It’s hard to imagine anyone who better embodies the whole Orange County melting-pot-zeitgeist thing than the much-betatted, charmingly profane culinary entrepreneur Roy Choi, who arrived in the U.S. with his South Korean parents when he was 2, struggled, assimilated, got rich, got crazy, and then finally discovered his true purpose and changed the world.
His full story is a bit more complicated, of course, as contributor Matthew Heller writes in “O.C. Son.” But those are the broad outlines. For the uninitiated, the Villa Park High School grad achieved his enviable cultural buzz via two primary breakthroughs: 1) his unlikely combination of Korean and Mexican tastes in a single, brilliant, hand-held edible—the now-iconic Korean short-rib taco, a triumph of griddled corn tortillas, double-caramelized Korean barbecue, salsa roja, cilantro-onion-lime relish, and a slaw tossed in a chili-soy vinaigrette; and 2) the drivable kitchen he dubbed the Kogi BBQ truck.
Starting in 2008, Choi brought epicurean pleasure to the masses who Twitter-tracked his truck—he now has four—and huddled at L.A. and O.C. intersections as if awaiting their savior. His idea sparked a social-media-driven food-truck revolution. He then used those same outsider sensibilities and his rebellious nature to open a string of innovative brick-and-mortar restaurants that straddle the line between high-end fusion dining and way-cool street food. Now he wants to create a more healthful fast-food scene with an idea that’s equally paradigm-busting, if still on the drawing board.
While Choi may be the man of the moment, Orange County certainly has spawned more than its share of people like him. He shares the DNA of other local innovators, including Walt Disney, Hobie Alter, Gwen Stefani, and William Pereira—great names that have given American culture a distinctly local flavor.