How Roy Choi Kicked off the Food Truck Revolution That Changed the Way Americans Eat
The story of the Great Food Truck Insurrection really begins with Emeril.
Well, technically it begins in Seoul, South Korea, in 1970, with Choi being born, his cleft lip split wide open as he came out, so that when they finally stitched it back together, it left him with a lightning-shaped scar on his upper lip. His parents -- mom from Pyung-An Do in the North, dad from Chollanam-do in the South -- had met in America and moved back to South Korea, but found it wasn’t as they’d remembered, so they made their move back to America permanent in 1972, settling in Los Angeles.
Once back, the Chois were scrappy and quick to hit the reset button on their job prospects if they weren’t working out. His father, who’d been in the military in Korea and been sent to study diplomacy and international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, nonetheless took what he could get in America, first running a Koreatown liquor store, then selling hippie jewelry door- to- door alongside Choi’s mother. Choi’s mom was a talented cook -- her kimchi and panchan were famous -- and she’d sometimes sell snacks in parking lots and bowling alleys. Eventually, her talents led the way, and the Chois opened a Korean restaurant called Silver Garden in Anaheim.
When the restaurant went under, they started selling jewelry again, but this time it was expensive pieces on consignment. They would borrow the jewels and hide them on Roy as they walked around downtown LA, rationalizing that robbers wouldn’t expect a twelve-year-old to be loaded down with hundreds of thousands of dollars of diamonds. Within three years, Choi’s parents went from scraping by to “actually, waiter, we’ll have the bottled sparkling water” rich. They bought a Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham and a half-million-dollar house in 1983 money, a fancy house that used to belong to a fancy professional athlete in a fancy place called Villa Park in Orange County, two square miles of rich, white, professional dads practicing their golf swings on manicured lawns.
Choi was one of three Asians in a middle school full of Chads and Justins living in seven-thousand-square-foot homes with six car garages. He played the class clown and survived into high school, where the mix of kids from Orange and Anaheim balanced out the excess wealth and whiteness. Once there, Choi took up with the Grove Street Mob, a crew of multicultural kids sort of like Captain Planet’s Planeteers, except instead of controlling elements of nature with special rings, they all wore heavily starched jeans and got into fights.
At home, Choi was still Good Roy, living in a mansion in a wealthy enclave, even if he stubbornly refused to take an allowance, instead earning his money at a toy store or washing dishes at Leatherby’s or busing tables at Cask ’n’ Cleaver. But with his friends in Grove Street, Choi morphed into Bad Roy, getting into fights, taking drugs, and storing shotguns under the seats of cars. By his senior year, he’d purchased and tricked out a 1987 Chevy Blazer, earning him a spot in a Latin car club called the Street City Minis. This was Cool Car Roy. Choi’s world was weird and fractured and multiethnic, filled with fights, petty crime, custom car shows, and a doting, successful family with a beautiful home. Choi was living two, maybe even three, lives, and it was hard to tell which was the real one.
After high school, Choi went to California State University, Fullerton, and majored in philosophy. But then, as Choi tells it, his life turned into a series of dramatic montage scenes from Rounders, Casino, and the scarier parts of Goodfellas. He spent a summer in Korea, met a girl, ate around Seoul with the girl, lost the girl, and ended up in New York at a YMCA smoking crack for a week after a con man swindled him out of his last $120 by pretending he was an adjunct professor who was going to bring Choi to an expensive lecture.
He went home, started to get his shit together enough to go back to college, and then became a gambling addict for the next few years, playing Asian Pan 9 and Pai Gow games at the Bicycle Club Casino in Bell Gardens. At first, Choi was a damn good gambler, winning $34,000 on one hand, eating pho, drinking milkshakes, and getting massages while bluffing Telly Savalas; blowing his winnings at Koreatown nightclubs while hanging out with people named John John Boy and Davy Baby and Marty Party; watching a guy win $150,000 at the casino, only to hear a few hours later he was murdered in the parking lot with an ax. You know, that sort of thing.
Eventually Choi’s luck ran out, but he couldn’t stop chasing it, and soon he was pawning everything he had, selling his clothes and shoes, stealing from his parents and his sister, taking anything he could. Finally, his parents intervened and brought him to their house to detox, and he started getting his shit together. He began working as a mutual funds broker at First Investors, initially on some Boiler Room shit, but soon he began doing well, even making six figures. But then the cycle shifted: Choi reconnected with an old friend, the old friend loved to drink, they went out, one night turned into a week turned into a month turned into six months, and it all bottomed out when an ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend and his friends beat Choi senseless and stuck guns to his head in the karaoke room of a Koreatown nightclub. Choi was asked if he wanted to live or die. Choi didn’t answer, and was allegedly brave or drunk or stupid enough to stagger to his feet, flick them off, walk out of the room without getting shot, and wake up the next morning in the passenger seat of his own car. Peak Bad Roy.
And that’s how we get back to Emeril. As most origin stories do, this one has turned into myth, with different iterations and angles and locations, but it goes something like this: Choi, hungover on the couch a few weeks later, was coming in and out of consciousness. In the background of his haze, he could hear a man seasoning the ever-loving shit out of meats and yelling phrases more commonly associated with the storyboarded sound effects from Adam West’s Batman. It was Essence of Emeril. The Fall River/ NOLA man/ bear hybrid was revving up the crowd with his discussion of beef bourguignonne. As Choi came in and out of this world, Emeril stepped into his dreams and gave him a pep talk while possibly letting him smell basil. Emeril, more than the ax murder, or the pawning of his shoes, or the guns to his head, was the tipping point for Choi. He was going to be a chef.
