Riding Shotgun With Food Truck King Roy Choi

The chef from the L.A. streets rolls up to Hollywood and Madison Avenue

Photo: Karl J Kaul

It’s midmorning at the Venice Beach Pier in Los Angeles, and we are desperately in search of Roy Choi.

A photographer, his crew and I have arrived at the designated meeting place, on time, but Choi—one of the hottest figures in the food world right now, well on his way to becoming a megabrand that started, improbably, with a beat-up taco truck on the streets of this mother of a city—is nowhere in sight among the flock of homeless people, fishermen and surfers making their way on another ridiculously picturesque Southern California day.

We were supposed to meet right here, weren’t we? At the top of the hour? It’s now 20 past. Are we in the wrong place? Oh, Jesus.

We’ve arranged for a ride-along with the hipster god of the L.A. food scene that will have us spending the day skipping across town and popping by his various ventures—including the Kogi BBQ truck that virtually started the food-truck craze and made him a sensation (on this day, the truck, one of four in Choi’s fleet, is parked outside the National Public Radio studios in Culver City). We are getting anxious about keeping on schedule.

“Could he be down at the end?” someone wonders. So, we hightail it out toward the yawning Pacific, and sure enough, there, at the very tip of the pier, he appears, decked out in his signature Stussy T-shirt and knitted cap, sitting and gazing at that awesome blue vista as if deep in meditation (maybe he is?). A homeless man lies on the bench beside him. We start snapping pictures, exchanging penitent hellos.

We may be twitchy, but Choi is not.

“It was a test—you failed!” he jokes, greeting us with an easy smile that at once resets the mood.

In more ways than one, Roy Choi is a hard man to pin down. He’s a classically trained chef with a Culinary Institute of America pedigree who early on worked under Eric Ripert at New York’s Le Bernardin, one of the top restaurants in the world, and who would go on to run kitchens for corporate giants like Hilton Hotels and The Cheesecake Factory, but who would find fame (and salvation) six years ago when he started, with partner Mark Manguera, selling $3 tacos out of a truck on L.A. street corners and, with the aid of Twitter, became massive. Like most people of accomplishment, Choi is a curious mashup of contradictions. And like most people, he can tell his own story better than anybody else, which he does to superb effect in his book, L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food, published last fall under chef Anthony Bourdain’s imprint at HarperCollins’ Ecco Press and co-written by L.A. Weekly senior food writer Tien Nguyen and Natasha Phan, who heads business development and communications for Choi’s restaurants.

 The book is itself a heady concoction: part balls-out biography, part racy cookbook (for one of his recipes, he advises: “Get topless women in hairnets to pack the sauce into small pouches in a house with blacked-out windows like in New Jack City”), part anthropological guide (a chapter dubbed “Cultural Shit” features handy tips like “taste with fingers” and “eat slow; drop the deuce fast”) and part inspirational tract (call it “The Zen of Roy”). In the book, the fascinating journey of the 44-year-old is documented in page-turning detail—from son of Korean immigrants who were, among other things, restaurant owners and jewelry dealers in L.A. and Orange County to smart-ass street hood to down-and-out addict to Wall Street wannabe to Gastronomy 101 to the whirring kitchens of Beverly Hills to messiah of the food truck craze and, now, A-list chef, Hollywood player, advertising pitchman and emergent consumer brand. In its pages, and even more so in person, one finds in Choi a personality who is at once high-end and low-end, flawed and at the top of his game, relentless and chill, coarse and refined—and absolutely, unapologetically authentic.

Suddenly we are riding shotgun with the man whose handle on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram is RidingShotgunLA. We’re packed in his Honda Element, rolling along Washington Boulevard across the wind-scorched streets of Venice Beach where his food is served up at the restaurants A-Frame and Sunny Spot and the nightspot Alibi Room. Choi is talking about his image, and being misunderstood.

