“It's all of the influences, but I wanted it to drip and stank of L.A.”
Roy Choi, the chef behind L.A.’s game-changing Kogi food truck, is in the pizza business now. And befitting a man who dazzled the streets (and became a Food & Wine 2010 Best New Chef) by putting the flavors of Korean barbecue in a tortilla, Choi’s POT Pizza Joint weaves together different influences. The big thin-crust square slices, which are being sold on Friday and Saturday evenings (from 6 p.m. until the last slice is gone) inside Koreatown’s Line hotel, include a cheese slice, a pepperoni slice and the "Ktown Special" with kimchi and salad. Choi’s got many other flavors in mind, too.
It’s been a characteristically nonstop year for Choi. He opened a Kogi Taqueria at the Whole Foods Market in El Segundo one day after the 2016 election. He later opened Oakland’s LocoL Bakery but then closed LocoL’s first Oakland outpost. He served food at festivals all over California and beyond. He got inspiration from his travels. He showed up on Netflix’s Gilmore Girls reboot and a Katy Perry video that’s racked up more than 400 million views on YouTube. And most important, he’s continued to evolve the flavors of his food. He’s always looking at the future even while simultaneously reveling in his glorious past.
So last week, Choi’s Kogi gave away tacos to celebrate its ninth birthday while Choi’s new POT Pizza Joint pop-up got in gear during its third weekend of life.
As usual with Choi, there’s a lot going on, and he’s got some things to say about it. So we emailed with the chef about how Pot Pizza Joint was born, as well as where he’s been and where he might go from here.
What made you want to do pizza?
We were looking for something fun to keep our lobby active at night and to treat the true residents of Ktown to something fun, and then in a brainstorming session one of my partners, Paul [Pruitt], said we should do late-night pizza and that just set me in motion. Got right on the ball with the kitchen and the management team, and it just all clicked. I just started to see the pie in my head, and everything we did was driven by that vision. No fear. No anchors. Just trying to bring that imaginary slice to life.
Let’s talk about the creative process. How do you describe the pizza? Tell me how you got to this crust and this sauce and these flavors and the size of each slice. What kind of pizza do you typically like?
I guess if I really look into it, the slice is a reverberation of my trip to Rome recently. I ate those Rome pizzas where they cut them with the scissors. I ate them at fancy places, foodie places and working-class neighborhood places, even for breakfast. That was the architecture of the slice. But the flavor came from my time in New York City as a young cook. The feel came from my interaction with Detroit pizza when I was in Michigan. And finally, the cooking style was inspired by the South Chicago thin-crust pies. But the pizza is really an L.A. slice. It's all of the influences, but I wanted it to drip and stank of L.A.
The crust was a trial and error with my executive chef, Diego [Echavarria], and pastry chef, Chloe [Garcia]. We went over dough after dough until we got it. Then we baked, parbaked to get the right texture before sauce. The sauce is a simple confit of tomatoes, and the shape came from having to be resourceful and cooking it in half-sheet pans. Therefore the rectangular slice. Four per tray.
I typically like Sicilian pizza.
Tell me about the Ktown Special and why you like the mix of kimchi and fresh salad. How does being in Koreatown and being next to a bar affect your overall mindset for pizza?
This is just the first iteration. I wanna do sweet potato, spicy pork, bulgogi, dandelion greens, octopus, clam pizzas, etc.
But to start, we wanted a cheese, pepperoni and something quick but powerful. So the kimchi pie was born. I thought a nice little fresh salad on top with soy and rice vinegar would cut the fat well.
I know Ktown like the back of my hand, so this pie is designed for us. I'm not trying to be the best pizza in L.A. I'm trying to be exactly the pizza you want to eat at night in Koreatown. It's a feeling.
A lot of people have commented online about the comfort of curled-up pepperoni. Tell me about how that pepperoni works for you, visually, texture, flavor, etc.
Greasy pockets of fat.
How has it been going in terms of the crowds and feedback?
Sold out every night.
Faces I've been feeding for years coming and giving me the thumbs up.
New faces coming back and kissing us because it's so good.
It's been special.
You never know, you know?
You put something out there and you think it's good, but you never know.
It's humbling when it comes back to you in positive waves.
Any plans to expand this to more hours, more days, a full-on pizza place?
Yes if the people continue to like it.
Would love to.
Just being extra careful to make sure we can control quality, hence the two days only for now.
Kogi just celebrated its ninth birthday. Broad question: Can you talk about how you’ve evolved during that time and also how you’re at a place in your life that makes you want to serve pizza?
Early Kogi I was Kobe with the 360 slam. Nine years later I got the fadeaway and am developing the team for the future. I've evolved to where I can cook pizza not to prove anything but just to make people happy. Early Kogi I was a fucking menace, but it took that drive because we were in the thick of something spectacular and new.
Any other thoughts on Kogi’s milestone and how proud you are that Kogi is still such a force in L.A.?
Kogi Por Vida.
It's everything to me and to this city in a small way.
I knew it meant a lot, but I never knew it would mean so much to so many for so long.
It's the fountain of youth.
Now that 2017 is almost over, can you talk about the year you’ve had and any highlights or obstacles you want to mention? Any big plans overall for 2018?
It's actually been a tough year for me, but luckily I have my teams, the food, the city and the Kogi, LocoL, Chego, A-Frame, POT and Commissary nation that has had my back all year. It gave me strength during some tough times to stay positive and joyful. I'm really looking forward to 2018 to grow LocoL and continue to open doors to prosperity for my brothers and sisters and the children.
Pot Pizza Joint at The Line L.A., 3515 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, 213-368-3030