Roy Choi has had a roller coaster of a summer. His LINE Hotel restaurants contract came to an end July 31 and his Watts healthier fast food spot Locol recently ceased retail operations, remaining open as a catering event space. Meanwhile, he’s preparing to open his first out-of-state restaurant at Park MGM in Las Vegas.
But L.A.’s native son is still doing his thing in his city and innovating along the way. His latest culinary mashup includes something that’s become as common in parts of L.A. as a Kogi truck: kombucha.
From now through the end of October, Choi's Chinatown eatery, Chego, is serving two classic dishes infused with kombucha and other organic fermented drinks from Ojai-based KeVita.
In case you don’t know about the popular drink that’s found in a rainbow of colors and flavors at most L.A. supermarkets, some restaurants and occasionally on tap, kombucha is fermented tea. It doesn’t usually taste like tea due to sweetness from sugar and the tang of fermentation from a sugar-eating disc of bacteria called a scoby, which also gives it an effervescence (seriously, don’t shake a bottle of kombucha). Fruit or vegetable juices, spices and roots like ginger or turmeric may be added to create different flavors. KeVita also makes flavored apple cider vinegar tonics, which Choi also is using, as well as sparkling probiotic drinks made with fermented water kefir culture.
The big claim to fame with kombucha and other fermented drinks and foods is that they’re chockfull of probiotics — healthy bacteria that feed your gut. Many health experts are now recognizing how strongly gut bacteria can affect overall health; some are even calling your gut your “second brain” — it’s that important. So people in Los Angeles and beyond have been chugging kombucha from the store or making it themselves. The sugar content and quality varies by bottle and brand, but that’s a whole other rabbit hole.
Choi is already a kombucha drinker, claiming KeVita was his go-to, and since childhood has eaten foods like Korean staple kimchi made with fermented vegetables, usually cabbage. He’s also about trying to make healthier food more approachable and balancing the healthy with the not-so-healthy (kind of like the model for Locol).
So integrating fermented drinks into his menu was a natural fit for him.
Those who aren’t kombucha converts may find the idea of a bubbly fermented tea drink odd or not want to try a whole bottle, but a rice bowl with a sauce that seamlessly integrates kombucha may be an easier sell.
“If we inundate people with the message of health, they do the opposite,” Choi says. “We’re trying to find ways to create bridges.”
For Chego’s cauliflower adobo bowl ($10), Choi uses half a cup of KeVita’s tart cherry kombucha in place of some of the vinegar and sugar and reduces it with the usual mixture of cauliflower, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, onions and garlic. It’s then served over rice with a sunny side up egg and garnished with cilantro, jalapeños, sesame seeds and fried shallots for a savory, complex burst of flavors.
Cooking can kill the probiotics in kombucha, which may seem counterproductive. But Choi still considers it a good alternative and a way to present something that may be foreign.
“Even if [cooking] kills 90 percent, that 10 percent [of probiotics] is better than zero or processed juices and sugar,” Choi says. “I’m all about those small wins.”
Choi switches out the vinegar in the ginger miso dressing on the “12 dollar salad” (actually $7) with KeVita’s turmeric ginger apple cider tonic. Its acidity and earthy undertones work well with the chopped ginger in the dressing and sweetness of the cranberries and candied nuts in the salad.
“Forget that it’s fermented food and just eat and have fun,” Choi says.
For future fermented feasting, Choi plans to make his own kombucha to mix with kimchi for his Las Vegas Park MGM restaurant, which is slated to open in November.
Chego, 727 N. Broadway, #117, Chinatown; (323) 380-8680, eatchego.com.