At the OC Night Market earlier this month, there was only one food vendor popular enough to require two separate booths.
Placed on opposite sides of the massive parking lot loaded with Chinese, Vietnamese and Asian-fusion street food options, Rakken Tacos served flank steak marinated overnight in pho broth, lemongrass pork belly al pastor and yuzu carne asada under a blaring soundtrack of Top 40 club hits. The lines of devoted fans hungering for Rakken’s distinctive meats (also available: garlic crab and butter shrimp, placed on top of fries, in taquitos or slid into corn tortillas) never seemed to wane.
And when the 626 Night Market starts its fifth season in July, Rakken Tacos will return to Santa Anita Park with four booths, as it has for most years since its 2012 debut. Rakken’s pho tacos, topped with bean sprouts and hoisin sauce, have become so much a part of the night-market experience that it’s almost sacrilege to attend and not nab one.
But the experience of biting into a pho taco is no longer exclusive to food festivals: Rakken’s first brick-and-mortar taco shop opened in February. Hiding in a strip mall at the bigrig-heavy intersection of Atlantic and Washington Boulevards in Commerce, Rakken now serves up night-market vibes all day long with a menu of perfected favorites plus experimental new flavors.
Owner Kenneth Nguyen decided it was time to expand beyond pop-ups because of the “crazy momentum” his tacos were getting. “At each event my cashiers would tell me that at least 20 customers would ask if we had a brick-and-mortar,” he says. “We’d always respond with, ‘There's one coming soon!’”
Part of Rakken’s success is that it’s not just another campy attempt at slamming two different ethnic dishes together to see who buys it (sorry, sushi burritos). For Nguyen, combining Latin American and Asian dishes was a natural move — one that reflects the rich fabric of immigrant cultures that makes L.A. such a fascinating city for food.
The son of Vietnamese immigrants, Nguyen grew up in Koreatown, where his family members married into the area’s large Salvadoran community. He joined the Marine Corps, where he worked in the kitchen, and even briefly ran a pho restaurant he opened in Westwood in 1997. When 626 Night Market began, he decided he wanted to get back into the food business (he still runs his family's window coverings company) and teamed up with a Japanese chef to do fusion foods at farmers markets all over L.A. The pair made everything from sushi and yakitori skewers to Vietnamese crepes to bánh mì and robata grill foods. “Anything we could fuse together,” he says.
After parting ways with his partner, Nguyen began to participate more seriously at the 626 Night Market. He started with a single booth, rolling out robata grills and doing skewers of filet mignon, lemongrass pork belly, yellow-curry chicken, honey ginger pork meatballs. From there, he added Vietnamese crepes, shrimp rolls and, eventually, tacos.
“The taco idea came from marinating our skewer meats,” he says. “This was a natural progression because I grew up eating tacos a few times a week. My uncles also married Latina women, so that had a big impact on me as well.”
Thanks to the recent addition of a sweet char siu pork belly, there are now seven different kinds of meat available at Rakken’s Commerce restaurant and you can get them in tacos (a plate of three comes with black beans, white rice and a salad for $7), a burrito (yes, another phorito!), a rice bowl or a salad bowl. Similar to the Boyle Heights–bred taqueria Guisados, Rakken also offers a sampler platter of sorts, the Rakken 6, which comes with full-sized tacos of everything except the char siu for just $7.79.
A delicious mango shrimp ceviche — balancing citrus tang with fruity sweet is no easy task — and a Vietnamese teriyaki beef jerky, tinted demonic red and made by Nguyen’s mother, are by far the best new menu items. They are just two of the many dishes you won’t (for now) find at Rakken's night-market stalls.
And just like at the taquerias of Nguyen’s childhood, you can wash it all down with a Jarritos or a Mexican Coke.
2444 S. Atlantic Blvd., Commerce; (323) 318-2588.