Bonnie Tsui is a contributing writer to CityLab. She writes frequently for The New York Times and is the author of American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods.
Roy Choi invented the Korean taco craze. In his new cookbook, he takes readers on a wild tour of Los Angeles culinary offerings.
When describing a plate of kalbi — the thin slices of marinated, grilled Korean short ribs — in his lively new book, L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food, the chef Roy Choi is a poet: "They came out of the kitchen a glistening, super deep brown caramel. This is L.A.’s southern comfort, its own version of American BBQ filtered through Korea, which is as amazing as anything from Austin to the Carolinas."
Born in Seoul, raised in L.A. and ping-ponged through countless neighborhoods as a child, Choi — the man whose pioneering Kogi food truck introduced Korean tacos to the world and paved the way for the food truck craze to follow — is a bard of SoCal’s unlikely cultural collisions. (Subscribe to his colorful, R-rated Twitter feed, @RidingShotgunLA, and you get something approximating a mash-note rap to L.A. and other great food cities.) The book is a vivid, curb-level tour of Choi’s personal L.A., rich with photos and detailed narration.
Choi is unblinkingly honest about his early life, when his parents scraped by in different businesses and the family lived month-to-month. His mom’s home cooking became something more than sustenance in his parents' Korean restaurant, Silver Garden, where he watched the kitchen ladies make dumplings and learned to work the front of the house at age eight. The restaurant eventually failed, and he transitioned to ferrying a fortune's worth of diamonds in his pockets on the streets of downtown L.A. for his parents' jewelry business, taking breaks for shawarma on 5th Street or a buttery almond cookie from Phoenix Bakery in Chinatown.
The chapters on Choi’s street explorations are paired with his inventive recipes, inviting readers to taste the foods of those times: fried dumplings that “represent those in-between moments when people sit down to make something together and let their real selves come out," grilled shawarma charred with cumin and garlic, a simple almond cookie that conjures up Chinatown's pink bakery boxes.
Junior high and his parents' newfound wealth took him to Orange County, where the streetwise Choi was shocked by a new reality: "White. All white. It blew my mind. I didn’t see another Asian, Latino, black, or Indian kid. For days." (The recipes accompanying these chapters are for horseradish-spiked onion dip and pineapple fruit roll-ups with star anise.) In the years that followed, as his parents fell into drink, Choi fell into drugs, wandering Hollywood Boulevard and picking up a bad gambling habit. As he tells it, his parents fished him out as he hit bottom. He found Emeril, and was born again, at New York’s Culinary Institute of America, Le Bernardin, the Beverly Hilton.
These tales of food and redemption set the stage for the creation of his "Los Angeles on a plate," Korean BBQ in a taco: "It was Koreatown to Melrose to Alvarado to Venice to Crenshaw crumpled into one flavor and bundled up like a gift." One parking lot at a time, Kogi conquered L.A. with food that tasted Indonesian, looked Mexican, and felt Korean.
L.A. Son is this streetwise kid’s love letter to L.A., and to his mom. I caught up with Choi at the start of his cross-country book tour to dig a bit deeper on his inspirations.
I dove into your Twitter feed, and what I love about the book is that it has that same playfulness and enthusiasm for L.A. and all of its melting-pot qualities. It seems like your food has two soul-parents: L.A., and your mom. True?
Absolutely. That's why it’s called L.A. Son. The title came to us at the 11th hour. The original title was Spaghetti Junction — a confluence of all these tangled noodles that came together: immigration, addiction, the streets, in this bowl of my life. But I felt that some people still wouldn't get it. I really wanted to write a book about what life was like growing up here.
We do have a point of view and a lingo of how we do things in L.A., and I wanted that feeling to be put in words. It's so iconic for Paris and New York to have their voice. But when people think of L.A., they don't think that there's a defined iconic feeling of what it’s like here. When you’re riding shotgun in a lowrider, in a car cruising the street, or sitting in a parking lot eating food with your friends, that’s a feeling that everyone in L.A. can understand. But no one's ever written about it. I wanted to write about me growing up Asian, an immigrant, in America, of this generation.
There's no dummy guide for immigrant children. In this book, there is a private language between us, but those who haven't gone through it themselves would be able to understand something about it. My mom, she was young when she had me, and she was figuring it out herself, too. I wanted to show my mom, "Look where we are, look what I made, we’re off to the next level." We brushed a lot of things under the rug. I wanted to show her that we don’t have to shy away from it anymore.
The geography of your L.A. is extremely diverse. What was it like revisiting all those places for your book?
I had to write the book from midnight to 6 a.m., when no one would bother me and I could dig really deep. I had to relive a lot of memories that I had scraped my way out of: drugs, gambling, being fired from a job at 38 years-old and not knowing what was next. Shutting off the present so I could time travel. It was really, really tough. I had to fully live it out again so I could smell the fried rice again, so that I could feel the energy of the chips on my fingers, so I could see that Vietnamese dealer with her nails and her cleavage. So that I'm not writing in a reflective way. I'm writing it like I was there.
