Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Korexican? Mexicorean? Mmm...Viva el kimchi-taco truck!

(...and to think, it's "only" a seven-hour drive from Tucson...kap-shee-da! Vamonos!)

From today's InternationalHeraldTribune:
For a new L.A. generation, kimchi goes with tacos
By Jennifer Steinhauer
Wednesday, February 25, 2009

LOS ANGELES: As the sun begins to sink behind the Santa Monica Mountains and the northbound traffic thickens on the 405 freeway, the hungry refresh their browsers.

After obsessively checking the Twitter postings of the Korean taco maker to see where the truck will park next, they begin lining up: throngs of college students, club habitués, couples on dates and guys having conversations about spec scripts.

And they wait, sometimes well beyond an hour, all for the pleasure of spicy bites of pork, chicken or tofu soaked in red chili flake vinaigrette, short ribs doused in sesame-chili salsa roja or perhaps a blood sausage sautéed with kimchi, all of it wrapped in a soft taco shell.

The food at Kogi Korean BBQ-To-Go, the taco vendor that has overtaken Los Angeles, does not fit into any known culinary category. One man overheard on his cellphone as he waited in line on a recent night said it best: "It's like this Korean Mexican fusion thing of crazy deliciousness."

The truck is a clear cult hit in Los Angeles, drawing more buzz than any new restaurant. A sister vehicle and a taco stand within a Culver City bar were recently added to quell the crowds, which Kogi's owner put at about 400 customers a night.

Kogi, the brainchild of two chefs, has entered the Los Angeles gastro-universe at just the right moment. Its tacos and burritos are recession-friendly at $2 a pop. The truck capitalizes on emerging technology by sending out Twitter alerts so fans know where to find it at any given time.

Yet Kogi's popularity and the sophistication of its street food also demonstrate the emerging firepower of this city's Korean food purveyors.

In the last few years, second-generation Korean Angelenos and more recent immigrants have played their own variations on their traditional cuisine and taken it far beyond the boundaries of Korean-dominated neighborhoods. These chefs and entrepreneurs are fueled in large part by tech-boom money here and in South Korea, culinary-school educations and in some cases, their parents' shifting perspectives about the profession of cooking. In the last year, new Korean restaurants have popped up on the powerhouse restaurant strips of Washington Boulevard in Culver City and Beverly Boulevard in West Hollywood. In an area of West Los Angeles dominated by Japanese restaurants, bibimbop has joined the fray.

"We thought Korean food was under-represented here, and we were right," said Robert Benson, the executive chef of Gyenari in Culver City, who has two Korean partners. "There is a certain mysticism to Korean food, and we have tried to make it more accessible."

Korean food has blipped on the radar of culinary trend watchers before, but it never seems to gain momentum. In part, Benson said: "It is because there is a misconception about Korean food. Japanese food is high protein, low in fat and is this very clean cuisine, where Korean food has reputation as being not healthy. So it has not taken off like it should, but I think it is going to. I can feel the groundswell. David Chang in New York: "the Korean-American chef whose inventions include oysters on the half shell with kimchi consommé" has helped that, too. I don't think it will be long before we see a P. F. Chang's-type chain of Korean food."

At the same time, an increasing number of Korean chefs and restaurateurs here have aligned themselves with other nations' cuisines, to great acclaim.

One of the city's hottest hamburger spots, Father's Office, is owned by Sang Yoon, 39, who immigrated to Los Angeles from Korea when he was a year old. He cooked at Michael's in Santa Monica before taking over an old bar nearby, now packed with people willing enough to wait in line for an Office Burger, served with Yoon's choice of accompaniments (caramelized onions, blue cheese, Gruyère, arugula), not theirs. A second Father's Office recently opened in Los Angeles.

Scoops, an artisanal ice cream store in East Hollywood that whips up strawberry balsamic vinegar and brown bread treats, is run by Tai Kim, who came with his family to California from Korea as a teenager. Korean-Americans have made their mark in the frozen-yogurt trade, too. Pinkberry? Red Mango? Check, check.

"The first generation of Korean immigrants here mainly catered toward a Korean clientele, or made grocery markets catering to a minority clientele," said Edward Chang, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Riverside. "But more recent immigrants have ethnic and capital resources that enable them to branch out in the mainstream economy."

Thus, "Korean-Americans have gained visibility since the unrest of 1992," when riots targeted Korean-owned businesses, he said, "and over the last 10 to 15 years, they became much more visible. In terms of economic and political spheres, they are forces to be reckoned with."

At the California School of Culinary Arts over the last two years, Korean students have been one of the fastest-growing immigrant groups, said Mario Novo, a spokesman for the school.

"One of our brand new students told me how excited he was to go to the school because in his culture the men do not cook and his mother was fighting against him," Novo said. "Until they saw how serious he was. Now his mother is coming around."

The Korean taco truck may be the ultimate outgrowth of the evolving Korean-American culture and inventiveness, inspired in part, like so many entrepreneurial adventures, by a bit of desperation.

This past September, the chef Roy Choi, 38, who began his career at Le Bernardin in New York and worked as the chef in several Los Angeles restaurants, including RockSugar, found himself out of a job and running out of cash. He had coffee with Mark Manguera, a former co-worker, who suggested that they operate a taco cart with a Korean twist.

At home that night, Choi said, the idea, which had sounded half crazy in the morning, began to make some sense. "I have always been searching for a way of trying to express myself," he said. A business model with seven partners was quickly formed. The marketing plan included putting someone in charge of social networking, through which Kogi got its initial publicity when the truck first rolled out, two months after the fateful coffee date.
Then there is Choi, who called himself "the angry chef." He works every night with about five employees who squeeze into the tiny, pristine space, clowns-in-a-car style, grilling meats and whipping up sauces for the crowds who wait, sometimes as long as two hours, for their tacos.

The idea, Choi said, was to bring his ethnic background together with the sensibility and geography of Los Angeles, where Koreatown abuts Latino-dominated neighborhoods in midcity and where food cultures have long merged. Former Mexican restaurants, now Korean, serve burritos, and Mexican workers populate the kitchens of Korean restaurants.

"We tried to marry two cultures," Choi said, "with this crazy idea of putting Korean barbecue meat inside a tortilla. We have never tried to make it any more pretentious or different from that, and we wanted to be very simple but delicious." To that end, Choi said, he buys from the meat purveyors used by some of the city's high-end restaurants and scours the farmers' markets for the best vegetables.

The whole operation is part culinary event — the delicious tang of pickled cabbage, the melt-on-the tongue caramel of seared meats, the bite of red chili flakes and jalapeños and part party. Choi likes to park his truck at the UCLA campus and outside bars and clubs around town, to take advantage of the street theater.

This week, his team began leasing space in the Alibi Room, a lounge in Culver City, serving up kimchi sesame quesadillas ($7) and hot dogs with kimchi sauerkraut and Korean ketchup.

"It has evolved into a socio-cultural thing for me," he said. "It is my vision of L.A. in one bite."

1 comment:

  1. I think Korexican is my favorite word of the last, oh, let's say six days. Thanks, Joe.