Korean fusion: Kogi, The Alibi Room and Chego
Los Angeles, CA
It has slowly and insidiously crept its way into our culture; Angelenos had been content to enjoy the hard-fought-for, all-American tradition of chowing down on tacos al carbon and barbacoa burritos from the local taco truck until upstart Roy Choi decided to infiltrate our street food society and peddle his Korean fusion cuisine propaganda throughout L.A. County. I could be wrong about the all-American thing, but not only did Choi introduce the hungry denizens of L.A. to the kimchee taco, he single-handedly turned the food truck industry into a viral sensation. Not content to rely on word of mouth, Choi discovered the power of twitter and before long tweets were barreling through the ether letting the hungry mobs know where the Kogi truck was going next; how long was it going to be there; where the next destination was. Lines were hours long, and oh, how the word spread like chili paste. Choi soon had four trucks ranging all the way into Orange County, and soon BBQ, pancake, grilled cheese , Indian, dim sum, French fry and Brazilian street food trucks were taking to the streets like an epicurean plague. No disrespect to the other wonderful and quirky food trucks that have since warmed the cockles of our hearts and intestines, but Kogi was the flame that lit this Roman candle. Choi was preparing his food out of a small kitchen in Culver City that slowly evolved into a bar where you could enjoy the same cuisine served on the trucks without having to chase them down under the moniker of The Alibi Room. Not content to simply dominate the food truck scene and change the way we look at bar food, Choi opened a third venture – a small, friendly and kitschy Korean fusion restaurant where food is served in cardboard dishes from a pegboard menu called Chego. Over a year and a half after his first Kogi truck, Choi has gained national (if not international) notice for his empire, due in great part to his foresight in using the Internet to build his kingdom.
It would be easy to attribute the meteoric rise of this triad to electronic media, but without cheap food that is high on both quality and taste he’d be waving down tailgaters at the Rose Bowl. Let’s start with Choi’s oldest offspring, the Kogi truck. With four trucks (Roja, Azul, Verde and Naranja) to choose from, the lines aren’t as crazy as they once were; you may only have to wait in line for an hour or so. On a recent visit to Venice, the Kogi truck literally came to me, pulling up and setting up shop where I was standing. Being the food adventurer I stake my reputation on, I had to go for the most unusual offering (this is where you think, “Korean tacos? Yeah that should be easy”). Since I have a weak spot for hot dogs, I decided on the Kogi Dog and their signature kimchi quesadilla. I hung out in line with Anthony Taranto, a local who has dined at the Alibi Room but took advantage of the truck pulling up to try the mobile food (in this case the short rib burrito) and friends Shane and Sita (who opted for the Blackjack Quesadilla, which, draped in salsa verde is more of a nod to the food’s Mexican heritage). I started with the Kogi Dog, and while it kicked like a mule from the kimchee topping, there was so much crunchy vegetation on it that the wiener got lost. The kimchi quesadilla was a curious conflict of tastes and textures, with the melted cheese taming the kimchee and the salsa roja covering it. It was an explosion of taste, but too much food, even for me. Shane raved about the Blackjack Quesadilla, spicy and flavorful, and Anthony finished the massive burrito, which I thought could have taken down a grizzly.
I visited The Alibi Room in order to compare the experience to eating directly off the truck. Although the meat is still prepared there, the woman serving the food (and drinks) informed me that in order to stock all the trucks, the rest of the food is prepared in a larger, more central kitchen. I wasn’t in the mood for the heap of food I sampled at the truck and so I sat at the bar and opted for the short rib sliders. The sweet and tender meat was topped with cheese, mayo, red salsa and shredded cabbage; the cold and crisp topping nicely offset the meat with plenty of spicy moisture from the condiments. I had heard that the lines were crazy at the Alibi Room, but arriving around 6 PM I found there to be plenty of room at the bar. The decor was sparse and modern with lots of light streaming in from outside (a feature not obvious when standing in front of the building). Most of the patrons were drinking from the well-stocked bar, and those who were eating were served in the same “to-go” dishes used on the trucks.
The recently opened Chego proved to be a planning challenge; again, legendary tales of waiting several hours had me mulling over whether or not to wait until the hoopla subsided, but since the cuisine is different from the fare served at The Alibi Room and on the trucks, I figured I’d bite the bullet and give it a try. On the day I went it was quiet enough to not have to wait for a table. The concept is simple – walk up to the cashier, pick your item from the board on the wall and take a number and a seat. I couldn’t resist the pull of the dish titled “One Chubby Pork Belly”, although I imagined it was a foreshadowing of my physical shape after chowing down on one. I caved in and ordered a side of kimchee and took a seat. There’s plenty to look at while you’re waiting for your food to arrive; eye-level shelves surrounding the small room are stocked with a variety of memorabilia; naturally my eyes were drawn to the foot-tall Pee Wee Herman sitting proudly on Chairry and surveying the food. Apparently he approved. I was pleased that the portions were not gargantuan, but they certainly were filling. The meat was moist, fatty and a little crispy and the freshness of the pickled radishes, water spinach, cilantro, and cross-sections of Chinese broccoli stems created complexity without taking away from the pork; the whole mess was suspended in sticky rice and topped with the omnipresent fried egg. The kimchee was lying facedown in a pool of its own spicy blood, and it had the perfect amount of fermentation while remaining crisp and spicy. Chego is small and very friendly, but I’m not sure I’d want to be packed in like a sardine waiting for a table (I didn’t see a counter or bar area where you could stand and eat your selection).
I have to wonder if the Korean invasion is complete, or if Chef Choi has something else up his sleeve, but either way I am officially admitting defeat. I will submit the articles of my surrender in 140 characters or less.