In six months Choi was back, living with his parents, working at First Investors, and enrolled in a local culinary school. His parents offered to pay for serious school, so Choi applied and got into the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York. In the winter of 1996, he entered the school, and though most kids were much younger than him, Choi took to the geeky side of things, learned the techniques, and even got an externship with Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin. When he graduated from CIA, he got married and took a job as a junior sous chef at La Casa del Zorro in Borrego Springs, California, making Kit Fox salads for snowbird retirement folks and German tourists. That job led to another in South Lake Tahoe, running the food program for the Embassy Suites.
Choi kept moving up over the next six years, eventually overseeing the culinary decisions at ten of their properties before making his way back to Los Angeles to become chef de cuisine at the Beverly Hilton. From there, he was recruited by the Cheesecake Factory founder David Overton to help chef Mohan Ismail (an influential Singaporean chef who’d worked at Tabla and Spice Market) open RockSugar, their Asian concept. Everything went fine in the test kitchen, but when the actual restaurant opened, Choi was constantly in the weeds. He couldn’t handle the huge menu, and found himself breaking down on the line, forgetting how to do things and what he’d ordered and what he needed to tell the line cooks. Ismail fired him. Choi went to his car and threw up, and then, for three days, pretended to his wife that he wasn’t fired, getting dressed in the morning as if he were going to work and then just driving around the city, numb.
Choi had a family, a young daughter. He couldn’t fuck around. He needed a job. But it was 2008. No one was hiring. The economy was on the brink, and he was either overqualified or underqualified or overconfident or underconfident. He couldn’t even get a full gig, even an entry-level one. Things were becoming dire. He was thirty-eight years old, and if he’d been treading water before, now he was starting to drown.
The call that saved him came from the place that almost killed him: Koreatown. His buddy Mark Manguera, a Philippines-born, Cali-raised fellow chef from the Beverly Hilton, had been drunk eating Mexican food with his sister when he’d had an epiphany: Why the hell wasn’t anyone putting Korean barbecue on tacos? Mexicans had been living in Koreatown for decades, and their cuisines were like cousins. Didn’t that make sense?
At first, for Choi, it didn’t. He and Manguera weren’t really that close at the Beverly Hilton, and the entire thing seemed so basic. But the more Choi thought about it, the more he realized this was a puzzle he wanted to put together. And anyway, he didn’t have shit going on anywhere else.
Manguera and Choi started to experiment in Manguera’s tiny Koreatown kitchen. What they came up with -- stuffing Korean barbecued short ribs garnished with salsa roja and cilantro-onion-lime relish into homemade, griddled corn tortillas -- seemed simple, but the flavors were deceptively nuanced. This, more than anything else, was something all the Roys -- Good Roy and Bad Roy and Car Roy -- could contribute to. Learning Korean flavors from his parents’ restaurant. Going to huge cookouts with his Latino car club homies. Breaking into Tastee Freez to cook chimichangas with the Grove Street Mob. It was all in there.
"The sudden materialization of hundreds of people is like what used to be called a flash mob -- but with much better food."
It was also November 2008. Businesses were melting, and banks were barely allowing people to take money out of ATMs. Small business loans did not exist. There was no way Choi and Manguera could get a brick-and-mortar space, so instead they rented a Grumman catering truck from the eighties and decided they’d sell the tacos out of the truck for two dollars apiece.
Around Thanksgiving, the Kogi BBQ Taco Truck hit the streets with Choi cooking, Manguera in the front of the truck, and Manguera’s wife, Caroline, as the financial brain. Sales were okay. People liked the tacos, but it was hard to build a word-of-mouth audience when they were constantly setting up shop in different locations. Sometimes they’d have to give away free taco samples just to get things going. But then, through the grace of God and VC money, Twitter exploded. The nascent social media company had launched two years earlier, but it took off in 2008, going from 1.6 million total tweets posted in 2007 to 400 million the following year. Choi started tweeting to let followers know his location in real time, and the combination of his addictive and affordable fusion street food and the in-the-know feeling of discovering the truck’s latest stop created a cultural food phenomenon.
In an early 2009 review in LA Weekly, food critic Jonathan Gold detailed the scene: “Followers keep track of Kogi’s whereabouts on a frequently updated Twitter feed -- twitter.com/kogibbq -- and the sudden materialization of hundreds of people is like what used to be called a flash mob -- but with much better food. The frequent tweets make you feel connected to Kogi, as if you were friends with the owners instead of just another hungry mouth, even if your only contact with them has been a quick fist bump when you picked up your tacos.”
The juxtaposition of his CIA degree, his résumé that could name-check Le Bernardin and the Beverly Hilton, and his heavily tatted, flat-brimmed, swagger-heavy persona quickly made Choi and the Kogi truck the face of the burgeoning food truck movement. With no hope of securing loans or getting new jobs, more and more professionally trained chefs took to the streets, joining the ranks of progenitors like Choi in LA, and Nong’s Khao Man Gai owner Narumol Poonsukwattana in Portland, creating, all around the country, an explosion of intensely creative, singularly focused, cheap, delicious foods.
But few had prepped their entire lives to be able to capture the high and the low like Choi. His talk of Pépin’s La Technique came as easy as Grove Street anecdotes about stashing weapons in cars. Choi had grown up poor and rich, and that dual identity captured the essence of the food truck revolution more succinctly than any other narrative.