Nothing captures the spirit of a Southern California cookout better than DJ Quik’s “Pitch in on a Party.” So it’s only right that L.A.’s day-off anthem bumps silkily from the speakers at the opening of LocoL, the latest culinary banger from native son Roy Choi.
It’s Martin Luther King Day on 103rd Street in Watts, the economically depressed neighborhood that produced Jay Rock, Simon Rodia’s famous towers and the 1965 insurrection. If Choi succeeds, LocoL’s healthy but affordable fast-food fusion will help revitalize this oft-overlooked corner of the county.
So far, so good. As a first-day goodwill gesture, Choi feeds all interested parties for free. There’s a two-hour wait. Locals man the kitchen. Others in black Watts shirts pass out granola bars and water to those waiting — a diverse cross-section ranging from Highland Park craft beer enthusiasts to Grape Street Crips. Neighborhood kids break-dance to Zapp, Warren G and Egyptian Lover.
Celebrities on hand include Lena Dunham, Eric Garcetti, Tyrese and director Jon Favreau (Choi co-produced his last film, Chef), a random guest list that speaks to the near-universal appeal of the affable entrepreneur behind the Kogi truck, Chego and the Line hotel’s restaurants. It’s a level of local reverence usually achieved only by Lakers legends or Compton rappers.
As for rappers themselves, Choi’s clearly their favorite chef. Dilated Peoples, Alchemist and Black Thought all tweet about LocoL’s opening, testimony to the impeccable musical ear and artistic flair Choi applies to his restaurants and cooking.
“There’s a natural connection between music and cooking — sometimes it’s like a DJ feeling the room in how you pick up on different senses in the kitchen,” the 45-year old says a few weeks earlier, wearing a black beanie, Stussy jacket and myriad tattoos. A playlist blares Young Thug, Future and Fetty Wap — a far cry from the staid hotel kitchens where he started.
Much ink has been spilled about Choi’s brilliant alchemy of Latin and Asian cooking, less about his omnivorous and encyclopedic musical taste. You can see it in the soundtracks of his establishments. Kogi’s early years featured a transistor tape-deck radio blaring K-pop and ’90s hip-hop. Chego spins ’80s and ’90s rap — “It’s like my car in high school,” Choi says. A-Frame warranted softer indie electronica, while the Line spans Motown, ’70s funk, ’90s R&B, Korean hip-hop and local indie linchpins Brainfeeder and Stones Throw.
“I try to immerse myself completely in whatever I do. We’re trying to go into the culture and all the way back out,” Choi says. “That’s why we didn’t just want to open a place in Watts; we wanted to do it with the approval of the community. I’m always trying to listen and learn.”
He’s been that way since he was a young teen getting into metal and catching Kiss, Judas Priest and Slayer shows. He took hallucinogens at Grateful Dead con-certs and saw the World Class Wreckin’ Cru. There was Public Enemy at the old Palace and Digital Underground when 2Pac was their back-up dancer. Choi is a former B-boy as well, versed in obscure ’90s gangsta rap, the cream of the modern underground and Atlanta trappers.
If both chefs and rappers are supposedly the new rock stars, Choi artfully triangulates all three.
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“When you’re cooking, the cerebral stuff only goes so far,” Choi says. “As we’re doing it, we may see or feel something, and then instantly time stops and we’re like, ‘Get me that onion right now. Give it to me.’ And it has to come at that moment, because there’s something I see in that pot that this onion, or whatever it is, has to be transferred to that, and that makes magic. It’s like music.”
An L.A. native, Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com.