Born and raised in LA, Roy Choi gained widespread success when he launched his fleet of Koji food trucks hawking a blend of Mexican and Korean food: tacos loaded with tofu and strips of beef, burritos bursting with spicy pork, and sliders overflowing with short rib, cheese, salsa roja and cabbage slaw. These days, his empire has expanded from roving trucks to flashy establishments; his recent project is Best Friend, an LA-inspired restaurant in the heart of Las Vegas, set within the Park MGM hotel.
“This food [at Best Friend] is kind of like my biography, and the biography of all the people I grew up with, from the suburbs to the beaches to the city blocks,” Choi says. “This restaurant and this food is a representation of that.”
Choi divides time between Las Vegas and LA, and on his visits to Vegas generally spends his hours at the Park MGM, cooking lamb ribs and Korean wings slick with chili and lychee at Best Friend. When he does leave the hotel, it’s to seek out his favorite restaurants away from the tourist traps.
“I think the best restaurants in Vegas are off the Strip,” Choi says. “Especially in Chinatown, on Spring Mountain.”
Choi often frequents Hobak, a Korean barbecue restaurant off Spring Mountain Road. Guests surround charcoal and gas grills, sharing tremendous platters of meat: ribbons of marinated strip steak, tender short ribs, black angus beef and pork belly. Each table is prepped with bowls of banchan: side dishes of rice, pickled cucumbers, kimchi and bean sprouts.
For another restaurant off the main drag, Choi and Best Friend executive chef Diego Echavarria suggest Other Mama. “That’s very popular among chefs in town,” Echavarria says. The seafood restaurant – operated by chef Dan Krohmer – centers on its raw bar of sushi, sashimi, ceviche and oysters. Sample the likes of grilled spicy shrimp skewers, amberjack crudo crowned with dollops of ponzu salsa, and hush puppies filled with blue crab. The menu is rounded out with a selection of craft beers and cocktails.
Although the burgeoning food scene in Vegas off the Strip is worth seeking out, there are still plenty of places worth visiting in the center of Vegas’s mayhem. “The place I do eat on the Strip is Noodles, in the Bellagio,” Choi says. “It’s really good.” At Noodles, you might tuck into Thai chili wings or slurp a spicy noodle soup swimming with green onions and shrimp.
For an only-in-Vegas experience, Choi finds there’s nothing quite like The Buffet at ARIA. Buffets have long been associated with the city – originally employed to convince people on the street to come inside, eat and stay to gamble – but these days the feasts are just as luxurious and over the top as the city itself. At the ARIA buffet, load up on food around the world at the numerous stations: fresh seafood and crab legs at the fish market; plump dumplings and other dim sum at the Asian station; American classics such as spiced meatloaf, chicken-fried steak and red-velvet pancakes; and cookies, cake, gelato and candy for dessert.
Choi is also fond of a somewhat under-the-radar Hawaiian restaurant in downtown Vegas. “The real move is [Aloha Specialities] at the California casino,” Choi says. “[That’s] the legit local move.”
The restaurant, squeezed into the mezzanine of the California Hotel & Casino, specializes in island fare. Try the stews and curry specialities, or teriyaki plates and kimchi saimin (a Hawaiian noodle soup) bobbing with wheat egg noodles, beef and tofu. The place is rather small, confined to a counter area and a few tables and chairs under umbrellas, but no matter the hour, there’s always a line spilling out into the casino hallway. After all, that’s Vegas.
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