1/2 portabello mushroom sandwich
cup of lentil soup
2 glasses of water
small caffe latte
1 reduced-fat brownie
one Chubby pork belly bowl
shared order of Ooey Gooey fries
1 bottle of Jarritos orange soda
In a desperate attempt to preserve some amount of privacy for their dinner at Chego, the insanely popular new restaurant from the creator of the Kogi BBQ Korean tacos, two girls sat diagonally from each other at a table for four. This insured that no couple would try to share the table with them and they can talk in piece. It was a move that was both ingenious and in the words of Ryan, an “asshole” maneuver. Nevertheless, they could not maintain their seating arrangement. Another woman politely asked them to re-arrange themselves for herself and her husband. They had to comply. Like the Kogi trucks, Chego will test your patience before you get a chance to eat one of Roy Choi’s funky Korean-fusion concepts. The place is tiny, no bigger than an apartment living room, and there’s only enough seating for 30 people. You order from a counter, take a number, and wait for an open seat. Sometimes, the wait is so long that you actually get the food before you find a seat. Then you have a choice, eat standing up or let your meal get cold and wait.
I got relatively lucky. After I ordered my meal, a spot immediately opened up at a table with two guys. One of the guys, a broad Asian man with a backward baseball cap and tattoos on his arm, motioned for me to sit at his table. It was Roy Choi himself, the man who created the Korean tacos and kimchi quesadillas that drew hour-long lines to his Kogi trucks and inevitably launched a thousand food trucks like Helen of Troy launched Greek ships. If you’ve ever stumbled upon an armada of newfangled food trucks somewhere, Choi was the progenitor, and it’s a trend that’s making it’s way eastward. He even earned him a Food & Wine magazine award as one of the best new chefs in America for crashing Korean and Mexican cooking together in a concept that fits our increasingly multicultural zeitgest.
By chance, I now got a chance to eat my meal at Chego with Roy. As soon as I sat down, he pointed out the bottle opener against the wall for my Jarritos soda. “It’s not a twist-off,” he said. My food immediately arrived, but Ryan’s didn’t, so I waited for his meal. Roy noticed that I wasn’t eating and told me that utensils are up front. “I’m waiting on my friend’s meal,” I told him. “Don’t wait, just eat,” he replied. “You don’t need manners at Chego. It’s just about eating.” So I went up to get my utensils. I was excited that they had sporks, which I always liked because they’re both ridiculous and practical, like skorts. I also noticed that the utensils were biodegradable.
“They’re made out of corn,” Roy said.
“I know,” I replied. “We had the same ones at work. I tried eating one once. It tastes like raw pasta.”
Despite my odd comment, he patiently explained that all round bowls are made out of bamboo, and the square dishes are 100% recycled paper. The environmentalism befits Chego’s spartan and bohemian spirit. The space is fairly basic except for a bright, giant mural that spells out the restaurants name. It’s also loud and conversations reverberate. Roy asked one of his employees to play some music. Sean Paul’s “Gimme the Light” starts blaring, and the hodgepodge atmosphere gets yet another ingredient added.
I got the pork belly bowl, which was essentially a Korean bibimbap (Ed note: a couple of readers never heard of bibimbap. Fair enough. Here’s a quick explanation) slightly reinterpreted in Roy Choi’s way. Each bowl is carefully arranged with a few choice ingredients, so you don’t get a heaping assortment of random meat and vegetables like in a traditional bibimbap. The only vegetable in my bowl were tiny water squashes. There was a fried egg like in a bibimbap, but the only condiment available was the decidedly un-Korean sriracha sauce. My pork belly was heavily glazed with the Korean chile paste gochuchang and grilled. Pork belly is now at almost every restaurant, but this was a good version, crispy, flavorful and a very good deal for $7. I preferred this dish slightly more than the prime rib bowl, which came with spinach, horseradish and fried shallots. It was surprisingly spicy and there was none of the sweetness one associates with galbi. It was good, but the galbi short ribs were a bit antiseptic, since Korean BBQ usually tastes best from a big, smoky grill.
We also split an order of fries that were heavily topped with a sambal/mayo mixture. The fries were cooked twice in the Belgian style and the dish plays off the European fries/mayo combo. Play as in it turns the entire concept up to 11. Of course it’s good, I mean it’s french fries and mayo, but there’s no way you can eat the whole thing without feeling sick.
As we were eating, Roy magically pulled out a giant box of produce from under the table to show his friend that day’s vegetables. He then mentioned a new restaurant concept he’s been kicking around, one that will serve all finger foods with no utensils (not even sporks!). It was then that his egalitarian sense of cooking became obvious. Roy likes to cook Korean food, but he will steal good ideas from any culture as well. More importantly, food and cooking must be as accessible as possible. When he told me that there are no manners at Chego, that’s the point. He just wants people to eat. Finger foods, $7 rice bowls, $2 tacos from a truck, they all fit that mindset. And all his dishes are prepared more carefully and more planned out than at other casual restaurants or taco trucks. The thing is, so many people buy into his concepts that his eateries are tough to brave sometimes. By making good, creative cooking accessible, it’s also daunting. By the time our meal was winding down, there were several people hovering over tables, and some were eating their meals standing up. As soon as Roy left, another couple replaced him. The woman was Beth Kellerhals, the pastry chef who designed the “Rock Yer Road” dessert for Chego and the tres leches chocolate cake for Kogi. She was apologetic for having to share our personal space. But that’s the point. Chego forces everyone and everything together, sometimes against our instincts, for the sake of a good meal.
Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf
1 cup of green tea