Fearing a mob scene akin to the ones at his Kogi trucks, we hit Roy Choi's new Chego! at 10 P.M. last night, right in time to hear the chef tell a friend on the phone that the 6:00 P.M. rush had only just ended minutes before. Arriving this late, we had one of the year's hottest new restaurants basically to ourselves, with lighting fast service and a surplus of leg room. This might not last forever, though, as we also overheard the team plotting to fill the place past ten using some of their old Twitter tricks. So sure, it's early and recipes might still be in flux, but what did we think of the food?
Choi might have come off the streets for Chego, but the dishes here are his grimiest yet. The rice bowl recipes embody cheap comfort food in a finer form; careful mash-ups that feel like the midnight snack of a stoner who works in a tony kitchen and threw a bunch of upscale leftovers into a bowl, only to miraculously strike a balance of disparate Pan-Asian-American elements with a distinct L.A. soul. These are not the classically-rooted or genre-twisting dishes of one of Food and Wine's typical Best New Chef, but are distinctly Choi's. One quickly gets the sense that these plates could spring from his mind only. The food is sloppy, spicy, casual, fun, and ups the sixth taste to Nigel Tufnel levels while keeping Choi firmly footed in his own voice.
The "Hen House" chicken bowl was even better; cozy, indulgent, sweet, and firing off a range of tastes, with noticeable strains of Southeast Asia in Thai Basil and sambal, along with a touch of Japanese yakitori and U.S. comfort in dollops of light sour cream. But Choi's crowning achievement is the rocky road reinvention "Rock Yer Road." Salty, decadent, and luscious, it is like the first orgasmic bite we ever took of a Snicker's bar, though even more concentrated and richer, with chocolate ice cream swimming in caramel, crunchy smoked almonds, preserved cherries, with a small cloud of chewy marshmallow fluff. If any revelations were spotted at Chego! last night, this was it for us.
Chego! is committed to being green, with bowls and plates that decompose naturally, as well as sporks and cutlery. We applaud these efforts, even if they get in the way of the flavor fest. The prime rib was difficult to hack though within the borders of the rectangular paper bowl with plasticware, and chopsticks are badly needed to make a necessary mess of these disparate ingredients. Also, this is truly the perfect late-night pig-out food and the lack of liquor is palpable and even sort of tense, with the heat so strong in each dish.
We look forward to trying more at Chego! and are looking towards late-nights for our chance. But that M.O. might not last long, as we overheard the Chego! team discussing strategies to fill the restaurant in the later-hours using some of their old Twitter tricks. Plans were suggested to announce secret or limited edition recipes for a select number of people who show up between certain hours, a powerful ploy that should keep Choi fans on their feet, while retaining some of the immediacy of his mobile fleet.
We'd couldn't stop wondering this week if Choi's Food and Wine "Best New Chef" accolade was a bit like President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize win, based more on potential and popular impact than on actual achievement. Though a few small rice bowl wrinkles still exist in integrating the flavors and circumventing structural issues, we see a chef who knows his strengths and creativity, and has managed (again) to put together a coherent voice for both himself and his city while bringing both personalities to the forefront of casual dining. Unlike Kogi, Chego! might not change the world of restaurants per se, but Choi has hit the nail on the head in creating a passionate, radical, and delectable new snack food that could exist in no place but L.A.
Earlier: Roy Choi Opens Chego! Tonight at 6 P.M. [Grub Street]