Roy Choi’s restaurant Best Friend, which will open to the public on Wednesday, remains shrouded in a level of mystery that’s almost unprecedented for a chef of his stature. His heavily promoted “menu reveal” on Facebook Live was less an unveiling of the menu than a cooking demo and tasting.
And although guests who’ve walked past Best Friend on Park MGM’s casino floor over the past few days may have caught a glimpse of its storefront — part bar and part L.A.-style Korean grocery — it offers little indication of what lies through a simulated walk-in cooler that serves as the entrance to the restaurant itself.
“It’s actually like a car wash,” Choi says of that journey through a “wall” of transparent PVC curtains. “You start at one place. You go through this thing. And you come out the other end a different person.”
Building an empire
Choi understands transformation. A decade ago, the down-on-his-luck, classically trained chef began selling Korean BBQ out of a taco truck in Los Angeles and launched a DIY culinary revolution that propelled him to celebrity chef status and international stardom. Over the past 10 years, he’s parlayed his food truck success into an L.A. empire with restaurants Kogi BBQ, Chego!, A-Frame, Alibi Room, POT, Commissary and LocoL. He’s also racked up a string of accolades to rival the nation’s most celebrated chefs: Food & Wine Best New Chef, TIME 100 Most Influential People in the World and Los Angeles Times Restaurant of the Year, just to name a few.
Despite the success, Choi is an unproven quantity outside the City of Angels. And he knows it.
“This is my first restaurant outside of Los Angeles, so I’m not taking anything for granted,” he says.
Moreover, Choi is determined not to simply re-create one of his concepts in a Las Vegas casino.
“I definitely didn’t take the easy route. I didn’t just re-create Kobi or A-Frame or Chego. I didn’t just take a cookie-cutter thing and just mail it in from L.A. I definitely took the hard route in creating a brand-new concept.”
That’s not to say that he won’t be bringing out his greatest hits to satisfy the many L.A. fans who will visit his new project, as well as the legion of tourists who may have read about him or seen him on TV.
“This thing is a culmination of all of (the) last 10 years. So you can sit down and have a little taste of Kogi, and a little taste of Chego. But 50 percent of the menu is going to be brand-new. And that all came from the last two years of me being inspired by Las Vegas.”
In reality, Choi has been inspired by Las Vegas for far longer than he’s been planning this restaurant.
“I’ve been coming here for a long time,” he says of the city. “As a kid, my parents used to bring me here at least twice, three times a year, when they were having their fun.”
As a young adult, Choi came to Las Vegas five or six times a year to play poker, mostly at Bellagio. After gambling “got the better of” him and his passion turned to cooking, he says he returned often to experience Las Vegas from that perspective.
“I’ve seen it in like three stages of my life: as a kid, as a gambler and then as a chef. And I enjoyed every one of them.”
Creating a bond
For the next stage, he says, he hopes to bring something to the table other than poker chips or his appetite.
“It’s almost tribal in a sense. It’s like, you go with open hands: Here’s everything that I bring. These are all the gifts that I bring. And I’d like to share these gifts with your gifts so that we come together.”
For that, Choi says it doesn’t matter whether people who walk into Best Friend are familiar with his name or reputation. And it may be better if they go in with few, or even no, expectations.
“I come from cooking tacos on the street, where we don’t have any control over who comes to your truck, and that’s really where I’m at my best,” he explains.
“And even though this is in Las Vegas, in a huge casino, part of a huge redevelopment, the restaurant’s soul is still in the streets, serving a taco under street lamp. You walking up, and me not knowing who you are. You not knowing who I am. But you eat the food and we create a bond.”
Experiencing the menu
With a menu offering highlights from all of Roy Choi’s L.A. venues, plus dishes created specifically for Las Vegas, what should guests order to get a proper representation of what the chef is all about?
“If they only have one night,” Choi suggests, “they should have the Korean barbecue. They should have the tacos. They should have a hot pot.” He also recommends a sampling of cold appetizers, but not at the expense of the basics.
“They shouldn’t leave Best Friend without having a barbecue, a taco and a hot pot. Because if you have those three things, it’s like, ‘Yeah man!’ “
Guests with more time (and money) who want a more extensive, curated journey through the chef’s repertoire may want to look into booking the kitchen table — a throwback to his days as a French fine dining chef, and a tribute to one of his idols, Emeril Lagasse. Amid the kitchen chaos, the table seems custom-made for the superstars who will be performing at the Park Theater across the casino floor from the restaurant.
“Even though you can be seen (from the dining room), you’re still tucked away in the kitchen, protected by this band of pirates in white chef coats and blue utility work shirts. So no one is going to get to you.”
Choi promises you won’t have to be a celebrity, VIP or high-roller to book the table. But, he says, you will have to put your trust in his team.
“When you do sit down at this table, there’s no menu. We just cook for you until you say stop. And so you’re literally right there in the action, and we’re just going to start you off and give you everything.”