Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Night Out with the Hottest Taco Truck in So Cal - Kogi Korean BBQ-To-Go!

I still remember reading the excited posts awhile back on Chowhound about this new Taco Truck that was serving Korean BBQ in Taco and Burrito form. It sounded bizarre and interesting, and possibly gimmicky at first, but then more and more people began talking about Kogi, and within a few months it has become the hottest portable eatery in Southern California, getting the general populace more excited than any hot, new restaurant from some celebrity chef.

Besides the fusion of Korean BBQ and the classic Mexican Taco Truck, part of what's making Kogi so popular are the creations of Chef Roy Choi, who's the Executive Chef behind all of Kogi's menu offerings. Chef Choi graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and worked in Iron Chef Michiba's restaurant amongst other places.

Another interesting aspect about Kogi is that they're trying to "spread the love" as much as possible, moving from location to location throughout So Cal, during the week. For the most up-to-the-minute happenings about Kogi, they update their location and happenings on Twitter. How's that for a simple Taco Truck?

As we pulled up to their location on 8th Street in Downtown L.A., I could see a massive line streaming down the block from the truck. Definitely impressive, exciting and imposing. Getting in line, one could see that Kogi had seeped into the mainstream consciousness: There were people from all walks of life, from young kids to an older couple, and people of all ethic backgrounds. As we were waiting in line, a brand-new BMW 6-Series pulled up and out came a stylishly dressed couple, equally excited to try this hot new eatery. It felt like everyone and their mother were here to try out Kogi, and there was a palpable buzz in the air.

After about a 35 minute wait, we were finally able to place our order. Stepping up to the window, we could see a nice image of East-meets-West with their condiment area: The famous Asian "Rooster Sauce" known as Sriracha sitting next to their Lime, Orange and Red Radish buckets. :)

Kogi offers 4 types of Tacos, and uses those same base fillings for their Burritos. A simple, limited menu is always a good sign; I was hoping it would allow them to focus and put out some great dishes. We ordered one of each of the 4 offerings to try them all.

After another 15 minute wait or so, we finally got our food. First up was their Korean Short Rib Taco, featuring Chef Choi's proprietary marinade, topped with Cabbage and Romaine Lettuce with their Kogi Soy and Chili Vinaigrette.

Nibbling on a bit of it as soon as they gave us the taco revealed a lukewarm, dry piece of meat. The Kalbi offerings at Park's BBQ and other sit-down establishments were far superior to this, but *for a Taco Truck*, it satisfies the craving if you have to have your Kalbi fix and don't have a good KBBQ restaurant nearby. Still, overall, besides a decent, lightly sweet marinade, the Short Rib meat was lukewarm, tough and disappointing.

The next Taco that came out right after was their Korean Spicy Pork Taco. It was topped with the same Raw Cabbage and Romaine Lettuce + Soy and Chili Dressing and the only difference was the meat, but what a difference it was!

Chef Choi's Spicy Pork was tender, sweet, savory and lightly spicy (not overwhelmingly so), and put most Dweji Bulgogi (Marinated Pork served at Korean BBQ restaurants) to shame. Unfortunately, the only downside was that, like the Short Rib, this arrived lukewarm (almost cold). If this was piping hot, it would've been even better.

The 3rd Taco we tried was their Korean Tofu Taco. I was curious if this was an afterthought, meant to appease any vegetarians wanting to try Chef Choi's famous Taco Truck, or if it was a truly exciting Tofu recipe he had created.

Unfortunately, it was simply seared Tofu chunks, topped with the same Cabbage and Romaine Lettuce as the other dishes. If you like Tofu... unmarinated (or barely marinated), then you'll like this Taco, otherwise, it would be better to avoid this and stick with their other offerings. Disappointing.

After the Tofu Taco, I was pretty hesitant about trying the final flavor on the menu, but pressed forward: Korean Chicken Taco (a.k.a., Spicy BBQ Chicken Taco). Even at regular Taco Trucks, Pollo Tacos have generally disappointed far more than delighted, and I was bracing myself for some dried out chunks of bad chicken. Thankfully the night ended on a positive note. :)

Chef Choi's Spicy BBQ Chicken was surprisingly spicier than the Pork, but still manageable. And the Chicken itself was tender and moist, exhibiting a good savoriness with a nice kick. Definitely my 2nd favorite Taco of the menu.

