Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Taco Tour with Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ

Eatdrinknbmerry & Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ Taco Tour

About 8 months ago, Roy Choi was situated in a restaurant he had helped built in Santa Monica. He was at a standstill and pondering his next move in life, like a chess player. He had always had ambitions in opening a restaurant that would serve Korean-fusion food, but that would take years to achieve. It wasn't until one day when his old friend Mark Maguera called him with a proposition he couldn't refuse. One that would make him the executive chef, serving Korean-style tacos – a Korean homage to one of Los Angeles' favorite foods. At first it seemed like a daydream, but after a few days, Choi knew that Maguera was serious about this. On the day of his departure, Roy found himself leaving the doors of a restaurant and right into another one that had four wheels. They were offered a chance to test-drive their concept in a vending truck for two free months. With recipes tested, cooks hired and the financiers behind them with full support, Choi literally got behind the wheel of their taco truck, named Kogi BBQ, and hit the streets of Taco Town, Los Angeles. Shortly after the first day, they knew this would be a tough endeavor. For weeks they didn't sell one taco. They were heckled by locals and even threatened by gangs to leave the turf. But with patience, determination and a little bird that loved to tweet her song, a new type of business emerged, in the form of a Korean-run taco truck. And pretty soon, they found themselves overwhelmed by crowds of 800 in Rosemead and Torrance.

I received an email from Alice, Kogi's PR-superstar, saying that both she and Chef Roy really enjoyed the exhaustive taco stand and table posting from February. I thought it'd be fun to invite them on a tour and just talk food. After a few emails, we decided to meet up on the day Chef Roy would be speaking at UCLA with Jonathan Gold, Octavio Becerra of Palate and my favorite, Anthony Bourdain. I thought Roy and Alice could use a break from the aroma of soy sauce, sesame oil and chili paste and oh yeah, Jeni and I would get to try their tacos too. We also decided to invite rising-comedian Aziz Ansari of MTV's Human Giant and NBC's Parks & Recreation along on the journey. He apparently, is a big fan of Kogi BBQ (2nd photo), amongst many other celebrities. Here's my favorite Aziz Ansari skit.

We headed out to the Eagle Rock area off Eagle Rock Blvd. and York Blvd, where Kogi BBQ was stationed that night. I had driven a good 50+ times into this area because of my taco foraging and was quite familiar with my surroundings. I saw the usual Leo's and Rambo's taco trucks, with their spray-painted murals, and continued going north, not really knowing where Kogi BBQ lay their nest. I asked my friend Tyson, "Where is that truck?" He replied, "Oh, you'll know when you're at Kogi BBQ." And all of a sudden, without second guessing, we had arrived – a jarring 200+ people waiting in line on a Thursday night around a corner in Eagle Rock . We parked and started walking.

Eatdrinknbmerry & Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ Taco Tour

We had parked far enough, not being able to see the truck. All we could hear was the light chattering of people in line. We then cut behind a Starbucks towards the end of the taco line and within seconds, we smelled what could only be Korean BBQ. The sweet, smoky, charred aroma of meat being spanked by a hot metal grill. It was beauty. My brain was confused... was this a Mexican taco or was this a Korean BBQ restaurant – what was this mysterious harmony that has got people talking. I had trained my brain into searching for any vending truck or stand with clamp lamps, but the Kogi BBQ truck just didn't register. "Both," I said to myself.

Eatdrinknbmerry & Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ Taco Tour

We got to the end of the line and I simply could not believe the amount of people waiting around. The majority of the crowd was Asian, 22-26 years old, with the occasional sprinkle of Caucasian and Latino people – there was some diversity. Everyone was huddled around their own cohort, chatting away – doing anything to make time pass before it was time to eat. I could hear a girl saying that she couldn't wait to get a burrito. I called Aziz and told him, "this is ridiculous. I'm not waiting in this line." We're supposed to leave in 15 mins. But hey, six-pack and plastic cups to the rescue. Aziz called back and told us to meet him in front of the truck, and sure enough we found him there with his group.

