17 JANUARY 2019 | KAREN KAO
Roy Choi is a celebrity chef but more importantly, he’s an Angeleno like me. There’s something special about coming from Los Angeles. You never have to explain where LA is. You walk through the world a little wider and a lot lighter than the edgiest East Coaster. And, because so much of Los Angeles is unlovely and sometimes downright dangerous, there’s a timbre to your voice. To be an Angeleno is to have attitude.
Roy Choi is all about Attitude. His book, L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food, is a chronicle of the City of the Angels told as only a homeboy can. And what a tale. Choi’s road has been anything but straight. The only constant factor is food. L.A. Son is a book about cooking for the homies.
The homies in this case come in various sizes and shades. L.A. Son is divided into short narrative chapters followed by the recipes that typify that time in Choi’s life. From “Mother Sauces” to the Grove Street gang, a run-in with crack and a half asleep, half dead, half drunk, half high, half assed vision of Emeril Lagasse, food is what saves Choi’s sorry ass.
Flavor in the Fingertips
Choi was born in Seoul, Korea but grew up all over the Southland. In the then-nascent Koreatown, his mother made him food from home.
I slurped raw kimchi from stained Rubbermaid gloves. I was hand-fed bits of savory pancakes filled with pureed mung beans and scallions, sometimes studded with oysters. Flavor after flavor. Sohn-maash.
Sohn-maash is a Korean expression for flavors in the fingertips. Choi’s mother came from a long line of stellar cooks and she passed her gift on to her only son. Choi has a tactile relationship with his food. He prefers to mix his raw ingredients with his hands. Even kimchi, with its combustible ingredients of kochukaro, onions, garlic and ginger, should be stirred by hand.
Always slurp the first batch from the bowl with your fingertips before it goes into the jar. Industrial gloves for mixing are optional but recommended.
The same goes for measuring. Choi includes a list at the back of his book of the basic ingredients and tools you’ll need to make his recipes. But he urges his readers to go with the cheapest tools they can find: plastic buckets and wooden chopsticks. Forget about measuring cups or spoons. All you need is the palm of your hand.
Over the course of his young life, Choi bounces around. From Koreatown to Anaheim, the jewelry district of downtown LA to Mission Viejo. His life matches the ups-and-downs of his parents’ fortunes.
Every time Choi moves, there’s a new school to break in, a new social pecking order to figure out, a new gauntlet to be walked. Choi is a chameleon who manages to fit in wherever he goes. Maybe because he’s mastered the Cali head nod.
The head nod that is part inquisitive, part code, part whattup, part beware, and all the way L.A.
It’s the same head nod another LA native, Paul Beatty, got when he visited Japan. It’s the nod my nephew gives to me when I see him in LA. You can get that nod anywhere you go today on the streets of Los Angeles. What’s up?
Choi infects his recipes with that same street swagger. You want to make pork fried rice? Then you got to start with your own homemade char siu pork belly. Once you’ve tackled the meat, you can turn to the vegetables: the minced ginger, garlic and scallions plus some
leftover cooked vegetables – anything you got, man […] Pay attention and take some time to make it right – it ain’t that much knife work, and don’t act like it’s this major fucking deal to mince some veggies.
L.A. Son is a tour guide to some iconic Los Angeles restaurants like Tommy’s Burgers and the Clifton Cafeteria. Where to go in Koreatown for the best abalone porridge (Mountain Cafe) or kimchi and soup (Hodori Jip).
And then there’s a world of clubs and casinos I never knew about when I lived in LA. It’s where Choi discovers the serial addict inside: drugs, drink, gambling. He almost goes over the edge. Then food saves his life.
Choi is a product of the streets of LA from his sleeve tattoos down to the food he loves. You’ll find recipes in L.A. Son for bánh me, that iconic Vietnamese sandwich with a little spam thrown in for something different. There’s kimchi and pork pupusas, too, El Salvador meets Korea.
My first attempt to execute a Choi recipe was marred by ingredient foul-ups. I defrosted a lamb shoulder instead of the beef cheeks I needed. Bought corn tortillas pre-cut to make chips. Couldn’t find tomatillos anywhere in Amsterdam but I made tacos de cabeza anyway. It was pretty damn good.
The second attempt hit the ball out of the ballpark. Coconut clam chowder with pancetta, shallot, celery, onion, potatoes, green curry paste, and a generous handful of Thai basil and Vietnamese rau ram. Choi doesn’t use much salt in his recipes and none was needed in this one.
Next up are his dumplings. I want to see how his Korean-inspired version compares to my jiaozi. But what I’m really looking forward to, the next time I hit LA, is to try out the tacos at one of his food trucks.
Kogi BBQ is where Choi is at these days. He serves fusion food on wheels throughout southern California. It’s Mexican. It’s Korean. And 100% American. Nobody worrying about food authenticity at his place.
There it was. Los Angeles on a plate. Maybe it wasn’t everyone’s L.A., but it was mine. It was Koreatown to Melrose to Alvarado to Venice to Crenshaw crumpled into one flavor and bundled up like a gift. The elements looked like city blocks. The flavor tasted like the streets. And the look said home.