When Alice Shin's brother-in-law phoned her to say that he'd gotten his hands on a truck they could use to begin peddling tacos filled with Korean-style barbecued meats, as they'd discussed late one night on an East L.A. street curb, Shin looked to a deck of tarot cards. All of the cards turned up except for two, so she agreed to get on board with what would soon be known as “Kogi.”
Three years, five trucks and two restaurants later, Shin, 29, is creative director for the ever-popular Korean taco trucks helmed by chef Roy Choi, as well as his brick-and-mortar restaurants, Chego and Sunny Spot.
As a self-described “guard dog” for Kogi, she considers it her duty to protect the family business, which survived an attempted buyout by Baja Fresh, and earned success via the popularity of its roaming taqueria.
“I don't want us to be disingenuous or compromise,” Shin says over breakfast one Saturday morning at a Salvadoran bakery on Sunset Boulevard. “It's easy to forget who we are and lose track.”
And so Shin doesn't request friends on Facebook or follow people on Twitter purely for business. “It shouldn't be about how I get people to my truck,” she says. “Twitter is a tool, and I hate the idea of abusing any tool.”
Shin grew up in Laguna Hills and La Crescenta, but when the business began in 2008, she was working four jobs and studying psychoanalysis and food studies in graduate school at NYU. While her friends labored on the truck, Shin served as Kogi's compass from her apartment in Brooklyn. Through Twitter, she established a method of communication and marketing for the budding food-truck industry, luring an eager and growing group of followers to curbs around the city — Downey, Echo Park, Granada Hills, Venice, Westminster, Whittier.
Choi's menu embodied the city's Venn diagram of cuisines. “Fifty percent of Koreatown is Latino,” Shin says. “If we ran out of rice growing up, we got tortillas. Kogi rang true for the city of Los Angeles.”
While Shin steers Kogi through the competitive food scene like a pro, she doesn't watch Top Chef, and the obsessive nature of it makes her wary. Her master's thesis examined our relationship to food through the lens of French psychoanalyst-philosopher Jacques Lacan, whose theory of the “Other,” Shin says, explains the neurotic nature of food-driven desire. “Food culture is a big zit in our psyche,” she says. “We use it to distract ourselves from dealing with other things.”
Shin's creativity helps her preserve her sanity amidst the social media static. She moved back to L.A. in 2009, and in her Kogi off-hours she works the cash register at the House of Intuition, a reading, guidance and healing center between Silver Lake and Echo Park.
In the summer of 2010, Shin was mourning an unrequited crush, and dessert sales were down at Chego. To cope, she offered a free love letter with the purchase of two desserts. She wrote five new notes each week — some telenovela-inspired confessions, others based on Korean dramas. Finding a love letter wrapped around a Sriracha Bar like Wonka's golden ticket likely activated a lot of narcissistic egos, but it also transformed Chego's desserts into coveted libidinal objects — tugging at the heartstrings of Lacanian desire. Was the passion you felt midway through the second Rock Yer Road symbolic, imaginary or real?
Go ask Alice.