In the five years since Roy Choi chugged into Venice at the wheel of what was to become the first of many Kogi trucks, his Korean barbecue tacos have become emblematic of what makes eating in Southern California great. Here at the intersection of countless cultures, food isn't just sustenance -- it's also a map, with roads that originated all over the world intersecting in strip malls, food trucks and sidewalk griddles.
Maybe that's what makes Choi's autobiography, L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food -- written with the help of Tien Nguyen and Natasha Phan -- such a riveting read for Angelenos. As the story of his misbegotten youth crisscrosses the city and its environs, taking him from Koreatown to Pershing Square to an OC mansion to the forlorn avenues of 1980s Hollywood to the Bicycle Casino off the 710, he interjects recipes that reflect the journey -- Korean, Middle Eastern, Mexican, Greek, Italian, Vietnamese and more. Photography from Bobby Fisher anchors his anecdotes in their settings as they appear today, showing exactly how much and how little has changed over the years.
L.A. Son is published by Anthony Bourdain's imprint, which will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the celebrity chef's trademark swaggering tone. That same swagger is in evidence here, set to the tune of hip-hop, volume turned up high. "My mom was the salesperson of all salespersons," Choi writes early in the book, explaining how his parents came by the fortune that later landed them in a mansion previously owned by Nolan Ryan. "The closer. Glengarry Glen Ross, with brass fucking balls." Later, recalling his externship at Le Bernadin, he writes of that rarefied company, "All I needed was a damn second, and he wouldn't give me that space. Finally, I threw in the towel and told him to hold the fuck up. Asked him to take a walk into the walk-in with me to hash it out."
From New York City, Choi proceeded to cook his way around the world, bouncing from Borrego Springs to Lake Tahoe to Tokyo, then back home to take over the kitchen at the Beverly Hills Hilton. Having determined that being an executive chef for a hotel chain wasn't quite his cup of tea, Choi moved on to a gig at RockSugar, where, after an exhilarating few months, he lost his touch and was unceremoniously fired. "What was once second nature all of a sudden became as foreign to me as the Persian alphabet," he says. "I was sinking fast in a quicksand trap, and the more I fought it, the faster I sank."
It was 2008. The country was in the grips of an economic collapse, and luxury industries like fine dining were struggling. What better time to try out that most humble of venues, the taco truck?
Choi's story, smartly, ends there -- the rest is history. His recipes, however, continue. Early in the book he covers classics like pan-fried dumplings, carne asada and latkes; as his own story takes on layers of complexity, the food does as well, featuring mash-ups like ramen and American cheese, Brussels sprouts with kimchi, and kung pao chicken "papi style."
Far and away the most charming aspect of the book is the headnotes. Choi eschews the flowery, prosaic encomiums favored by most writers of showpiece cookbooks in favor of statements like "Nothing says comforting in the morning or in a foggy, drug-induced state more than a plate of pancakes." Above another recipe, he writes, "They represent those in-between moments when people sit down to make something together and let their real selves come out." He's talking about dumplings, but he could just as well be describing his own story.