Kogi's menu is pretty straightforward: $2 for any of the 4 Taco offerings, $2 for most Drinks, except the $5 Redbull and Monster, and $5 for each of the 4 Burritos (same meat as the Tacos).

The Kogi Korean BBQ-To-Go Taco Truck is an interesting phenomenon, now having gained full-fledged mainstream popularity. Chef Roy Choi's offerings are uneven: The Korean Spicy Pork and BBQ Chicken shine, while his Kalbi / Short Rib and Tofu Tacos are disappointing at best. Ultimately, it's all about perspective: For a Taco Truck, a portable, late night eating option / street food, Kogi is a good alternative to plethora of regular Mexican Taco Trucks throughout So Cal. There's something cool about being able to get a Korean Spicy Pork Taco from a Taco Truck in the middle of Downtown L.A. late at night.

But on the other hand, from a pure quality of food point-of-view, there are various Korean BBQ (and Yakiniku) restaurants that are far superior to the offerings at Kogi. And given the total ~50+ minutes of waiting just to get a few lukewarm Tacos (with some friends waiting over 1 hour(!) at other locations), Kogi is something I can't see myself revisiting at these wait times. Maybe when they add an additional Truck (or two), or open a brick-and-mortar store...

Rating: 7.0 (out of 10.0)

Kogi Korean BBQ-To-Go (Taco Truck)
9PM@The Golden Gopher - 417 W. 8th Street, Downtown L.A.

5PM@Japanese American National Museum - 1st & Central in Little Tokyo

6PM@Silverlake - Sunset Blvd. & Manzanita on the Northside of the Bridge

10PM@The Brig - Abbot Kinney and Palm in Venice

5PM@The Glendon Hotel in Rosemead
8832 Glendon Way
Rosemead, CA 91770

10PM@The Brig - Abbot Kinney and Palm in Venice

Times and locations are subject to change. For the latest EXACT location, check them out on Twitter.


shokutsu said...

Real interesting to read of this concept hitting your streets. I suppose if one good thing could be taken from this is that this will help spread Korean cuisine to those who might not otherwise think of eating it at an actual restaurant.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi shokutsu,

Yah, it's not bad at all; just not worth the long wait times that's blossomed because of its popularity. And yes, it could definitely increase awareness of "Korean cuisine" for those that would otherwise skip it.

Danny said...

Jeez, you waited almost a hour for these tacos? I guess I got lucky with no wait at 1AM in the morning on Abbott Kenney.

I don't know how I would rate these tacos. Would I say they're overrated? Ya. Even though Kogi is pretty good, for some reason, I'd rather hit up a Mexican Roach Mobile and pay $1-1.25/taco without the wait. I actually prefer some lengua/cabeza/etc over these Korean bbq meats. Plus, I ordered the Kimchi Quesedilla for $5. Totally NOT worth it. To me, it was like eating kimchi jun at a Korean restaurant (not a good version of the pajun) with cheese.

I think this will be a fad, but we'll see. Happy eating! :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Danny,

Yah, it ended up being almost an hour. That's cool that you had no wait at 1 a.m. :)

Like you, I'd say, if it was in the area and I was hungry for something quick, I'd stop by, if there was minimal wait (maybe up to 15 - 20 minutes of waiting). Anything after that, and for me, it just wasn't worth it.

Thanks for the FYI on the Kimchi Quesadillas.

H. C. said...

agreed that while delicious, I probably wouldn't wait longer than 20-30 minutes. Alternatively, I'll go when they occasionally partner with local places for special events which restricts the line somewhat. Already got myself marked down for the Feb. 26th event at Eagle Rock ;)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi H.C.,

Thanks for the info on the limited events. That makes more sense and as you said is more limited.

Pepsi Monster said...

Hey Exile Kiss,

Bummer about the long wait. Back then, when I wrote my review for Kogi, I only waited 15 minutes and I thought it was a long time. Now people have to wait for more than a hour and is limited to three tacos(?!).

Interesting note about Roy working at Michiba's restaurant. My hero is Iron Chef Morimoto. LOL.

