Soon Choi had five trucks plying the streets. And now he's living the food trucker's dream. He's at the helm of not one but two brick-and-mortar restaurants: Chego, which opened last spring in Mar Vista, and now A-Frame — subtitle, Modern Picnic — in Culver City.
The Korean-born Culinary Institute of America graduate and former chef de cuisine at the Beverly Hilton is channeling the modern picnic at A-Frame: food that's messy and meant to be picked up and eaten with the hands. Guests set their own table with napkins and silverware, and everything is served on lightweight, mismatched enamelware.
At A-Frame, though, guests eat at communal picnic tables, so you can find yourself sharing a table with strangers. No worries. The crowd here is an easygoing, friendly bunch. Someone is sure to lean over and give some advice on what to order. Or tell you about some other local places not to miss. This may not be the place for a romantic dinner. No demure tables for two. No reservations, either. A-Frame is loud. It's rambunctious. It's fun.
If Choi is in the house and not on a taco run — look for the youngish Korean guy in hip-hop attire from head to toe — the food can be punchy and good. Not always, though. If he's not standing just outside the kitchen, checking every dish as it goes out, things can get a little lax. Eventually, Choi plans to move on from A-Frame, which is owned by restaurateur David Reiss, and cede the kitchen to his sous chef.
With a strict no-reservations policy, you may end up waiting for a table at the small bar, simply a counter with a handful of stools. Or sitting around the fire pit outside on the patio, wrapped in blankets handed out by the staff on cold evenings. Time to order some munchies, first and foremost the furikake kettle corn buttered and dosed with seaweed and hot pepper. It's hard to keep your hands out of the bowl. Or how about the Korean-style wings, hot and vinegary, with a soothing blue cheese dressing to cool them down?
Eventually, a table frees up and you'll get to sit down inside, which has been altered to look like a rough-hewn ski chalet, all wood, with plenty of knotholes, high ceilings and long communal tables. Servers are cheerful, no nonsense and work efficiently as a team. They also show a genuine affection for the food.
Everything on A-Frame's menu is meant to be shared. Among the dishes under the category "to pass around" is a big bowl of clam chowder with a Thai slant. It's made with coconut milk, green curry paste and lemongrass and comes with big slabs of grilled bread for soaking up that sauce. Wish I had a bowl right now.
Blue crab cakes are another highlight — tender, almost too soft crab cakes, browned on the outside, to wrap in spiky perilla or lolla rossa lettuce leaves and dip in a ginger lemongrass sauce. The combination of flavors is seriously delicious. Baby back ribs, stacked like logs, air-dried and sticky with hoisin-chile glaze, is another good one to share. But at $9, better make that two orders.
Bittersweet tempura, though, made with broccoli rabe and kabocha squash, could have a lighter batter and a less intense shoyu dipping sauce.
Under the category "to get your hands dirty," Cracklin' Beer Can Chicken reigns supreme. At $10 for a half bird, $18 for a whole one, you can feed the entire table for less than the price of one main course at most places. It also happens to be moist and browned and pull-apart tender. Choi juices it up with both a red salsa and a splash of salsa verde and serves it with a "century" egg to gobble down in a couple of rich bites. All in all, a satisfying plate of food.
Korean-style barbecued lamb chops are tasty enough, also served with a piquant salsa verde. And there's a decent torta filled with charred carne asada and queso fresco. Peel 'n' eat shrimp, though, doesn't quite hold up to the standard set by Hungry Cat's. It's the quality of the shrimp.
Island farmer's salad, like everything here, is served up in generous portions, a heap of greens, fruit and shaved sweet Maui onions showered with fried garlic and tofu in a tangy ginger shoyu vinaigrette. There's an oddball main course salad too, a warm chicken salad spooned onto warm (and very sweet) cornbread along with an Italian sausage ragù — and that same salsa verde. This just didn't work — too many flavors, too much sweetness.
It's that same kind of sweetness that runs through so many dishes in the fast-food world, where cooks use salt, sweet and hot peppers to goose the flavors. I think Choi has to be careful not to go too far down that road. His food is fast in the sense that it comes out of the kitchen in a hurry, but it's real food. He just tends to go for an exaggerated flavor profile sometimes.
A-Frame's food won't win any beauty contests either. Rough and ready, it's more about generosity than presentation. Desserts especially are not all that attractive. They're very sweet as well. Forget the fried apple pie and go for either the pound cake churros (cake cut into strips and served with malted chocolate milk and vanilla ice cream) or the ice cream sandwich of the day, which could be two chocolate chip or oatmeal cookies flanking a heap of vanilla ice cream — not particularly good ice cream, but what do you expect for $5?
So far, the menu has hardly budged, and that doesn't seem to be a problem. People come back to eat their crab cakes and Beer Can Chicken again and again. Choi no doubt is smart. Instead of opening yet another French bistro, Italian trattoria or more ambitious restaurant, he's mining the lower end of the restaurant spectrum. Everyday food at everyday prices. And that's an exciting development.
Rating: ✭ 1/2
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.
Location: 12565 Washington Blvd., Culver City; (310) 398-7700; http://www.aframela.com.
Price: Snacks, $3 to $6; appetizers to share, $7 to $12; large plates, $10 to $19; sides, $3 to $6; desserts, $5 to $6.
Details: Open 5 p.m. to midnight daily (bar stays open till 2 a.m.) Full bar. Lot and street parking.