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Digging into L.A. Son with Roy Choi

Roy Choi’s Beef Cheek Taco (photo: Bobby Fisher)

Roy Choi skyrocketed to fame as the man who brought us the shamefully addictive short rib taco (via his ultra-popular Kogi food trucks). Now a rapidly rising star, the well-tatted, street-wise chef has penned a memoir, L.A. Son – a gritty, raw journey through his highs and lows up until the launch of Kogi. Choi’s narrative is extraordinary, and includes experiences helping his parents peddle diamonds and later gambling away everything he had, ending each chapter with the recipes he associates with that time. We chatted with Choi about the epic taco, his writing style and which five cooking items he’d bring to a desert island.
Has food always been a big part of your life?
Food was always around me. It’s like growing up in a butcher shop where you’re surrounded by food. Imagine being the son of a third-generation butcher — it’s always there. For me, too, food was always there. Whether I was at home, or when we had a restaurant, it influenced my life. I wanted to use it as a thread to take you through chapters of my life, always with food to guide you. Food was important — it was the thing that brought all of those stories together.

The book gets pretty heavy as you talk though a gambling addiction and other challenges. What was the hardest part for you to write?
The hardest chapters were definitely the gambling. That was a really dark period of my life, but it was also the reason I am where I am — the gambling chapter is everything L.A. Son is: the fork in the road and precipice that led me to who I am. In order for it to be right and for the book to happen, that chapter was the center of the plot. I had to make it as ugly and as beautiful and as hurtful and painful as it was; I had to paint the picture of me stealing from my family. I had to confront that and that scumbag moment for this to come together — that point when I was the worst as a human was when I found what I needed to do to help others. And that’s feed people.

There’s a great chapter entitled Emeril. What convinced you to become a chef?
That was tough, too. That “Aha!” moment wasn’t hard to write because I remember it so vividly. It was just weird to relive it again. I don’t know where you were at your lowest point, but if you had to relive that whole thing, that’s what it was. It was therapeutic, but also very scary. Deciding to cook after watching Emeril clicked automatically — it was truly an epiphany. Because it wasn’t like I had to protect anything and say goodbye to anyone and it wasn’t a long-winded thing, it was like a snake shedding their skin. I just literally got up and walked away.

What do you cook for instant comfort?
Always eggs. Eggs and rice and soy sauce and butter. Real real peasant food. That’s what I like. I like a big bowl of steaming rice with some butter, a soft egg, soy sauce and a touch of sesame oil. Very simple, very stark.

What’s your late-night go-to?
Tacos. Burritos. Quesadillas. Classic LA food. [Get his recipe for Beef Cheek Tacos below.]

You describe the short rib taco as Los Angeles on a plate. If you were to do it again, what would be the next LA on a plate?
Maybe it’s not something you can create cerebrally. That’s why the Kogi taco is what it is. It wasn’t created; it wasn’t designed. It just came together. It’s a pulling together of a moment. It became Los Angeles as one bite in a bite. If there’s a 2.0 version, I think I will come from this taco. Whether it’s me or someone affected by Kogi and able to open up and express something they couldn’t before, that will be the next one.

What are your five desert-island cooking items?
We’re so conditioned in this food world to think that everything has to be this utensil or this vintage thing. For me, I can’t speak to other chefs, but I rep the streets of L.A. — El Salvadoran ladies making pupusas, ladies making noodles by hand. Those are the flavors I represent. So my five would be a half-cut plastic bottle for a mixing bowl, a flower apron, a worn, cheap knife; a strainer that’s old and beat up; and a wooden spoon — a weathered, wooden cooking spoon. Those would be my five things to make an amazing meal.

Beef Cheek Tacos
Yield: Makes 8 to 10 tacos

Ingredients
Brine
2 tablespoons kosher salt
Juice of ½ lemon
Juice of ½ orange
Juice of 1 lime
½ cup sugar
3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
½ cup red wine vinegar
½ cup whole dried chiles de árbol
1½ whole dried guajillo chiles
1 cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro
2 quarts water
1 pound beef cheeks, cleaned (ask your butcher to do this for you)

Salsa Verde
1½ tomatillos, charred
1½ cups roughly chopped fresh cilantro
1½ serrano chiles, with seeds
1½ jalapeños peppers with seeds, charred
Juice of 1 lime
2 ½ garlic cloves, peeled
½ cup roughly chopped scallions, charred
½ cup natural rice vinegar (not seasoned)

¼ cup vegetable oil
8 to 10 corn tortillas
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Garnish
Chopped white onion
Chopped cilantro

In a large pot, combine all the brine ingredients. Bring the brine to a boil, then remove from the heat and let it cool. Add the beef cheeks to the cooled brine (if you add the meat to the hot brine, the meat will cook instead of marinate). Place the pot in your fridge and marinate the beef cheeks, uncovered, in the brine overnight.

The next morning, set the beef cheeks (still in the brine) over high heat and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, uncovered, until the beef cheeks are tender, about 1 hour.

Remove the beef cheeks from the pot, discarding the brine, and let them cool. Once the cheeks have cooled, roughly chop them into small pieces.

Combine all of the ingredients for the salsa in a blender or food processor and puree.

Heat the oil on a griddle or in a skillet and cook the tortillas over medium heat for 30 seconds to crisp up, then flip. Remove the tortillas and add the beef cheeks to the griddle or skillet, cooking for about 2 minutes, until the meat is caramelized. Season with salt and pepper.

To bring everything together, stack 2 tortillas on a plate and top with beef cheeks.

Spoon salsa all over the beef. Garnish with onions and cilantro.

Eat many.

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