Bummer about tofu taco because that was my favorite out of all their offerings. I also liked their kogi dog also. My other favorite was their burrito. Even though they are getting detractors because of constant buzz, I'm glad to see tons of people still swarming to their truck(s). Best wishes to them.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Pepsi Monster,

Thanks for your insight! :) Yah, if I only had to wait ~15 minutes at the most, I wouldn't mind coming back to Kogi more often, but waiting almost 1 hour for tacos is a bit extreme.

Sorry if it sounded confusing, but "no," there's no limit on tacos. I just ordered 4 types of tacos to try them all and had to wait nearly 1 hour to order/get them.

Your favorite Iron Chef is my favorite as well: Morimoto-san. :)

Re: Tofu Taco - Yah, I normally like Tofu a lot (in all its incarnations). This one was almost fully cold, and maybe they were rushed, but it tasted like grilled Tofu (with no other seasoning) + their spicy Cabbage/Romaine topping.

And I didn't see any Kogi Dog on the menu. :( Maybe they took it off?

Pepsi Monster said...

Hey Exile Kiss,

One night Kogi Taco ran out of food and people were complaining about it the next day. So they came up with a "three tacos limit" to move the line faster and semi-solve the problem of getting food to as many people as possible. I think it was only stated once on twitter, but don't think it's a permanent rule.

Kogi Tacos do change menu often. This is not their set menu other than the original 4 tacos and burritos. They are constantly trying to add new things. They used to have Kogi dogs on their special of the day. I'm pretty sure they'll bring it back one of these days. I still want them to bring back the breakfast burrito! LOL

With their success comes some long wait. Not sure if I can muster the 1 hour wait. The first time around it took 15 minutes on the line and 8 minutes to get the food. I was actually thrilled about it, so not quite certain about the wait at current times.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Pepsi Monster,

Ah, thanks for the info! :) That would be even more unfortunate if they re-implemented the "3 Taco Only" rule; that would be upsetting if we had to wait 1 hour and only get 3 small Tacos.

That's good to know that they have Daily Specials (there weren't any offered when we went).

I agree with you: I'd be thrilled to get these Tacos, too, if it was only ~15 minute wait times. Hopefully they add more Trucks / or a Storefront to lessen the wait.

Sawyer said...

I was there last Wednesday at the Golden Gopher. On this occassion, I waited 30 minutes, which wasn't bad, and wouldn't mind waiting again, granted my party was a bit buzzed from drinking at the Gopher before. The lines weren't as bad as the weekend, in which we waited 2 hours, and they ran out of food.

I'm not sure if you were there last Wednesday too, but I asked Steve, one of the guys working, what the special was and he said the kimchi quesadilla. It was too salty for me...

I got one of each taco too, and thought they were all right, but the salad overpowered the meat imo...i'd still go again though and give them another try.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Sawyer,

Thanks for the report. :) Wow! You had to wait 2 HOURS at Kogi, and they ran out of food?! :( My condolences.

Like you, I wouldn't mind going to Kogi with a shorter wait, but at some point, it's just not worth it any more.

Thanks for the info on the Kimchi Quesadilla (interesting idea), but unfortunate that it was too salty.

Darrell said...

Well, I'm glad I'm not the only one that wasn't impressed with Kogi food. I didn't like the tofu taco, the chicken was just okay and they were out of the pork and kalbi tacos. But... if you're drunk and leaving a bar and need something to soak up the booze, I'm sure Kogi will do the trick nicely.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Darrell,

Yes, my sentiments exactly. If I didn't have to wait, or maybe up to ~20 minutes or so at the most, I wouldn't mind getting some Kogi Tacos if I was in the area. It's not a destination and certainly not worth the extensive wait, IMHO. My friend just tried it out this past weekend and waited 2 HOURS just to get a few tacos... Wow.

Chris Moore said...

I would love to be able to try tis before the rip off artsist start duplicating it. All this success through good food and twitter...who'd a thought??
Nice Review

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Chris,

Thanks. Yes, by now, at least in So Cal there are lots of "Korean BBQ + (something)" trucks, all trying to cash in on Kogi's success.

If you get a chance to visit So Cal and try Kogi, please let me know what you think of it. :) Thanks.

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