Revolutionary

12.13.11

Street Food Guru Roy Choi on Sunny Spot, Food Trucks, Kogi & More

Food-truck godfather Roy Choi, the man behind the craze that’s swept the country, tells Jace Lacob about his new Caribbean roadside eatery Sunny Spot—and how embracing street food and putting aside our Western concepts of dining can save society.

Roy Choi is miming eating a Cuban sandwich while dancing to an unheard beat.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon and the heavily tattooed Choi—a 2010 Food & Wine Magazine Best New Chef recipient and the 41-year-old founder of Kogi BBQ, which single-handedly kicked off the explosive food truck craze in Los Angeles (and America, for that matter)—is demonstrating the vibe he wants for his new restaurant. Sunny Spot is Choi’s fifth food venture, markedly different to his last four creations, which range from a Korean-Mexican taco truck (Kogi) and a dorm-room rice bowl communal experience (Chego) to a bar/lounge (Alibi Room) and his take on modern picnic food set in a swanky 1960s hideaway, A-Frame.

The Sean Knibb-designed Sunny Spot, which opened its doors late last month, is Choi’s take on a Caribbean roadside cookshop, blending influences from Jamaica, the Bahamas, and Cuba. The idea came to him in a dream, he says, despite the fact that he had only ever been to the Caribbean once on a cruise.

“I started to feel the people deeply,” he says. “I could feel generations in history and rhythms…I could see all the people in here dancing…The music was loud, people were eating with their hands, there was a grill in the back, and the whole place was alive.”

As unlikely as Caribbean food would be on the West Side of Los Angeles and despite the naysaying of nearly everyone he knows, Choi told his business partner, David Reiss, that it was “Jamaica or bust.” The restaurant features a DJ who curates 25 hours of new music every other week. “My whole goal with this place,” he says, bouncing giddily, “was people are eating like this.”

If you know Choi, this jibes with his entire persona: he’s passionate, talented, and a regular marijuana user. (“Yeah, I smoke,” says Choi, who acknowledges he’ll smoke up while watching a movie or zone out for a few hours on the Venice pier.) His food—gutsy, big, flavors—can knock you to the floor with one bite.

The sandwich Choi was miming has now materialized from the restaurant’s kitchen, and it’s unlike any other Cubano in existence: pig’s feet terrine, prosciutto, provolone, pickled jalapeno, and hot mustard.

“It’s just filled with layers,” says Choi. “It’s like when you get stoned, sometimes things go into different worlds and fabrics and textures. It’s a little crispy, then it’s spicy and warm and soothing. It helps me bring in a whole pantry of ingredients that as a chef I may have considered not good enough. Using [classical] techniques but then balancing it with straight French’s yellow mustard, or bringing in some ghettos--- that you pull from your cupboard.”

It’s this ability to stand with his feet planted in both street food and fine dining that have built Choi an unlikely restaurant empire in just three years. Harnessing the power of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, Choi and his team—including creative director Alice Shin—brought Kogi’s obsessively popular Korean short-rib-barbecue-fusion tacos to the masses of Los Angeles, traveling around the city in a truck. (The Kogi fleet, at press time, now numbers five.) Kogi, named “America’s first viral eatery” by Newsweek in 2009, kicked off a food truck revolution in Los Angeles, which now has more than 200 food trucks on its streets, before spreading to New York, Portland, and other U.S. cities.

Let’s rewind. In 2008, Choi, like many others when the economy crashed, was laid off. (“I have a family,” he says. “I lost everything. I had to dip into my savings to pay my bills.”) Previously, he had worked at Le Bernardin in New York before taking corporate jobs at The Beverly Hilton Hotel and RockSugar in Los Angeles. Unemployed for month, he was offered the keys to a truck his friend—Mark Manguera, who would become Kogi’s co-founder—had just bought. And, almost overnight, Kogi’s unparalleled success came as much as a surprise to the foodie intelligentsia as it did Choi himself.

