A few weeks ago, chef Roy Choi tweeted: "I opened a restaurant called POT and nobody stopped me." With that tweet, and with the restaurant itself, you can sense the glee of a man doing exactly what he wants to do.
Many of these things come across like the ideas my friends and I giggled about as addled teenagers in smoke-filled rooms. "Duuude. We should start a restaurant? And call it Pot? And serve hot pots!!! And put an old lady smoking a blunt on the cover of the menu!!!" It's a good thing Choi is such a good cook, or this could have been a disaster.
Of course, had he not been a good cook, Choi never would have arrived here in the first place, at his eighth restaurant endeavor. You don't get to have this much fun until you've earned the backing of investors and the buzz of a best-selling memoir.
I'm not going to go deep into the Roy Choi story here — plenty of ink has already been spilled in that pursuit, and the details of his success are part of L.A. lore at this point. (Somehow missed it? Buy his book.) But the man responsible for the food-truck revolution and the invention of the Korean taco is nowhere near done, and POT feels like his most culturally significant project since, well, those tacos and that truck.
POT opened two months ago in Koreatown's new Line Hotel, itself a massively ambitious project. A large boutique hotel in the heart of Koreatown, it proclaims to anyone who hasn't noticed that Korean culture, and specifically Korean youth culture, is fast becoming one of the most dominant forces in Los Angeles.
Choi has called POT an ode to Korea, but he also says that it's a reflection of the fact that second-generation Koreans have a vibe all their own.
So there's a lobby bar that fronts the restaurant and serves drinks (from star bartender Matthew Biancaniello) made with stinging nettle, uni and other ostentatious ingredients. There's also Long Island iced tea on tap.
Much of POT's style is a loving ode to the '80s and early '90s, including many of the cocktails, which manage to be more interesting than standard fuzzy navels and the like but still pretty cloying. My favorite drink so far has been one made with walnut oil and Benedictine, which fits right in with the current bitter-is-better school of bartending. The Long Island iced tea? Even the chunks of passionfruit gel at the bottom of the glass couldn't convince me.
Beyond the lobby and the bar, you enter the restaurant through a dark doorway with a neon green sign, into a large dining room that, aside from the hip-hop soundtrack and hyper-hipster waiters, seems almost utilitarian with its tiled floors and metal chairs. Tables come with slots under them for bowls, cups and utensils. You'll be given an apron to wear instead of a napkin, and a roll of paper towels for extra slop support.
The menu is dominated on the left side by hot pots, and on the right by "other things," which range from salad to bowls of spicy rice cakes and chewy noodles in anchovy broth.
You'll get a small dish of banchan to begin your meal, but many dishes you might be used to getting for free at Korean restaurants can here be found on the "other other things" part of the menu. They ain't free.
Probably the most essential dish on the menu is the "beep beep," a shallow, crispy rice bowl covered in bruleed uni and goop. The goop is basically a mixture of Kewpie mayo, yuzu and uni, making for a glorious, sticky ode to the kind of hot mayo–rich, dynamite sushi rolls frowned upon by purists.
Meanwhile, a fantastic tuna poke dish called "poke me" (get it??? sex ... har har) swathes hunks of yellowfin tuna in a zippy shoyu vinaigrette with edamame and sea beans.
You might have noticed that both those dishes aren't really Korean at all but rather nods to other cuisines that are part of the cultural soup Choi has been marinating in all these years. But there's certainly a lot of Korean food to be had here. The "rooster sauce" is basically a spicy, chicken version of jjigae, the fiery Korean stew, its molten red broth imbued with chicken fat and funk. The "steam room" lines up slices of cold pork belly and steamed tofu, divided by mounds of fragrant kimchi.
For the pastry program, which lives in the café in the lobby rather than in the restaurant itself, Choy has brought on Marian Mar, who was heavily involved in the early days of Momofuku Milk Bar, Christina Tosi's New York City dessert venture with David Chang. Mar's pastries, cookies and candy bars are some of the most exciting being served in town right now.
I could write an entire column on Mar's creations alone, but for the sake of brevity I'll say this: Get the Ritz cracker candy bar. If that's what stoner food tastes like, then I'm all for it.
The weakest spot on POT's menu is, ironically, the hot pots, which come in three sizes: huge, extra huge and stupidly huge. There are some weird and wonderful combinations here — silken tofu, shrimp, clams, mussels, pork belly and egg; or braised galbi with chestnuts, dates, taro and turnips — but across the board I found the pots to be more one-note and oversalted than anything else on the menu. I'd rather eat Korean hot pots somewhere else.
Which brings us to perhaps the most pressing question about POT: Why would you eat here, rather than at the thousands of other Korean restaurants in Koreatown? The simple answer, of course, is that, thankfully, we all have more than one meal in our lives. No need to choose one over the other.
Beyond that, there are plenty of people who are genuinely uncomfortable diving headlong into Koreatown. Hip as it has become, the neighborhood can feel impenetrable to outsiders. As if there weren't already enough puns in this venture, Choi has made POT the gateway drug of Korean restaurants, a place where the curious can experience blood and intestine stew without having to traverse any cultural barriers, imagined or real.
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A safe space for timid diners is far from the only reason to come here, though. For one thing, it's pretty great to be able to eat excellent kimchi fried rice with a glass of Domaine André et Mireille Tissot chardonnay from the Jura.
Even more so, though, Choi's best dishes say something important about the food culture of Los Angeles, and the United States. POT is one of the clearest examples of our culinary landscape's most exciting modern development: the children of immigrants stepping up and telling their own story, one that hasn't been part of the conversation until recently. In that sense, eating at POT is a chance to experience culture unfolding and changing, right there on the table before you.
Dude. That's awesome.
POT | Three stars | 3515 Wilshire Blvd., Koreatown | (213) 368-3030 | eatatpot.com | Restaurant: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily. Lobby bar: Sun.-Tues., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Wed.-Sat., 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Café: Sun.-Tues., 6 a.m.-mid.; Wed.-Sat., 6 a.m.-2 a.m. | Entrees, $11-$39 (more for large shared portions) | Full bar | Valet parking