View a full gallery of Kogi photos in the “Taco Truck 2.0” slideshow.
Off a deserted Rosemead side street, in a huge parking lot backing up to the San Bernardino Freeway, the Glendon advertises itself as the first boutique hotel in the San Gabriel Valley, a converted chain motel equidistant from dim sum palaces and the South El Monte pho district. It’s not quite the Standard stranded on the side of an interstate. The biggest landmark in the neighborhood is an abandoned Levitz outlet; empty, chained parking lots seem to reach to the horizon.
Which is why, last Sunday, it was shocking to get caught up in an actual traffic jam by the hotel, Kias jousting for spaces with Scions, Hondas with Priuses, all of it complicated by the steady stream of guys crossing the street while clutching plates of food, more concerned with the juice dripping down their arms than with whatever vehicle might be bearing down on them.
The Glendon’s lot itself was crowded with a circus-tent’s worth of people, clusters of them squatting on low walls to eat, and a snake of humanity, lit by 300 glowing iPhone screens, which wrapped around the parking lot. It seemed less like a food line than like the endless, slow-moving queue waiting to get past the metal detectors and into a punk-rock show at the old Palladium. The locus was a Grumman catering truck puffing the glamorous, sweet-smelling fumes of Korean barbecue, seemingly as far away from the stragglers at the end as home plate is from the bleachers at Dodger Stadium. A couple of hours later, having served up 450 pounds of meat to several hundred customers, and turning away several hundred more — some of whom had waited more than 90 minutes to taste a bulgogi taco — the truck chugged away.
“No food, man,” said the woman in back of me to her boyfriend. “Do you think we can still get into Mozza?”
“A drag,’’ said a dude practicing ollies in the parking lot. “But Mickey Ds is right across the street.”
Not since Pinkberry has anything captured the local imagination as quickly as Kogi, the Korean taco truck whose owners went from giving tacos away on Hollywood Boulevard to becoming rock stars of cuisine in little more than a couple of months — which is to say, 10 times faster than it took Guns N’ Roses or System of a Down to break out of the tyranny of small clubs. The Doheny, the swankest membership tavern in town, has arranged tasting menus of Kogi food paired with their exquisitely balanced cocktails, and the crowds that form when the truck rolls up to UCLA are big enough to disrupt traffic. In the parking lot outside the Brig in Venice, Kogi becomes an impromptu nightclub, a taco-driven hookup scene as perfervid as anything with a $40 cover charge. Last Saturday night outside the Brig, Kogi swarmed with customers, while the Green Truck, the high-quality organic purveyor that was the first of the gourmet trucks, stood by an empty sidewalk just one block away.
The Americanization of Korean food has been attempted before. In New York, David Chang, —whose restaurant Ko is perhaps the toughest reservation in the country — opened a place that attempted to bring the Korean wraps called ssam into the vernacular. But where his bo ssam pork feast for eight was probably the New York obsession of 2007, the actual burritolike ssam turned out to be the one thing eaters didn’t fetishize. All-you-can-eat Korean barbecue has become the dinner of choice for a certain sector of young drunkerati, and food writers have been predicting the ascendance of bibimbap for years. But Kogi’s taco is a new paradigm of a restaurant, an art-directed take on Korean street food previously unimaginable in both California and Seoul: cheap, unbelievably delicious and unmistakably from Los Angeles, food that makes you feel plugged into the rhythms of the city just by eating it. It’s our equivalent of pojangmachas, Seoul’s impromptu street-food palaces tucked under cheap orange tents, reinvented as a taco truck.
Followers keep track of Kogi’s whereabouts on a frequently updated Twitter feed — twitter.com/kogibbq — and the sudden materialization of hundreds of people is like what used to be called a flash mob— but with much better food. The frequent tweets make you feel connected to Kogi, as if you were friends with the owners instead of just another hungry mouth, even if your only contact with them has been a quick fist bump when you picked up your tacos. The menu is simple — Korean shortribs; spicy pork; spicy chicken or tofu tucked into griddled corn tortillas with shredded cabbage and a Korean relish of scallions, soy, sesame seeds and citrus — but Roy Choi, who has cooked at New York’s Le Bernardin and was executive chef at the Beverly Hilton and opened Century City’s massive Rock Sugar, is constantly coming up with specials, and the regulars keep coming back to try things like kimchi quesadillas; Kogi dogs; or steamed pork belly wrapped around leaves of dandelion and the Korean herb gaenip. (Choi dreams of the future of Korean truck cuisine: grilled intestines, stuffed sweetbreads and spicy liver; he does plan to serve soondae, Korean blood sausage, in hot dog buns.)
“I’m the chef,” Choi says. “I got tired of running big kitchens where I never got to touch the food. Mark [Manguera, founder and front man] is amazing with people. Caroline [Shin-Manguera, second-in-command, with finance powers] comes here after working as the food and beverage manager at the Four Seasons all day — you should see her when things get bad; she has the gift of calm. Eric [Shin, so-called “padawan in training”] takes the pictures. Mike [Prasad] is great with the social-networking stuff. I like to look at us as the Justice League of food — each of us has a superpower, and we come together to fight evil.’’