View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, “Outside Inside, or Kogi's Roy Choi Goes all Strip Mall with Chego.”
If you should find yourself in Hilo around noon, you could do worse than to stop by Café 100, an ancient lunch counter with a signboard menu, a few covered tables and a line to the cash register that stretches halfway to Maui. Other restaurants in Hawaii have good plate lunches, the traditional combination platters identified by the mantra “one scoop mac, two scoops rice,'' but Café 100 is the birthplace of the formidable concoction known as the loco moco, a bed of rice topped with a hamburger patty, drenched in 30-weight brown gravy and crowned with a runny fried egg, a mongoose-size cholesterol bomb that works its way through your system with the deliberate pace that a pig takes through a snake. If you eat a loco moco in November, especially one fortified with Portuguese sausage and Spam, you are set to hibernate through spring.
Were the first people to taste loco moco, I sometimes wonder, dismayed by the bulk of the thing, or were they enchanted by the taste? Would they rather have had a simple plate of grilled fish, or did they appreciate the marriage of local flavors with mainland abundance? Half a century later, the loco moco may be the emblematic dish of Hawaiian local cuisine, a touchstone for chefs and a dish frequently retooled with things like demi-glace, truffles and foie gras.
I mention loco moco because I have been eating lately at Chego, the new restaurant from Kogi auteur Roy Choi, the architect of the truck-based restaurant phenomenon and the only chef I know whose food is capable of attracting several hundred people to an Eagle Rock parking lot at midnight. Chego also specializes in rice bowls, weighty, baroque constructions that splice all the flavors of the city into great splooshes of combinatorial DNA, and I think we may be witnessing a loco moco moment: rice with pickled watermelon radish, sauteed ong choy, peanuts, crumbled cotija cheese, a fried egg and a crisp, spurting slab of pork belly that has been burnished as lovingly with Korean chile paste as a '64 Impala show car has been rubbed with lacquer. Rice with grilled chicken with sour cream, Indonesian chile sambal, Thai basil and sesame and Chinese broccoli. Fried rice with hot dogs, scallions, Korean chile, gaenip and a dozen other things — the Korean/Thai/Chinese/Japanese/Indonesian Chego specialties are complex enough to make the loco moco seem as simple as a waltz.
After my third time at Chego, I think I began to understand — Choi isn't elevating Los Angeles street cuisine to the level of fine dining; he's using the language of fine dining to exalt the food of the street.
The restaurant, stuffed into a mini-mall storefront, thrums. The order line stretches from the register to the door; customers bang into the kitchen staff when they grab cans of Korean crushed-pear drink from the glass-front refrigerators in the back, and tables combine and separate to accommodate both vast groups and the odd couple. The lines move, and the tables turn over quickly. There always seems to be a place to sit — the Chego/Kogi team is good at moving large groups of people in and out of a space. Are the customers all college students? Not necessarily, but it seems like it sometimes.
Shelves near the ceiling are crammed with old cigar boxes, tiny paintings and small collections of books and toys. The hip-hop plays loud. It looks like the kind of hidden Tokyo jazz bar that can take three sets of cabbies to find.
The aesthetic here, which you may recognize from Kogi's specials, is on the maximalist side, which is to say, Choi never relies on one flavor where seven or eight will do. So a plate of charred asparagus, which would be fine with maybe a few drops of olive oil and a flake or two of salt, undergoes a flurry of squirted sauces, a florid assortment that carries the basic sensations of sriricha and bean sauce but that may be composed of chiles and Parmesan cheese or mayonnaise and blueberry-habañero vinaigrette: the sweet-hot palette somehow enhances the basic smoky sweetness of the asparagus without burying it.
The “$12 Salad'' — just $7; the name is a play on the $6 Burger at Carl's Jr. — includes dried cranberries, toasted pecans, miso, goat cheese and mizuna lettuce, which would be a joke on the theme of overfancy restaurant salads if it didn't in fact taste so good. More-or-less permanent specials include a giant prime-rib sandwich on toasted ciabatta with cheese, herbs and grilled onions, and the Ooey Gooey Fries, an Asianesque variation on Cal-Mex carne asada fries sluiced with sour cream, sambal, chiles and gobs of melted cheese. Chego is not a place to show restraint.
What is Choi's dish for the ages? Probably his Hot Buttered Kimchi Chow, a multifaceted, soulful thing, utterly un-Korean in concept but Korean to its core: kimchi tossed with buttered rice, edamame, pungent gaenip, crumbled pork rinds, tofu and the omnipresent fried egg, a dish that tastes like every element of a 1 a.m. Korean meal compressed into a single bowl of glop, a dish that some chef from the future is going to reconstruct with foie gras.
Pastry chef Beth Kellerhals, who also does the sweets for the Kogi trucks, is something of a marvel, but her desserts sell out fast. The rhubarb pie, which has the shortest, most delicious butter crust ever, sells out in nanoseconds, as does her candy bar made with crisped rice and sriracha-spiked ganache. Come early. Or settle for the Rock Yer Road: a deconstructed rocky-road sundae with caramel, brownies and marshmallow fluff.
CHEGO: 3300 Overland Ave., W.L.A. (310) 287-0337. Open Tues.-Sat., 6 p.m.-mid., eatchego.com. MC, V. No alcohol. Limited lot parking. Starters $4-$7; rice bowls $7-$9; desserts $4-$5. Recommended dishes: charred asparagus; Ooey Gooey Fries; Hot Buttered Kimchi Chow; rhubarb pie.