Food Truck Phenomenon: Kogi BBQ

What does a whip-smart, street-wise, Culinary Institute of America Korean-American valedictorian do for an encore? Why, start the most talked-about food truck in America, of course. Roy Choi, head chef of the Kogi BBQ food truck empire, has earned some high-cred awards, including from Bon Appetit and Food & Wine magazines. Choi considers himself an LA son, which happens to be the name of his recently released autobiography (and which I am currently reading), even though he was born in Korea. He grew up in the Southland. The story of his life is fascinating stuff, having spent much of his childhood as a latchkey kid, and consequently lived a relatively independent life on the streets of LA and Orange County.

His love of food can be traced to his parents’ restaurant business and, in particular, his mother’s culinary skills. Because Choi grew up in Southern California, he became exposed to all sorts of ethnic food. Far from ignoring the food he grew up with, he revels in it as any chapter of his book will clearly show. Even as he went on to get professional training at the CIA and practiced his trade at big-time restaurants across the country, he ultimately decided to return to his hometown. With some business partners, Choi went on in 2009 to establish his now-famous taco trucks, featuring fusion cuisine, Mexican in concept but with definite Korean flourishes that mark the offerings as unique contributions to the LA eating scene.

Five trucks serve the entire Southland. Kogi BBQ’s website informs where each one will be on a particular day. It just so happened that one would be in Alhambra, 6-9pm, in front of Goudy Honda. I felt it my duty to check things out. When others in the family learned of my plans, they put in their orders.

By the time I got to the truck at 6:30, there was already a line of customers. Still, it didn’t take long to complete my order and return to the house.

The defining food item that catapulted Kogi to fame is the Korean taco. There are four popular fillings (short rib, spicy pork, chicken and tofu). One costs $2.29. The short rib taco was everyone’s choice (usually but not always, the first option in a non-alphabetical list is a restaurant’s “best”). Tender pieces of short rib were nestled in double soft corn tortillas, mixed with a red salsa, and topped with a relish of onion, cilantro and lime, and dressed shredded napa cabbage. The dual Mexican and Korean influences were nicely balanced, a pretty good taco (☆☆☆).

Short rib tacos
Short rib tacos

Also popular are Kogi’s sliders, basically the same filling as the taco but with the addition of sesame mayo and cheese and also a bit more heat. The buns reminded everyone of Hawaiian sweet bread but somewhat denser, overall a tasty but somewhat bready item (☆☆½).

Short rib sliders
Short rib sliders

The Kogi Dog uses an all-beef Hebrew National wiener and essentially the same toppings as the slider. The quantity of slaw gives the dog a “healthier” impression, but in the end, it was not a wholly satisfactory dog, marred by saltiness (☆☆½). It’s probably because I prefer simpler dogs.

What started out as a “special” became so popular that Kogi now offers it on the regular menu. Constituting a fifth taco, their calamari taco featured perfectly cooked squid rings with flavors of lemon and ginger, and topped with a pretty assertive salsa. The salsa itself was unusually complex with flavors of chili sauce, oranges, lots of garlic and herbs. I have to admit that this taco intrigued me, despite its sauciness, unique with Mexican and Asian flavors, exactly what Roy Choi was aiming for (☆☆☆).

Kogi dog and calamari taco
Kogi dog and calamari taco

While nothing bowled me over, I have to hand it to Roy Choi for redefining how interesting fusion cooking can be, especially combining the two bold flavors of Mexico and Korea. One of the things I didn’t care for particularly was a sweetened mayonnaise that seems to be making appearances not only at Kogi but kaiten sushi shops. Still, the palette is wide open in LA, one of the great melting pots of America. Just reading Choi’s autobiography convinces the reader how much he was taken by all the ethnic food he ate there.

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