When I think about Roy Choi, I miss my friend, Laura Canales.
Choi is the Korean-American, Los Angeles chef who reinvented the food truck with his gourmet Kogi BBQ Korean taco trucks. He is the author of “L.A. Son,” a thoughtful cookbook/autobiography.
Laura was a La Cañada Flintridge resident, past president of the Thursday Club and gourmet home-fusion chef. As a Greek American, Laura knew feta, tiropitakia and mint like the back of her hand. When she married into the Canales family, her culinary repertoire skyrocketed. She studied French cooking, became a top-notch baker and was locally famous for her pâte à choux. She managed to reconcile these different cultures.
In the early 1980s, we noticed new changes in our local markets. Ralphs West, then located at the Ross Dress For Less site, began to carry pre-cut meat and poultry.
“That’s weird,” I said to Laura. “Why would anyone pay more to buy a cut-up chicken? It’s better to buy a whole chicken, uncut.”
Laura said, “This is a trend. According to market projections, within 10 years, you’ll see more pre-cut and even pre-prepared foods.”
Fast forward to Trader Joe’s in 2014. Laura was right. The Trader Joe’s freezer section even has Kimchi Fried Rice. Incredulous? Why would anyone buy pre-prepared Kimchi Fried Rice from Trader Joe’s instead of making it from scratch, when Lotte Market is right down the street?
The answer clearly lies with Roy Choi, a Los Angeles chef who brought Los Angeles Korean food into the mainstream and planted it into the minds of hipsters and yuppies alike. One of his restaurants is in Culver City, also home to the Blind Barber bar. Coming from the Foothills, my favorite is Chego East in Downtown Los Angeles. I cannot imagine a world without Choi’s Kung Pau Noodle Bowl (jjamppong noodles with baby bok choy, chilies, garlic soy paste, lemon grass and Thai basil for $8.)
Laura would have loved the whole L.A. Korean scene. If she were alive today, she’d be explaining naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodles) and Dak galbi (marinated stir-fried chicken). Just as we joked about “tacos, lox and cream cheese” and “bagels and beans,” we’d invent ways to marry kosher bulgogi (BBQ beef) with kosher posole (hominy and chicken stew).
Which brings us back to La Cañada. The other La Cañada. On a cold night last Saturday, my husband and I crept into the Seoul BBQ in La Cañada, located in the Ross Dress For Less shopping center, close to Lotte Market. Our waiter, Woodrow, was magnanimous. He explained everything. Len ordered the BBQ beef and I selected the whole “white” mackerel, No. 2 on the fish menu. The hot tea was made with barley and corn. The banshan, or appetizers, were delicious and plentiful.
As the restaurant began to fill, we noticed something. There was only one other non-Asian couple. I wondered, are there two La Cañadas? Why?
Soon, the café was hopping. Beef sizzled on the table-top grills. Families sat together, laughing and chatting. The food was incredibly good.
“We’ve got to come back,” said Len.
“We will,” I replied.
ANITA SUSAN BRENNER is a longtime La Cañada Flintridge resident and an attorney with Law Offices of Torres and Brenner in Pasadena. Email her at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @anitabrenner.