Eatdrinknbmerry & Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ Taco Tour

Now we were in front of the truck and all I could smell was that deliciousness that is Kogi BBQ. I already knew it was going to taste really nice. You walk into Manna Korean BBQ, and you know it's not going to be good. You walk into Park's BBQ and you know you've come to the right place. I could see Roy hustling and bustling inside. There must've been like 5-6 people in the heart of the truck. One wrong move or sudden jerk, could mean someone really injuring themselves. I saw Aziz talking to Roy and I went to introduce myself. Firm handshake, a smile and a question, "Do you want some tacos?" Yes, please.

Eatdrinknbmerry & Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ Taco Tour

Within 3 minutes, he yelled at my name for the pickup. With both hands out, he passed on the little treasures – two, tiny tacos filled with steaming meat and shiny garnishing. I took a bite out of the kalbi (short rib) taco first and it was definitely good. The sweetness of the meat, light touch of sesame oil and the sour bite of the vinaigrette on a toasted corn tortilla somehow made sense. The pork version was also very good. I didn't think of this as a taco but more a delicious creation by Chef Roy, like Josef Ceteno's "Baco". The term "taco" is merely used to lure you to the truck, and from there, you're at a point of no return.

Eatdrinknbmerry & Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ Taco Tour

Eatdrinknbmerry & Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ Taco Tour

About 15 minutes later, with hands reeking of dried corn and Korean BBQ, we wrangled everyone and headed out. Previously, we had done a larger party taco hunt with 11-12 cars on my birthday and it worked out as smoothly as a funeral procession minus the motorcade police. This time, it was 3 cars and much easier to manage. Me in the front, with Roy and Aziz in the caboose.

Eatdrinknbmerry & Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ Taco Tour

La Estrella Taco Truck (York Blvd. & Avenue 54)
This is usually my first stop when entering Highland Park's Taco Town. Here, they are known for their juicy carnitas and al pastor. Of all the stands and trucks I've been to, I have to say they make a killer salsa roja (red sauce) that is smoky, rich, tomatoey and the perfect touch to tender pieces of meat. The tacos here are expensive, meaning $.25 more than the usual $1 you'll pay out here, but you get a LARGE, WELL-ENDOWED taco. Very food porny. There is a truck west of here called El Pique and no matter how many times I try to give them business, I find myself doing a U-turn back to La Estrella – which is one of ER/HP's favorite trucks. I recommend carnitas, al pastor, cabeza and lengua. They have two other trucks and one actual restaurant – choose your poison.

Eatdrinknbmerry & Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ Taco Tour

York Blvd. & Nolden St.
Exactly 4 blocks east of La Estrella is a bunch of nice guys from East LA that park at Serrano's Auto Repair. I know this place is authentic because I get stared at here and they freak out when I order in Spanish.

Eatdrinknbmerry & Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ Taco Tour

I lost my buche virginity here and never order anything else but the buche. So that's what I suggested to our group of 14, more than half were buche virgins. I almost shed a tear when everyone told me that this was very delicious. Besides the buche, I recommend the cabeza, lengua and on this night, the al pastor hit a home run. Tip on al pastor: this is a meat that should never be served dry – strictly illegal. It should look pasty and juicy. If it even looks charred, don't even bother. You can try asking for a fresh cut off the spit but the taquero could take offense. Try your tacos with the curtido (pickled vegetables) with habanero.

Eatdrinknbmerry & Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ Taco Tour

My friend Tyson and Aziz's cousin going in for a kill.

Eatdrinknbmerry & Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ Taco Tour

Aziz Ansari plugging his new NBC show, Parks and Recreation that airs on
Thursday, April 9th. Written by two writers from The Office. How was that Aziz?

Eatdrinknbmerry & Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ Taco Tour

Taco hopping is not just a meal, it's a sport. And in almost all sports, you need a half-time to relax, re-strategize and swap out a new, dry jock strap. That's why I always head to my favorite watering hole in Los Angeles for some fine, craft beer – The Verdugo. If you don't know what to order, you're going to get a Stella Artois. Also, if you've heard of the new Boho Restaurant, the guys from The Verdugo provide the delicious beer there. Two beers later, everyone was still hungry and we headed out.