Roy Choi: Yeah, I’m straight hip-hop, I’m straight street, I’m tatted. I represent all-Latino kitchens. You know, I sling tacos on the street … but I’m also a businessman, and I’m also a person who cares deeply about everything around me. I’m a family man, you know. [He is married, and they have a daughter.] I’m a punctual guy who shows up and honors his responsibilities and his loyalties. It’s just, this is who I am. Why do you—“you” rhetorically—equate the street with something that’s rough around the edges, with something that is gangsta or abrasive and loud? I always try to challenge people who say, “Oh, you’re street,” with, “Well, you know what? The streets are also mothers, right? That’s the streets. Tamales, pupusas, tacos, all the ladies in the house working, working at the factories, you know, living in the homes, teaching, taking their kids to school. That’s the streets, man.” … In a lazy way, we always refer to the streets as this one thing, and I’m here to shatter that. That’s what I feel I’m put on this planet for. I’m finding ways to show people the beauties of the street. The taco truck was one step in that. Before Kogi, everyone was calling taco trucks roach coaches. Everybody was pointing at food trucks and saying, “That is dirty—how could you eat off that?” “You’re going to get sick off that.” “How could they feed their kids that?” “Don’t go near that.” After Kogi and the revolution, now there are gourmet food trucks that park at your son’s and daughter’s birthday party.

Adweek: The funny thing is, when people talk about the streets, I mean, Rodeo Drive is a street, too. And Sunset Boulevard.

Choi: And Kogi parks on all of them, you know?

We swing by Kogi, at NPR. Choi bounds up to the service window and the crew inside greets him like he’s their dad (in fact, his nickname is “Papi”). Patrons queuing up for lunch treat him like some kind of rock ’n’ roll god. He poses for pictures before taking charge of ordering up some grub for our group, a little bit of everything—short rib sliders, spicy pork tacos, kimchi quesadilla. To try to describe Kogi via the written word is an exercise in pointlessness; there is nothing else quite like this symphonic blending of flavors, textures, aromas, and it must be experienced to be appreciated—and for the cult of Roy Choi to be fully understood. We insist on paying, but he refuses our money. “Please,” he says, “let me feed you—unless you can’t, you know, for ethical reasons.” (We slip the cash in the tip jar instead.) While some, including the New York Post and assorted food blogs, have proclaimed the food truck trend dead due, in part, to the growing challenge in many cities of securing permits, Choi maintains that “the movement is strong.” (In fact, national chains from Taco Bell to Applebee’s have jumped on the wave by commissioning their own trucks.) Says Choi: “Maybe they’re dead in New York because y’all fuckin’ have too many fuckin’ rules over there.”

Bourdain: In a world filled with snark and irony where people are afraid to be sincere about things, Roy is the real deal. … The street thing is not an attitude; it’s that his loyalties lie in that direction, and it’s part of his personality. He is a very gentle soul—a hell of a lot closer to the Dalai Lama than [Hell’s Angels founder] Sonny Barger. There’s something mesmerizing about him. We did an event at the Pantages Theatre in L.A., and the love in that room was palpable. It felt like a revival meeting.

On the subject of the streets, another one Choi is getting to know well is Madison Avenue—especially since inking with Creative Artists Agency, whose roster of food talent also includes Gordon Ramsay, Curtis Stone, Tyler Florence and Joe Bastianich. In March, he did a cool demo for Google Glass, shot by commercial and music video director Jason Goldwatch, in which he used the device and the app Allthecooks to assemble a St. Patrick’s Day burrito. Also this spring, he and other chefs, including Michael Voltaggio, the Season 6 champion of Bravo’s Top Chef, were enlisted for Mondelez’s Oreo “Snack Hack” promotion, in which America’s favorite cookie was appropriated for everything from a cocktail to chicken tenders. In another brand collaboration, Choi curated a list of recipes for Hormel’s Spam, of all things, including a kimchi dish and quesadilla featuring the iconic canned-meat product.

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