Physically, I go to these places already with my truck. Revisiting and driving around all these places, it helped me write this book. I went back to the casinos, to Grove Street, to Norwalk, to Whittier, to New York, all these places again for all these chapters, to hook up with old friends and archive everything. It made me feel things, and love the city again, to put all the pieces together of why I cook this way. Sometimes you forget where you came from, because as a chef you're so focused on where you’re going.
You’ve talked about street food as the great equalizer — and as you’ve fed your customers, you’ve gotten a deep well of information from from them. What's the role you have as a chef to cook for all walks of society?
All the little choices prepared me to cook for all these people. When I got out of culinary school, I was working in the thick of things, in New York restaurants: Aureole, Le Bernardin. I was right there in the mix. And for some reason, I moved on and I got into hotels and country clubs.
At the time, as a cook in my late twenties, I beat myself up — all my friends were starting to rise in the scene. I was there cooking meatloaf or omelettes at Embassy Suites, a regular everyday hotel chef. Then I was a country club chef, then I cooked at the Beverly Hilton for royalty. But as a chef I did the best that I could. It made me humble enough to cook for anybody. When I was ready to cook for the street, I was just ready. I understood how people wanted to eat — at 6 a.m. when you’re grumpy and don’t want to get up, and also at midnight. They were hungry out there. And everyone on the street started to feed me back. It helped me to stay connected.
You’ve been working on bringing better food to working-class families, and kids especially, to show young people ways to take control of their lives through what they put in their bodies. From your experience with the kids, what do you think are the biggest challenges? How do you break through some of the prejudices they already have? What have they told you about food that has been most surprising to you?
The kids themselves have no prejudices. It’s the messaging we’re putting out there in the universe. We’re the ones as adults and corporations who are marketing the trash to them that we’re blaming them for eating: chips, sodas, hamburgers, fast food. It’s exactly what you want to be when you’re 16, not eating broccoli “because it’s good for you.” If I’m 16 or 9 or 12, that’s the last thing I want to do if you’re telling me to do it, scolding me like my mom. For me, I’m just making the food, putting it out there, I don’t lecture them, I just try to make it delicious. I try to speak a language they can understand: the ghetto malasadas, or the instant perfect ramen, the kalbi, the salsa verde. All those recipes, chili spaghetti, they’re mashups that they understand: that looks fun, that looks delicious. It’s about putting the nutrients and vegetables in the food as it relates as to them right now.
We place too much emphasis on the lecturing. It’s too much for adults, man. What we need to remember as adults is that kids are really, really smart, but they don’t have as much experience. They can smell bullshit a mile away. I spend my life around a lot of youth — kids love vegetables and great food. I hear it, I talk to them, I know their curiosity. They’re interested in food. We’re not making it cool enough, relevant to them. We’ve got to step up our game.
In the years since Kogi, you’ve been influenced by other places. You’ve gone from urban street food and rice bowls to, more recently, Hawaiian- and tropics-inspired. What specific experiences or people brought you there?
After Kogi, I started to open myself up more to cuisines that really interested me but I never thought I could translate into a restaurant: Hawaiian food and the feeling of aloha, the way people eat in the South Pacific, the way food’s eaten and shared, and the Caribbean islands as well. With the rice bowls at Chego, it was an exploration of the food we grew up with in our refrigerators. Chego was kind of college dorm food, everything under $10, good food packaged like fast food. Looking at how a lot of Asian kids grow up, it’s a double life: peanut butter and jelly at school and stinky tofu at home. I wanted to put all of that out there, and show people that they’d really love it. It’s a hodgepodge of all the stuff in our fridges: sesame oil, vegetables, eggs, sriracha, pork and beef leftovers, peanuts, herbs, chili paste.
You’re about to open a hotel, The Line, in Koreatown, a collaboration that celebrates all kinds of great stuff about the neighborhood. Tell us about this next chapter. What’s Pot, the restaurant, going to be like? What will it riff on?
Pot is going to be like Silver Garden, my family restaurant, reimagined. The challenge is that there are still a lot of taboos in the Western frame of mind: double dipping, triple dipping. The whole focus of the restaurant is hot pots, where you gotta share and eat in a communal way. And we're bringing a world-class hotel to Koreatown — it's on a powerful corner of Normandie and Wilshire — and we want it to be a rec center for the community. I want it to shift some paradigms: most of the time, if you’re not staying at a hotel, you feel like the hotel is off limits. But The Line should be like a train station, I want people to feel like they can come and go, that it's there for the community. It's like putting a Mondrian hotel in the middle of Flushing, Queens: having a world audience looking to stay in your home neighborhood, and letting the neighborhood be itself, on its own terms. For me, that's a big deal.
All photos courtesy of Bobby Fisher.