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Food

Roy Choi wants to be your new best friend in Vegas

The chef walks through his first restaurant outside Los Angeles, which he’s opened in Las Vegas at the Park MGM.

It’s three minutes before service begins, and Roy Choi is calmly walking around his immaculate, open kitchen, carrying a deli cup full of rattling plastic black spoons. Opening night at Best Friend, his Las Vegas restaurant inside the Park MGM hotel, probably should be a hectic affair. It’s the first restaurant outside Los Angeles for the chef best known for his Kogi BBQ trucks and his first opening since closing his restaurants at the Line Hotel in Koreatown and since transitioning Locol into a catering operation.

But Choi, wearing a black beanie with the letters BF stitched onto the front, is noticeably chill. And there’s a smile on his face as he shuffles through his kitchen’s kimchi fried rice station, banchan station, taco station and pastry kitchen, pausing to dip his spoon into sauce after sauce.

“Taste this,” he says, beckoning, the tip of a spoon full of a pale pink concoction held just inches from my mouth. “It’s the slippery shrimp sauce.”

Roy Choi opens Best Friend in Las Vegas
Chef Roy Choi is photographed in front of his new restaurant, Best Friend, located inside the Park MGM hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.
(Mel melcon / Los Angeles Times)
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And so we taste: just-tart-enough ponzu; the spicy, creamy slippery shrimp sauce; a tamarind hot pot sauce laced with chile; an electric salsa verde. Each is punchier than the next, the flavors big and assertive.

As the clock strikes 5 p.m., Diego Echavarria, the executive chef, huddles with the kitchen staff and with a loud “go team,” Best Friend is open, and the ticket printer hums to life.

“Ten years ago at this time, in this month, I was selling tacos on the street with no money in my bank, scared of what was coming next but invigorated and filled with a whole new life that I couldn’t walk away from,” Choi says. He’s looking out over his new dining room, a sprawl of color and movement.

A neon sign proclaiming “Roy Choi is my best friend” welcomes you into a store — full of thousands of chips, sweets, instant ramen packs and knickknacks — that serves as the restaurant entrance. The store’s counters are covered in stickers so that they look like the bottom of your sixth-grade skateboard. Slushy machines churn boozy concoctions like Hennessy and Cola.

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Roy Choi opens Best Friend in Las Vegas
Chef Roy Choi left, has a discussion with his executive chef Diego Echavarria, while inside the kitchen of his new restaurant, Best Friend, located inside the Park MGM hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.
(Mel melcon / Los Angeles Times)

“The whole idea behind Best Friend was to bring a capsule of L.A. to Vegas. The L.A. I know,” says Choi, who often appoints himself ambassador for the entire city. “The whole restaurant is a gift to L.A. and to Vegas and to myself and to the spirits.”

The pops of pink and neon yellow, the share-size boxes of Hello Panda, the cans of Spam, the shot glasses, the mini marquee over the cash register showcasing Kogi short rib tacos, the photo of Bruce Lee tacked to a wall. The psychedelic red tunnel you have to walk through to get to the dining room. It’s all distinctly Choi, a brand he’s painstakingly developed over the last decade.

He’s prone to saying things like “it’s written in the tea leaves” and describes his process as “a little mystical and witch and warlock.” He’s the first to recognize that he’s an easy target for critics, but he is relentlessly committed to the Roy Choi-ness of it all.

The whole restaurant is a gift to L.A. and to Vegas and to myself and to the spirits.
Roy Choi

Roy Choi opens Best Friend in Las Vegas
From left, chef Roy Choi and bartender Gilbert Lopez say hello to patrons Devin Dexter and Chris Stemmer as they enjoy strawberry cheesecake while sitting at the counter inside the liquor store section of Choi's new restaurant, Best Friend.
(Mel melcon / Los Angeles Times)

“Creatively, whenever I get into a relationship, I’m always very upfront from the beginning,” Choi says. He’s checking and tasting almost every dish that comes out of the kitchen. “I trust myself to be the oversight committee of everything, of sound, music, lighting, design, uniforms, culture, philosophy, kindness, employee morale, relationships, the food. And through that, it just naturally becomes authentic.”

As the dining room starts to fill, servers dressed in green and red Adidas track suits whisk sizzling skillets of spicy pork and galbi to the tables. Potted plants cascade and sway from the ceiling — an ode to Commissary, the restaurant he ran in a poolside greenhouse at the Line Hotel. Food runners in rolled-up khakis and bucket hats fill bowls of banchan across the line.

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“We really wanted to represent the L.A. hip-hop look,” Choi says. “And Rihanna was my muse for everything. I wanted the restaurant to feel as bad as her on all levels.”

The night moves from a Rihanna song to Delilah, with Alice Cooper, Bruno Mars and Dilated Peoples thrown in. Choi walks from the kitchen to the tables, thanking each person for coming in and pausing to take selfies with those who ask.

Cynthia Herrera, a teacher from Huntington Park, made sure to get a reservation for the evening.

“We came because we knew Roy Choi was from L.A. and because of Locol,” Herrera says. “His story is so inspiring. As a teacher, I’m really proud for my students to see him and for him to open something like this. They see they can do it too.”

The room smells of garlic and chile and fish sauce, and that’s exactly how Choi wants it. He has a red room he calls the kimchi room, tucked into the back of the kitchen, which he’s devoted to fermentation. At present, there are about 1,500 pounds of cabbage, cucumber and daikon stacked in plastic tubs. He’s hoping to ferment everything for at least three months before service.

Roy Choi opens Best Friend in Las Vegas
Chef Roy Choi is photographed inside the kimchi room at Best Friend.
(Mel melcon / Los Angeles Times)

At each table, diners flip through the menu, presented as a yellow binder — something you would have shoved in your backpack in middle school. The first page is a photo of Choi, that same smile on his face, at age 10. The menu reads like a Choi greatest hits album. Although some of the items may look familiar, Choi says he sent them back to the R&D phase before giving them a spot. The roasted carrots from Commissary make an appearance, as do the short rib tacos from Kogi and some hot pots from Pot. But half of the menu is devoted to dishes created for Vegas: a Tomahawk steak with that salsa verde; kimchi jjiggae; a tamarind fish hot pot the size of a truck tire; chili spaghetti inspired by Bob’s Big Boy; and the slippery shrimp dish influenced by the one at Yang Chow in L.A.’s Chinatown.

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“I’m really proud of our food and how it tastes and how people are reacting to it,” Choi says, popping a shrimp into his mouth for another taste test. “It’s kind of funky, dirty, a little off-center.”

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA-DECEMBER 19, 2018: Slippery shrimp, consisting of crispy rock shrimp, chip mayo a
Slippery shrimp is on the menu at Roy Choi's new restaurant, Best Friend.
(Mel melcon / Los Angeles Times)

As the ticket printer starts to slow for the first time since the doors opened, Roy stands in the red glow of the kimchi room and reflects on the whirlwind year that’s about to come to a close.

“I’ve lost three very close people in my life this year, Anthony [Bourdain], Jonathan [Gold] and my friend Erik Sheppard, and you know, I’m not going to second-guess myself anymore,” Choi says. “I’m just going to go for it. I have a lot anxiety in myself and I hold myself back from doing a lot of things. I just looked at the whole year and was, like, What if I die tomorrow? I feel like this is my best work. It’s coming out even more soulful right now. So, yeah, I’m ready for the next 10 years.”

Around 10:30 p.m., a table raucously clinks glasses recently filled with a magnum’s worth of wine.

“Feels like one of my restaurants,” Choi says. “Straight out of L.A.”

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jenn.harris@latimes.com

Instagram: @Jenn_Harris_


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