Eatdrinknbmerry & Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ Taco Tour

The Verdugo bar guys also have a friend of theirs setting up shop right outside. To me, this is a blast to the past – to a time I used to be out till 3-4 am in a sloppy state. I am really not sure how I was able to put two of these into my stomach. It looks like three hot dogs in a gutter/sewer. Aye, say no to Danger Dogs.

We then drove to the taco stand by the Verdugo bar on Verdugo & Avenue 31. These guys moved up to my top three instantly with their friendly service and $.80 tacos. I knew they weren't open on Thursdays but had to try anyway. And sure enough, they were there, but already taking down their stand. Frown.

It was now almost 12 am and there one last taco stand effort, my favorite, Fletcher and Larga in Glassell Park. Nope, not there either. Taco Zone it is. But even Taco Zone tricked us! Instead of parking in front of Vons, they parked even further south by the Rite Aid. Messing with my stomach!

Eatdrinknbmerry & Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ Taco Tour

Taco Zone (Alvarado & Vons)
You can always count on this truck to be here, unless it's catering a big event, like at the LACMA or MOCA. This is almost like the white guy's version of Kogi BBQ, drawing crowds as big as 30 at a time. We had first heard of this place from Jeni's old neighbor and Tokyo Astro Girl's husband, who swore by Taco Zone. But when I got here, I found it to be merely average – a place for SL/EP hipsters to congregate and sober up. The thing about Taco Zone is that you have to go there early to get the tastier meats. When I've eaten here before 12 am, I get decent stuff and I'm content - especially the suadero (brisket). But after 12 am, I get the charred, nasty bits that, once upon a time, came from an animal. It seems the owner does not care to refresh her supply. She knows very well that the people are inebriated haha.

Eatdrinknbmerry & Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ Taco Tour

Eatdrinknbmerry & Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ Taco Tour

So what do I do at Taco Zone after 12 am? The answer is simple, ask for a mulita. For $.25 more ($1.50 total), you can Optimus Prime your taco with charred meat into one with cheese and extra tortilla. Almost like a mini, round quesadilla. And it is good. You know sometimes you just want a few bites of a quesadilla but don't want a tumor, this is the answer.

Eatdrinknbmerry & Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ Taco Tour

Hand modeling by Tyson. Anything you'd like modeled, he'll do for some freelance pay.
Tough times right now. I paid him with this delicious mulita.

Eatdrinknbmerry & Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ Taco Tour

Everyone loved these.

Eatdrinknbmerry & Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ Taco Tour

The BLTC Burrito
I love BLT's, but I love BLTC's more. Akin to Willy Wonka's candy that changes it tastes every few bites, this is the Mexican version. Four types of meat all in one burrito – buche, lengua, tripas and cabeza. But it is CRITICAL that you do not end on tripas, because well, you'll be left with an after dinner mint taste that will taste somewhat like @$$. I love tripas but you just can't end on that. Try not to order this when it's busy, or you'll get looks from the cooks. Like I did. So what, this was delicious.

After three trucks and one stand, it was time for Aziz Ansari and his entourage to leave. By the way, Aziz Ansari's show Parks and Recreation will be airing on NBC on Thursday, April 9th. I told him that we'd be glad if he joined any of our future food crawls. He's truly a good guy and no he didn't ask me to announce that his show Parks and Recreation will be airing on NBC on Thursday, April 9th.

Eatdrinknbmerry & Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ Taco Tour

Tacos Arizas (Sunset Blvd. & Logan)
It was now 1 am. And it was down to me, Jeni, Tyson, Chef and Alice. I could go home or I could go eat. This was a bit exhausting. But I had to ask, "One more stop?" Without hesitation, everyone answered "yes." So we ended up at Tacos Arizas of Echo Park. Only three years ago, Jeni and I sat apart from each other on crates with Jarritos and paper plates getting to know each other. Now we're sitting together.

But like the first few taco stands, we arrived at a truck that was on its way out. The workers were cleaning up and I asked if they would sell any more tacos. They looked at each other and hesitated. Right then, another 5 patrons came and the decision was unanimous. They dropped their cleaning supplies and started lighting up the griddle. Awesome. That's another $50 in their pocket, so why not. I have to say that I find myself coming back to this truck more often than not. Their tacos, burritos and quesadillas are simply done right. I like their chicken quesadillas.