“I had no idea that it would be anything,” he says. “I never wanted it to be anything. My dream was to have a little stand with six stools around it and cook. Just read the L.A. Times, throw on a couple burgers, and just make the best thing possible. I had that with Kogi with my team, just cooking food for the purity of cooking food. The only problem was the taco was f---ing delicious.” 

That taco, as Kogi’s legions of fans can attest, is indeed delicious. It is built, not on simply placing Korean-spiced beef in a taco, but on the “framework and architecture” of the Los Angeles and Mexican street taco: “a four-inch double tortilla filled with carne asada, cilantro, onion, salsa roja, and lime.” Choi says that the food is about more than just Korean barbecue meeting the taco, but a license to be himself. “It tastes the way it tastes because I have Asian blood, but I look in the mirror and I think I’m Latino.”

“I’m not on a quest or anything,” says Choi. “It’s not like I’m some missionary. But I’ve become close to something really spiritually special.”

Before Kogi, most Los Angeles residents only had only glimpsed food trucks from afar, sitting in a parking lot or next to a construction site. “It challenged a lot of people’s barriers and definitions of what is clean, what is dirty, what is right, what is wrong, without knowing it,” says Choi. “Before Kogi came out, we called them roach coaches. We called the stuff outside of clubs dirty dogs, danger dogs, death dogs. It’s that Western privileged mind-set: That’s dirty, that’s f---ing underground, that’s ghetto…We took away that ridiculous, passed-on, generational, privileged stereotype towards food that Latinos have been eating for a long time, or street food in general…We’ve stopped downgrading a certain segment of society. That’s pretty cool.”

Of course, the food truck explosion has not been without its own troubles. What started largely as an underground experience has bloomed into a now ubiquitous presence on L.A.’s streets, regularly running into issues with parking authorities and generating its own backlash. Kogi itself now has several imitators, many of which (like Calbi Fusion Tacos, now owned by fast food chain Baja Fresh), have partnered with corporate interests. What was once street-level has become increasingly corporate. (Even the Food Network has a reality competition show about food trucks.) It seems the tipping point for food trucks, each one struggling to make their individual mark apart from the growing crowd, is imminent.

“The lust phase is over,” says Choi. “It’s at a critical mass. We’re repeating the same things, but we have an opportunity now to shift the way that we eat. So instead of having fast food joints or chain restaurants or processed foods that are handed down through mass farming and lobbying, the main thing that we can do now is we can embrace street food.”

The recognition from Food & Wine, the first time the magazine awarded Best New Chef to a food truck, helped legitimize the trend, and, Choi believes, street food is what can save our cities.

“We can take empty gas stations and empty parking lots, we can take underperforming centers, we can turn those into little hawker centers like they have in Singapore,” he says. “Then we can encourage small business to come in and make a delicious dish with one thing, like this Cuban sandwich you’re eating. Just make one thing and then just transform our city into a city that’s filled with just small vendors serving the most delicious thing that they can.”

“We get too stuck in our ways sometimes. But I’m going to keep creating environments that continue to be more accessible, to invite more conversations and share food, and continue to highlight foods from countries and cultures that I really believe in.”

If there is one thread that connects all of Choi’s ventures, including Sunny Spot, it is the notion of sharing, not just food but also conversation, of collapsing the walls that separate us from our fellow citizens. Choi’s A-Frame suggests sharing dishes with your fellow diners but also strangers at the communal table.

“I’m not on a quest or anything,” says Choi. “It’s not like I’m some missionary. But I’ve become close to something really spiritually special. Nothing is going to seduce me. Not money, not fame, not glory, nothing to sell this s--- out. I’m down to continue to push Kogi, A-Frame, Chego, Sunny Spot, Alibi, anything else that I’m involved with. The food, just continue to push it out even farther so it goes all the way down to people that are living down off 5th Street, homeless, to our neighbors down there, all the way to families. You know, continue to just try to shake the world a little bit.”