Monday 06 May, 2013

Chinatown Chego? Prego!


One of the genuine strengths of Los Angeles as a foodie town (and city, overall, perhaps) is the seemingly endless number of ethnic neighborhoods sprinkled throughout the county--and beyond. But the oldest of these, Chinatown, is a bit long in the tooth in terms of eating. Sure Sam Woo and Ocean Seafood and a bunch of others soldier on there--as do a handful of Korean spots these days--but it's fairly run of the mill and certainly outclassed by what can be found in Monterey Park and other parts of the SGV.

So it was a pretty BAMF move for Fancy Food Truck Godfather and Comfort-Fusion King Roy Choi to decide to move Chego! here after landlord disputes forced him to close the original in Culver City. Choi has been something of an Eastside-vibe Ambassador to the West Side, so it was obviously far from a random decision. And he's not just anywhere in Chinatown, but smack in the middle of Chinatown Plaza, in a very small storefront, not even visible from the street. Let's be candid: Choi could be pulling in big investors and totally going suburban with this by now. He likely will sooner or later, but the fact that he's gone the opposite direction, if even for a minute, deserves a nod.

Choi hasn't really changed the menu from the original Chego! selections, and overall I'd say he doesn't need to. It's a nice variety of night market-meets-family diner fusion bowls with quality ingredients and silly names at pretty much unbeatable prices (seriously, $8-10 for the "Big Kid Meals"--same as you'd pay from the truck, and keep in mind that's only a couple bucks from Burger King, but a world away). He told me--and Squid Ink before me, almost word for word--that he's going to let the Chinatown vibe soak in for a few weeks and then do some riffs off of that. I like how Choi thinks as a Chef, but largely because, to use the musician metaphor, he's more of a funkateer than some pompous jazz cat. Even when he starts improvising, you know he's still gonna come back to a good satisfying groove.

I got to join in on a preview night with a few other bloggy buddies, and while pre-opening experiences aren't really a fair judging ground (if everything's not perfect yet, that's reasonable to expect; if it's all too perfect, you can't be sure the boss will be watching so closely every day), since this is a re-location, there's less mystery. Pretty much everything has already been tested and 'perfected,' although I still have some opinions:

What I like best at Chego! are the fusiony bowls that you could almost call "Only In LA" for their level of casual no-fuss ethno-bending. At the preview, I got to share in on the Leafy T (fried chili garlic tofu rice with fried egg, Thai basil, water spinach, Chinese broccoli and fried shallots); Chubby Pork Belly (Kochujang-basted Kurobuta belly with sticky rice, fried egg, pickled radish, water spinach, Chinese broccoli, Mexican cotija and peanuts); Tiny's Prime Rib Rice Plate (about 4 oz of good beef with fried egg, water spinach, Chinese broccoli, horseradish cream, shallots and garlic paste); and my favorite, the Beefy T (diced prime rib, hot chili fried rice, braised shoyu garlic paste, fried egg and shallots). All of them are big umami bombs of flavor, texture, and color. Imagine them like a group of sexy cousins--all hot, but one just does it for you more than the others.

For tag-alongs not in a 'bowling' mood, they serve a grass-fed burger that is sloppy (work on that bun, cuz) but about as satisfying as you could expect for $10. Yes, it's 2x as good as InNOut. They also make a prime rib sandwich on grilled ciabatta that looked pretty fierce.

I'm not as jazzed about the "snacks,"' if I have to be honest. While all of Chego's goods are super-saucy and subtlety-free, that factor kind of goes overboard on the 3PM meatballs (kind of dry and bland--I liked the polenta patty underneath better than the actual meat) and the Ooey Gooey Fries, some kind of SoCal three-cheese poutine that just seemed like an ad for Lactaid. TheĀ  beer-battered fries were fine by themselves--if I ordered them again with the burger, I'd want them plain with just a bit of the house garlic paste. A side of baby asparagus was also smothered in sauces and stuff. I guess that's good if you hate asparagus.

We finished with the Sriracha Bar, which I can promise you was much tastier than it looks (although not much sriracha flavor came through after all the other spicy food). A grown up sweet that belied its aluminum foil "presentation"--damn that's punk.

The menu notes that if you're going to Dodger Stadium (which is literally blocks away), you can call ahead for take out. Now that's an amazing idea: can't think of any food so close that's this good for the price. I'd suggest you could do the same on the way to Staples or the Music Center/Disney Hall (where you can picnic pre-show in the plaza). The building validates underground parking, btw.

Chego Chinatown