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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thursday, April 9th. Written by two writers from The Office. How was that Aziz?
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!
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.
Tough times right now. I paid him with this delicious mulita.
Everyone loved these.
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.
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.