled up like a gift.” They initially sold them from a beat-up ’80s Grumman catering truck, their customers ranging from “the cholos in white T’s and Dodger-blue caps to a crew of gangsters at a picnic, guns down for a hot minute, to everyone at your grandma’s birthday party.”
As the ebullient Lagasse did before him, Choi has since been busy extending his brand and raising his profile. He even collaborated recently with writer-director Jon Favreau on the hit road-trip-in-a-food-truck movie “Chef.” In making business decisions, he ultimately goes with his gut.
“If I really feel it, even if it seems wacky, I’ll do it,” he says.
Now with chef Daniel Patterson, he has what may seem the truly harebrained idea of bringing healthful foods priced in the $2-to-$6 range to strip malls and street corners long dominated by fast-food chains. So far, they haven’t said much about specific menu items apart from burger patties made with grains and tofu; whole-grain, long-fermented buns; and chicken nuggets. But they plan to open the first Loco’l in San Francisco this spring, with a second in Los Angeles a few months later. “I want it to be like a McDonald’s,” he says. “I would love to go to Orange County with it.”
Fixed-location restaurants are, of course, riskier than food trucks. If business is slow one night, you can’t just pack up and go somewhere else. But Choi is encouraged by the positive response to the announcement of Loco’l at the MAD Symposium in August, which generated worldwide media coverage. “Even though we may not have all the answers right now, what the response tells me is we will somehow figure out those answers,” he says. “The energy force and the reaction to it were so strong that it’s almost like it has to be done. It’s almost like we have to go through with it no matter what.”
And so far, Choi has proved he’s pretty good at figuring things out.
And here’s the part where Mr. Choi calls our editor an old bigot …
Orange Coast editor Martin J. Smith finds the idea of curb-squatting for good food unappealing. Informed of this during a photo shoot, Choi unleashed an articulate argument for radical thinking — even if it’s hard on a 58-year-old’s ego, and knees.
The whole essence of eating street food is to sit on the curb, just kick it with your friends, play with your phone, just relax and enjoy the moment. He’s trying to make something fit into his own lens or his own box.
“Street culture is not as big in O.C. as it in L.A., so we [take the truck] to a lot of Little League games, AYSO soccer games, car shows, skate parks, apartment buildings, office buildings.
“[But to knock the] idea of eating food standing up or leaning back a little bit … to me that’s a little prejudicial and racial. You make that assumption because food trucks and street food are associated with minority culture. But you would never say that about Geno’s Steaks in Philly. You’d do the ‘Philly lean’ because that’s part of American popular culture. So really, what street food and street trucks are doing is changing the way stereotypes are being experienced. That’s something O.C. should embrace, rather than saying it’s a pain in the ass. So that’s what I would tell your editor. Tell him to get young.”
Roy Choi’s Fond Memories and Personal Favorites
First restaurant job
Dishwasher at Leatherby’s on Katella Avenue in Orange
Wonder Years memory
“Me and my mom used to go to Newport Pier and wait for the fishermen to come in, and we’d buy from them right off the boats.”
O.C. places where “there’s something new happening”
Sidecar Donuts, Taco Maria
Dish he craves
Garlic noodles from AnQi
What he orders in Little Saigon
“Little rice papers filled with dried shrimp and fish sauce, with lime juice. They’re like little appetizers.”
Black olives from a can, “the kind they put on crappy pizzas.”