The Phenomenon Known As Kogi BBQ

Chef Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ talks about his unlikely business that's become a runaway hit.

We in the San Francisco Bay Area like to think we have access to everything tasty.

But one thing we sadly don’t have is Kogi BBQ.

At least not yet.

Roy Choi, a Seoul-native who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and cooked at the likes of Le Bernardin and Aureole, both in New York, has turned the world of tacos topsy turvy on the streets of Los Angeles.

The classically-trained, extremely articulate chef has taken his high standards and top-notch skills, and applied them to humble taco truck offerings. Ten months ago, he started hawking his own brand of Korean tacos from one roaming truck that announces its location via Twitter. Now, he has four trucks, each of which serves more than 2,000 people a day. How crazy is that?

Fortunately, I didn’t have to drive all over Los Angeles to chase down one of his trucks to try the famous Kogi taco. Instead, I was able to snag one when Choi did a cooking demo at last weekend’s “Worlds of Flavor” conference at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena. With this year’s theme, “World Street Food, World Comfort Food,” what could be a more perfect fit than a Korean taco?

And a most delicious one at that. As Choi explained, street food often gets the bum rap of being something thrown together, slap-dash. But take a bite of one of his tacos and discover how incredibly complex it is.

The sweet, smoky, tender taste of Korean short ribs transforms the taco into something all together new. The meat is marinated in a blend of soy sauce, maple syrup, yellow onions, green onions, garlic, kiwi, Asian pear, mirin, orange juice and 7-Up. It’s cooked at high heat to char and caramelize it. Then it’s diced, cooked on the flat-top, and heaped on two soft corn tortillas along with salsa verde or salsa roja; diced onion; a mix of shredded cabbage, romaine and green onions; Kogi chilie vinaigrette; and toasted and crushed sesame seeds.

Grilling corn tortillas until they're puffy and a little crisp.

Constructing the famous taco.

Aren't you dying for one?

It’s a thing of absolute beauty. And it sells for an absolute pittance.

“We make everything from scratch, and we sell our food for $2,” Choi said. “I’m not sure if that’s the best business model, but our goal is not to lose money. My other goal — I don’t achieve it every day — but it’s that every single bite hopefully makes you stop in your tracks.”

His taco certainly does, as well as his “Blackjack Quesadilla,” so named because it has Jack and cheddar cheeses in it, along with spicy pork “al pastor from the black pig (Kurobota or Berkshire). It gets its heat from Korean chili paste and jalapenos. The quesadilla gets finished with diced onions, cilantro, salsa verde, and toasted and crushed sesame seeds.

“It’s just a quesadilla,” Choi said. “But we put a lot of love into it.”

The "Blackjack Quesadilla.''

Choi’s trucks sell out of the food they make every day. They cook everything on a flat-top plancha the size of a sheet pan. None of the trucks has an oven, fryer or open flame.

He’s no renegade, fly-by-night business, either. He pays taxes and his trucks are certified by the health department. Still, it’s hard to escape the anxiety that he could be driven out of any location at any time. That’s why he likes to keep his ingredients in plastic buckets and containers with tight-fitting lids — in case he has to take off in a hurry.

“I cook with the mentality that I could be shut down or run out at any minute,” he said.

Kogi BBQ boasts more than 48,000 followers on Twitter. It’s not uncommon for a Kogi truck to pull up to a club at midnight and find itself with a line of 1,200 hungry people willing to wait a couple hours for one of its famous tacos.

“We took the Twitter model and became like door-to-door salesmen peddling tacos,” Choi said. “It just happened bite by bite.”

Kogi’s success has spawned a bevy of others who are now trying their luck at selling gourmet eats of all manner from retrofitted taco trucks. Is imitation the best form of flattery to Choi?

“I would be no more  happier than to see all those other trucks cooking great food,” he said. “I’d be a pig in sh*t. But if all those trucks were cooking crap, I’d be Kurt Cobain, man. Straight up.”

Los Angeles proved the perfect launch pad for Kogi, too.

“LA was a very easy city of us to open up in,” Choi said. “I was almost a poem that needed to be written. LA is still a town where you can get away with a lot of sh*t.”

Although he tried once — and failed — to bring Kogi BBQ to New York, he would like to attempt it again. He also said he’d like to come to San Francisco.

“I don’t want to go to other cities to conquer them like Julius Caesar,” he said. “I want to go to spread the love of this food.”

We in the Bay Area can only keep our fingers crossed that we get so lucky.

More: Hungry for Korean food? Learn how to make my friend Joanne’s home-style Korean dishes.

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