Roy Choi's First Vegas Restaurant Plays the Hits and So Much More—Here's an Inside Look
"I think this is the VIP table right here," he says when he realizes that the banquette he's at offers views of the dining-room bar, a lounge area, the DJ booth, the restaurant's entrance, and the open kitchen, which includes both a chef's table and a refrigerated kimchi-fermentation room.
Choi smiles when I say that the kimchi chamber, which is empty and set at 38 degrees during this visit, resembles what other restaurants use to age beef.
"Yeah, my dry-aging room is a kimchi room," says Choi, a chef who's clearly ready to bring the funk in Vegas.
Best Friend is in a high-profile new resort that's also home to Lady Gaga's new residency, so it's time for Choi to play the hits. Best Friend, which opens on December 19, will showcase what he's been cooking for the last decade in L.A. There will, of course, be Kogi tacos; the chef revolutionized the food-truck scene and so much more when he put Korean barbecue into tortillas in 2008. There will be dishes, some "remixed and remastered," that originated at Choi's L.A. restaurants: chubby pork-belly bowls from Chego, ribs from A-Frame, carrots from Commissary, and both hot pots and Korean barbecue from Pot. Beyond Choi's spots, there will be homages to iconic L.A. dishes the chef has enjoyed eating over the years, including Yang Chow's slippery shrimp and Carnitas El Momo's carnitas.
Choi says it's important to have some affordable dishes at Best Friend, where a few tacos might run you $10 or $15. He wants parents to bring their children for early dinners, but he also understands that Vegas is a place where many guests crave over-the-top experiences.
"This will be the first time in the last ten years I'll be able to explore high-end items like caviar and truffles," he says. "This will be the only place where you can get a Kogi taco and put osetra caviar on it, you know what I'm saying?"
Vegas, after all, is where people go for singular experiences.
"As much as I want to honor Los Angeles culture, I also want to make Best Friend a place for Vegas," Choi says. "These things are not clichés or stereotypes. There truly is a Vegas culture where people ball out. Maybe it's not something we would do in Los Angeles. But in Vegas, it's actually kind of normal with casino players and people who fly in from all over the world. It's your responsibility to deliver the product they want."
At the same time, this is Roy Choi, who doesn't do things in traditional ways. So he's going to have caviar service with tostadas and salsas. He'll put caviar on Korean potato pancakes that resemble what's in L.A. Koreatown restaurants like Kobawoo. He's happy to sell you a tin of caviar and watch you spoon it over chili spaghetti or spicy pork Korean barbecue that's quickly sautéed on the plancha with some onions. (By the way, that spicy pork is shaved thin in a way that might remind you of shabu shabu or a Philly cheesesteak, depending on your reference point.)
This is how Choi thinks when he cooks: He considers what he likes to eat and then creates new ways to present those flavors. About half of the dishes at Best Friend are new, and they include a japchae-laden tamarind cod hot pot that's a nod to Vietnamese clay-pot catfish. For dessert, there's a riff on Korean shaved ice: a red bean bingsu (with jackfruit and condensed milk) in a form that evokes Dippin' Dots.
When you enter Best Friend, the first thing you encounter is a neon-lit room built to look like a liquor store, the type of establishment you might visit in L.A.'s Koreatown for everything from soju to single-malt Scotch. This room will feature slushie machines filled with a combination of fresh juices and top-shelf booze.
Best Friend's high-ceilinged dining room is inspired by a Korean spa. There will be hanging plants as a nod to Commissary, one of Choi's former L.A. restaurants. You'll see work, including a big Phung Huynh mural, from socially conscious L.A. artists and street photographers all over Best Friend. This restaurant will represent so many parts of Los Angeles.
But more than anything else, Best Friend will rep Pot, a restaurant Choi used to have at L.A.'s Line hotel. Pot was Choi's Korean restaurant in Koreatown. It never quite took off the way some of his other endeavors have, and Choi wants to resurrect its essence in Vegas.
"The core seed is to take another crack at Pot," he says. "I really think I cook good Korean food. I really do, just straight up."
Best Friend will serve hot pots like a hybrid of two Pot dishes: the kimchi jjigae and the Steam Room with steamed tofu, pork belly, and caramelized kimchi.
"It became a super jjigae," Choi says.
Best Friend will also have vegetable hot pots and army stew, a dish featuring ramen and canned meats.
"Pot was my most special restaurant to date," he says. "It was truly the restaurant I thought I was always destined to make. I know a lot of artists and chefs don't talk about this, but sometimes you just don't get to the finish line. That honesty and tenderness is something we're kind of not supposed to express. Everything's supposed to be a hit."
Choi touches his chest: "From here, I couldn't get it all the way out," he says and then moves his hand skyward. "On top of that, it just wasn't the right time, the right place, the right environment, to fully express itself. It maybe wasn't even fully developed in my mind yet."
The creative process, Choi says, can feel like a spiritual experience.
"This stuff is truly coming from somewhere either within us or passing through us," he says. "And all we're doing is seeing this kind of motion picture in our minds."
Working with a big team to make customers see the film you're seeing can be difficult.
"It's a very delicate balance," Choi says. "And when you do hit it—a lot of restaurateurs do and I have myself in the past—it's effortless. And if it's just a hairline off, it can be complete failure. That's the truth. But learning from all those things is what spawned this new 2.0. It's a lot more festive. It's not being positioned as a Korean restaurant. It's really based out of L.A., and it has this freedom to be whatever it wants to be."
So why not have biodynamic wines? Why not have yellow lightboxes? Why not move around tables after dinner service so the space can turn into a late-night club that won't have a cover charge? Why not see if your musician friends, maybe Evidence or the Beat Junkies or Peanut Butter Wolf or whoever else returns your calls, want to DJ? Why not serve fried bologna sandwiches, Kogi dogs, and cocktails in the liquor-store room? Why not make it rain truffles in the dining room? Why not get produce from the Hollywood farmers' market? Why not make a ton of pickles? Why not use premium Niman Ranch, Creekstone Farms, and Snake River Farms meat? Why not create a "reverse speakeasy" where you walk into the liquor-store bar and then have the dining room hidden behind an air curtain?
Best Friend is about eating great food, but it's also inspired by another quintessential Southern California experience: going to Disneyland.
"You know that exact feeling when you walk through the turnstile at amusement parks?" Choi asks. "Just that little nanosecond where everything is just, like, wow? Everything is a possibility. Everything is right there for you, and it's all about to happen. That's the feeling I want for Best Friend, and I think we're really close."
Best Friend, 3770 S. Las Vegas Blvd, Las Vegas, 702-730-7777