Friday, April 17, 2009

Korean Tacos - Kogi Korean BBQ-To-Go

"I became a chef out of failure at being good at nothing else."

Unlikely words from the culinary muscle behind the Los Angeles hit sensation, Kogi Korean BBQ-To-Go, the taco truck that has created a buzz from the United States to the United Kingdom.

Loading up tortillas with the sweet fire of Korean barbecue, crushed sesame seeds and lettuce and cabbage tossed in Korean chili-soy vinaigrette, Kogi executive chef Roy Choi lures crowds by the hundreds.

And he does it all from a truck.

Eating-on-the-go is entering a new era. For years, decades even, people have been queuing up on the streets for a tasty skewer from the local kebab van or a juicy mustard-drenched hot dog or pretzel from the vendor near their office.

People line up for the Kogi experience/Kogi Korean[BBQ-To-Go`s famous tacos]/Executive chef Roy Choi[Photos by Eric Shin]

Kogi, meaning "meat" in Korean, has changed all that. The highly mobile truck moves from spot to spot, alerting people of its whereabouts via the free micro-blogging service Twitter.

Angelenos track it down and make the time, which sometimes means a one to two hour wait into the wee hours of the night, for a taste of Choi's tacos. The surprisingly delicious combination of Mexican and Korean flavors, the spontaneity of a truck on the move and the communal bonding of tweets from Twitter fuse to create a new and addictive experience.

It's so wholly new that bigwig publications like the New York Times, the Financial Times and Newsweek have all covered the truck, the tacos and the people.

"The Kogi experience is like magic," Choi summed it up in an e-mail interview. "The cooks are happy like a traveling circus. The people are joyous. The food is delicious."

Delicious is the key word. After all, how many street food stands are helmed by a chef who was primed at the Culinary Institute of America and did stints at Le Bernardin in New York and in Iron Chef Michiba's kitchen?

Head of his class at the institute Choi has, according to the official Kogi website, "flavor in his finger tips!"

So his modest response to the question - how did you become a chef? - came as a bit of a surprise. The words "failure" and "being good at nothing else" do not jive with his impressive profile. Then again, perhaps it is that nonchalant and out-of-left-field attitude toward his past that has brought him to the Kogi experience.

"My title is Uncle Roy, cook," said the 39-year old Korean-American.

When asked how he invents his dishes, "Uncle Roy" sends out an abstract reply: "I see food like music. I cannot describe how I come up with dishes because it comes to me, like music to a musician. And I just pick up a guitar and start playing."

His "playing" is spot-on. Uncle Roy's blend of sesame seeds, chilies, cilantro, green onions and spiced-up Korean-style barbecue have the crowds lining up for more. And the crowds are big, very big.

"I think it is safe to say, we average 600 to 1,000 people a day depending upon special events that are booked through our catering department," said co-founder Caroline Shin-Manguera via e-mail.

Shin-Manguera said that her husband and Kogi founder, Mark Manguera, came up with the idea when her younger sister, Alice Shin, visited Los Angeles in the summer.

"We had our launch party on Nov. 20, and had our day out one week after," said Shin-Manguera.

"Kogi took a couple months to catch on," said Shin-Manguera. "It was quite hard to give our tacos away for free when we first started. We got very excited when we started selling $200 worth of tacos a night. We thought we were doing really well at that point."

Shin-Manguera still seems boggled by their overwhelming success: "We never really accepted this phenomenon that Kogi became because every sale seemed like such a milestone for us."

The Kogi phenomenon is more than just a milestone for the people who made it happen. It highlights the malleability of Korean cuisine and its ability to seamlessly fall into the melting pot of American cuisine, a much-needed quality in an increasingly globalized world. In a sense, Kogi's wallet-friendly dishes open a new avenue for Korean food in the States, one where it can be fused with other cuisines and remain highly affordable.

Naturally, none of this would have been possible without Uncle Roy's culinary wizardry. Not one to shroud his recipes in an aura of mysticism, he divulges the ingredients to the kimchi sauerkraut that tops the Kogi dog (his take on the hot dog).

"Kimchi sauerkraut is kimchi cooked with rice vinegar, sugar and sesame seeds."

Yet throughout the e-mail interview, Choi refrained from imbuing his tacos with an overreaching cultural significance. For him, the birth of the Kogi taco "was an experiment of different flavors with the focus on the street culture of L.A." and "the blend of Korean-Mexican comes from dried chilies and lime juice."

After all, it is what it is: good grub. So, will people outside of Los Angeles get to see what all the fuss is about?

"We hope to see our business grow and flourish into areas outside of LA, and maybe internationally, but we shall see," said Shin-Manguera. ◦

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