Dec 8, 2008
Food Noir. Introducing the Korean Taco. Kogi BBQ Truck. Various Locations in LA.
The Bulgogi Bus.
It’s 2019 in Blade Runner Los Angeles. Underneath the city’s acid fog, toxic mist and seemingly eternal night can be heard murmurs of a language called city speak: a mashup of Japanese, Spanish, German, whatever. Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner about a dystopian Los Angeles is dark and bleak with a backdrop of a city overpopulated with denizens from all over the world. In this near future, everything about the citizenry merges: the languages, the cultures, the food. In one critical scene, the film’s protagonist Rick Deckard looks for some street food. He prefers ramen. That’s only because he’s not aware of Korean tacos yet.
As 2009 creeps up on present day Los Angeles, the mood around town is not quite as dark as it is in Blade Runner, but there are palpable concerns due to the current economic climate and the global climate itself. There also are moments of refuge, like when you find yourself out in the night, attempting to lose yourself and, especially, your troubles with some drink and music. Depending on what part of LA you end up in, the country’s official language of English may not be the official language of that particular neighborhood. But, chances are, if you’ve lived in LA for a while, you can still wing it without knowing the local lingo. Plus, who can speak at all when the music is shattering your eardrums? This is why in a club you text message the person standing right next to you.
Even if you can’t speak city speak or Spanglish or Chinglish or whatever Glish you need to get by with in various parts of LA, you can still get a late night bite by only pointing at a menu. But if you happen upon a taco truck named Kogi BBQ, speaking two languages isn’t the requirement but, rather, eating two cultures is—namely, Korean and Mexican. Two great tastes that go great together. Yes, in fact the bulgogi did fall into the corn tortilla and thus a new concept for street food was born.
When Bulgogi Met Tortilla.
Kogi means meat in Korean. Bulgogi is literally translated into "fire meat". Bulgogi is tender beef marinated in salty and sweet seasonings and typically punched up with ssamjang, a spicy Korean paste. This is basic Korean barbeque. But when it’s worked into a taco or breakfast burrito, it becomes delicious destiny. It’s destiny because this food fusion was bound to have happened. However, it took Mark Manguera and Chef Roy Choi to manifest and deliver destiny via a catering truck to a dance hall near you.
Chef Roy Choi.
Bringing Korean tacos on wheels to hungry night clubbers all over LA was the vision of Manguera, albeit a drunken and blurry vision born on a debaucherous night out. Manguera, a food and beverage big shot for a 5 star hotel, pitched the concept of Korean tacos to a skeptical yet searching Choi, who has served in kitchen trenches with Iron Chef Michiba and exec cheffed at Rock Sugar among other high concept eateries.
It was an idea that was just crazy enough to work. And, why didn’t anyone else think of this? Further, the timing was just right. It is a new era after all. Based on the lines in front of the nightclub that wrapped around the corner up to the Kogi BBQ truck, people really want this taco. Their target audience, hungry drunk people, love this taco. Sloshed people looking for salvation through greasy, portable food really love this taco. Even sober people, looking for salvation on a Sunday after church services, want this taco. In fact, on certain Sundays, the Kogi truck can be found ready to serve the masses in front of different churches in K-town.
The Kogi BBQ Queue.
People who have experienced the Kogi taco are really passionate about it. They even follow Kogi around on twitter. But, c'mon, it’s only a taco with Korean-style seasoned meat in it. There’s even a rumor that the Korean taco predates Kogi’s version: A solitary street hawker perched in front of a Koreantown grocery store cooking up bulgogi on a portable grill and filling store bought corn tortillas then selling the tacos for loose change. And then there’s José Bernstein’s galbi burrito. WTF! is right. How about Dylan Ho’s marvelous miscegenational experiment of Korean and Mexican which spawned a fantastical kalbi taco, if only for one night.
Regardless of the origin, people love this Kogi Korean taco. For fans these tacos mean more than just sustenance. Their enthusiasm hovers at fanatical levels. But Kogi isn’t simply Pinkberry for carnivores. Instead, it represents cultures coalescing, not just getting along, but getting it on. Loving each other. Loving one another’s food. Sharing. Fusing. Eating. It’s LA at its best even when the country is at its worst. With an entry price point at a couple of bucks per taco (or even better 3 tacos for $5), Kogi’s bulgogi taco is part of the solution not the problem.
Pick your hangover cure.
Not everyone's a fan. Some Yelpers dismiss the taco as something a Korean kid could make at home with leftovers. Oddly enough, even Kogi’s detractors appear apologetic when they criticize the concept as “just Korean meat in a tortilla”. They seem to want it to work and hope that Chef Choi comes up with something more thoughtful and less ad hoc. They shouldn’t worry, Kogi BBQ is but an infant and Choi is busy fine tuning current items and creating new offerings to add the truck’s menu board. A Korean hot dog, maybe?
Looking for the bright side seems to be everyone’s preoccupation lately, although, at moments, the search can feel hopeless. The most important thing to remember is that there always is a bright side to the darkness. Sometimes it just takes a little fire meat to light the way. With a Kogi bulgogi taco, at least, it'll be a tasty journey.