“A whole generation of Korean immigrants and their American born children could have lived and died in the United States without anyone knowing they had been here. I could not let that happen.” So wrote Kim Ronyoung, author of the classic novel Clay Walls. I thought of her book while reading Roy Choi’s L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food, which screams from every page: “I’m here! Don’t forget me!”
Choi is widely known as the proprietor of Kogi BBQ, a Korean-Mexican taco truck company. Choi’s Korean tacos are sold from a fleet of trucks canvassing the multicultural breadth of Southern California and have spawned a generation of imitators.
While people may not get what made Kogi BBQ the massive success it is today, L.A. Son reveals how. And it’s much more complicated than you might think.
With surprising efficiency (credit to co-authors Tien Nguyen and Natasha Phan), each chapter details a different twist in Choi’s life, with recipes to match. Choi is honest about his ups and downs, but does try to spice things up (his general approach to life and food). He doesn’t edit out the unsavory bits, and makes sure to include a recipe to remember things by.
A stint as a country club cook leads to a club sandwich recipe. Mexican kitchen co-workers teach Choi how to make birria with freshly-killed goat. When he hits rock bottom due to various addictions, his parents nurse him back to health with abalone porridge and kimchi stew. Those recipes are shared, too.
Following his kimchi-fueled recovery, Choi studied at the Culinary Institute of America and worked his way up the ladder at top restaurants in the United States and abroad. Choi has found a niche in making recipes as low-cost and flexible as possible.
“You can have almost no money and still have enough to live off this stuff for weeks, months, years,” Choi wrote about an instant ramen recipe with American cheese. Yes, he includes a teased-up ramen pack recipe in a 340-page full-color cookbook, and I love him for it.
Besides the ramen recipe, the book is not gimmicky and includes solid recipes for everyday carne asada, Caesar salad and something called “$4 Spaghetti That Tastes Almost As Good As The $24 Spaghetti.”
L.A. Son’s recipes remind me of old Japanese American community cookbooks with recipes for Chinese chicken salad, pancit, and macaroni casseroles. They are faithful to who we lived with, worked alongside, learned from, and most importantly, cooked and ate with. Choi follows this long tradition of Asian American food, which is indebted to neighbors and redolent of prosperity and privation. It tastes like what we imagined the American Dream to be, and what it actually ended up being. Choi captures that taste for the 21st century. You’ll like this book, and I suspect it will remind you of home.