Eat This: Korean BBQ With the Edge of a Street Taco
Late last night in Westwood, among the dense maze of housing east of UCLA's campus, was a line, at least an hour's wait for some, of some 500 people waiting to grab some Korean inspired tacos and burritos and maybe the day's special—Kimchi Fried Rice Cake with Egg-Shiso. Meet Kogi BBQ. It's Korean food with the edge of a street taco on a catering truck mixed with the savvyness of Web 2.0 (follow them on Twitter to know their location).
Inside the truck is Chef Roy Choi, who speaks of food like its poetry. After all, Choi graduated at the top of his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has cooked at Le Bernardin in New York, in Iron Chef Michiba's kitchen, at the Beverly Hilton and Rock Sugar Pan Asian Kitchen. But when he heard about an idea of Korean food on a taco truck, he said "sign me up!"
This is guerrilla gourmet at its best. "We're Korean, but we're American and we grew up in LA. It's not a stigma food, it's a representation of who we are," explained Choi on the street last night. "Everything you get in that taco is what we live in LA. It's the 720 bus on Wilshire, it's the 3rd street Juanita's Tacos, the Korean supermarket and all those things that we live everyday in one bite. That was our goal. To take everything about LA and put it into one bite... It's Mexican, it's Korean, it's organic, it's California, it's farmer's market, it's drunk people after midnight."
It was just over a month ago that Kogi BBQ founder Mark Manguera came up with the concept. It was one of those post-clubbing in Hollywood inebriated ideas born out of "I'm drunk and I'm hungry, why can't I get some Korean food right this minute?" When you get those drunken thoughts, how often do you act on them? Not often at all, but Manguera did it in less than 30 days, just beginning last week, and is now the buzz of the town, thanks to online social networking and some damn good food.
"With Kogi, we really wanted to focus on grassroots," said Mike Prasad, who is doing the branding and new media marketing for them. "Connecting and interacting with food lovers in real-time. Since the truck is out and about, it gives us a unique setting to engage people via Twitter, qik, and other social media tools. Like Roy says, it's about the culture AND the food."
UCLA student and LAist writer-on-hiatus Henry David came out to see why there were hundreds of people outside his apartment window last night. Of course, he had to sample. "They did a pretty good job of meeting the demand, churning out the food as quickly as possible while socializing with us at the same time," he said. "I knew I had to try two of the KBBQ staples, short ribs and spicy pork. I was expecting Korean BBQ coming from a mobile kitchen to be a little tame, so I was surprised by the boldness of the flavor when I bit into the first taco. It's not just that the spicy pork was well-seasoned (I'm not a fan of Korean BBQ that lacks marinade), but also the lettuce/onion/cilantro fixings were dressed with a flavorful sauce; possibly their own spin of miso? The combination of the meat and vegetables is quite rich and delicious, and the generous usage of cilantro definitely gives the dish a street taco taste. What I got from it was a very good marriage of Korean and Mexican flavors -- and what could be more Angeleno than that?"
The Kogi BBQ team is taking the energy they've received from their online and street following and is going full force. This week, they'll be at the Hollywood Farmer's Market, hoping to be a permanent fixture there, a bar in Venice wants them to feed their customers on weekends and within the next couple weeks, they'll add two more trucks to the fleet for the holiday season. Ultimately, one of their goals is to expand regionally.
Their menu consists of Korean Shortrib, BBQ Chicken, Tofu and Spicy Pork tacos ($2 each or 3 for $5). Add to that burritos ($5) and daily specials like Pork Belly Kimchi Fried Rice Cake w/ Egg-Shiso salad or short rib sliders. If those become popular, there's a good chance they'll become a regular menu item at the will of the people on the street.
There should be a lesson in all of this. If you have an idea that believe in, go for it. The Kogi BBQ team has proved that with smart planning and a solid business plan. Manguera admits that if it doesn't work, it doesn't work. But you don't know until you execute, experiment and have some plain old fun doing what you love.