In about 3.5 hours, I learned a lot about this 39-year old Korean man named Roy Choi. With something as successful as Kogi BBQ, major press on Newsweek, New York Times, LA Weekly and LA Times, celebrity sightings, its hard for a chef not to let this get to his head. Especially with a CIA culinary education, experience under Eric Ripert's Le Bernardin restaurant and 4-5-star chef ranking. Not once did I get that impression from him. Besides Octavio Becerra and Josef Centeno, I have never met more genuine, down-to-earth chefs with unmatched passion for food. Roy has seen rough times in his life but he told me that things seems to go well sooner than later with some hope and hard work. When he asked what he wanted to do next, he hinted on the idea of possibly running a taco stand.

As we were almost done with our food, one of the last few patrons started talking to us. He was drunk and enjoying his food, and must have heard us talking about all the tacos we tried tonight.

Guy: "Hey, have you guys heard of that Kogi Korean BBQ truck?"
Us: "Yeah. Have you tried it?"
Guy: "I haven't, but I heard it's good. Real good."

I expected Alice or Chef to reveal themselves, but being humble people, they didn't. Jeni, Tyson, Chef, Alice and I just looked at each other and smiled. Thanks for reading.

Here's Jeni's posting on this gluttonous evening.


Aliiiiiiiiice said...

Thanks so much for hosting the taco run. It was nothing short of awesome to see you and Chef Roy git aLL intense over some of the best tacos I've ever eaten. Graaaaacias!

Eddie Lin said...

Hey, that's great you guys hung out with some of the Kogi Krew and the Aziz. Glad you finally ate the Kogi. Did you try the kimchee kuesadilla? Interesting.

On a final note, I enjoy ending my taco or burrito experience with tripas ass taste in my mouth, like a lingering daydream of bung and cilantro.

dealinhoz said...

Aliiiiiice, our pleasure. We ate tacos again two days later even after swearing that we wouldn't.

Eddie, I'd love to try that, only if it has silkworm cocoons and a live octopus on top of it. Only way I'll do it. Haha, assmouth!

Anne said...

Wait- when does Parks & Recreation air? What network? I swear you need to provide more details.

mattatouille said...

BLTC - pure genius. My friends have done AMTAP (all-meat tripas and al pastor) burrito from Rambos and say it's caloric hell yet divine. I think those all-meat burritos have the meat of 8 tacos so it's actually a bargain. Wait, I thought you said Becerra and Bourdain were going to meet you?

Unknown said...

You guys would appreciate Austin and the taco scene here. Some fancy off the wall stuff and some downright hole in the wall stuff too. A major factor in the house I moved into was the proximity to my favorite stand.

moviebruin said...

Awesome night! Thanks again to you and the Mrs. for the invite out on the Taco Hop!

In the pic of us and Roy. Is that a beer in my pocket or was I just happy to be eating tacos alllll night? prob a lil bit of both. haha.

One Food Guy said...

I am speechless. More tacos, Kogi, and Chef Roy. Man I really wish LA was closer to Boston so I could get my taco fix on. There are good tacos in Boston but they are relatively expensive and never served from from a truck. MMmmmm tacos!

e d b m said...

TAG, I forgot when it airs.

Matt, I wish those guys were there.

B, I'll go down one day. My coworkers are from Austin and can't stop talking about it. They love it so much they live in LA now ha.

Moviebruin, I have no idea ha.

OFG, hey man. Do let us know when you're down in LA again. We'll know exactly where to find you via twitter.

Anonymous said...

one word - BUCHE!!! <3 tes

han nah said...

please add me on your list for the next taco run.. :P

although i've lived in LA all my life, i'm directional challenged. remember, i even got lost in the westside....

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Kung Food Panda said...

BLTC, one word from me: WOW!

I really need to hit up a taco truck in LA.....

Your first taco run was awesome, and this one looks just as well.

Unknown said...

D, thanks for the delicious tour last night. Still burping up taco breath this morning...mmmmmm....

Las Vegas Hotels said...

Thanks so much for hosting the taco run. It was nothing short. when are you doing it again?

Hino Trucks said...

Wow, those taco's look awesome, a little pricey but by the looks of it worth every cent. Will have to try them!

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