LOS ANGELES — Except for the A-frame architecture, there is no sense of the IHOP that used to inhabit this space in Culver City. Below the vaulted ceiling at A-Frame restaurant, which seats 80 to 90, depending on how snug you want to get with your neighbor, a large triangular picture window lets light stream into the warm, modern space. The view is all trees and sky. You can hardly believe you are on a major highway on the west side of LA. Bright, lacquered furniture adds pops of color. Walls are covered in a pleasing wood panel. A sunny table-filled patio with lush vegetation shields diners from the parking lot and traffic. A-Frame is open, airy, inviting, and fun. It’s hip without being intimidating, cheerful without being cheesy. The food at this 2-year-old spot has been described as Asian-fusion picnic, and it’s food you want to dig into right now.
Executive chef and co-owner Roy Choi grew up in Los Angeles, but after a trip to Hawaii he knew he wanted the space to have a laid-back Hawaiian feel (he owns the restaurant with David Reiss). Choi became known for his Kogi taco trucks, which blend the ubiquitous LA taco truck with ingredients from his Korean heritage. They have attracted huge buzz, and a following of artists, bloggers, surfers, and celebrities, who were happy to follow him here, his first brick-and-mortar restaurant. He now has three other establishments: Alibi Room, Chego, and Sunny Spot. Choi was named best new chef by Food & Wine magazine in 2010, the only chef cooking out of a truck to be so honored.
Says Choi about his first place: “When you walk in you are met with aloha. We never want you to feel that we are aloof, like we don’t care. You need to know that you are welcome.” By aloha, he is referring to the welcoming spirit in Hawaii. “When you sit down at a table next to a stranger, it may be little awkward at first, but then with the music, and food, the energy starts to change.”
The nature of Choi’s food encourages sharing, and everything can, and should, be eaten with your hands. One of the best ways to start a meal is with the Furikake popcorn, sweet kettle corn and corn pops doused in butter and tossed with a spicy, umami-filled blend of sesame, crushed chilies, and seaweed. On our first visit we convince our neighbors at a communal picnic table to give it a try, and they order some, too.
A-Frame’s signature dish is Cracklin’ Beer Can Chicken, one of many preparations in which Choi’s technique shines (he is a graduate of the Culinary institute of America). The beer-brined chicken is slow-cooked and rubbed with spices, then deep-fried so you get a crisp, almost Bon-Chon-style exterior, and as Choi puts it, “juicy, dank meat” underneath. This kind of multi-technique cooking is how Choi add layers of flavor to a dish that appears deceptively simple.
Two Peruvian-style dipping sauces, in bright orange and green, and a preserved Chinese “century egg” accompany the chicken. The dish is flavorful and filling, with tastes all over the map. Baja fish tacos are small corn tortillas with deep-fried white fish, cojita cheese, and pickled jalapenos. We are beginning to understand the cult-following of Choi’s taco trucks. Though there isn’t much in the way of healthy food on this menu, the kitchen is adept at pickling, and briny sweet-tart fennel, watermelon radish, and pear (to name a few) cut through the richness of dishes such as twice-baked potato and hoisin-chili glazed baby back ribs.
While Hawaii may have been the inspiration for A-Frame’s atmosphere, there is no doubt the menu pulls from this city’s neighborhoods, including the barbeque of Koreatown and the Mexican cooking of East LA. “I wanted the restaurant to be about the spirit and culture of LA food, a reflection of LA life,” says Choi.
Behind the bar, Brian Butler runs the cocktail program, raiding the kitchen pantry to whip up complementary libations like the Frescas fizz: beaten egg white, gin, hibiscus, and orange bitters in a refreshing, not-too-sweet cocktail.
We finish up with an ice cream sandwich, a specialty of pastry chef Beth Kellerhals, in which Sichuan-peppercorn ice cream is layered between salted chocolate cookies to produce sweet and salty tastes with a gentle numbing heat from the peppercorns. It’s a fitting and delicious end to an eclectic meal.
12565 Washington Blvd., Culver City, Los Angeles, Calif., 310-398-7700, www.afra
Catherine Smart can be reached at email@example.com.