In Los Angeles, it’s not enough to buy space, hire a chef, call yourself a restaurant, and hope that the foodie masses will show up to eat whatever trendy fusion cuisine you’re offering up as the next best thing. Mix into this recipe, however, mobile-capabilities that make for citywide accessibility of said cuisine and the latest in viral technology with which to announce your ‘restaurant’s’ forever-changing location, and the resultant concoction might just be elusive and exclusive enough to capture the imagination of even the most jaded Angelenos.
With their Twittering Korean BBQ Taco Truck, Kogi has mastered this formula, redefining the food truck while creating buzz the likes of which hasn’t surrounded even the most celebrity-flooded, 5- star, stationary restaurants in recent memory. The Kogi menu is simple, though expanding, with a staple listing of Korean-Mexican hybrids such as the Korean Short Rib Taco, the Spicy BBQ Chicken Taco, the Spicy Pork Taco, the Tofu Taco, and a Breakfast Burrito composed of Korean barbecued meat, hash browns, scrambled eggs, and shredded jack & cheddar cheeses. Chef Roy Choi’s impressive resume, which includes stints as the Chef de Cuisine at the Beverly Hilton and Executive Chef at Trader Vic’s, evidences itself in the innovative flavor combinations that make Kogi’s tacos so much more than just fast finger foods.
Kogi is the brainchild of restaurateur Mark Manguera, an alcohol-induced 4am epiphany that still sounded like a good idea when he awoke the next morning. Though Manguera is Filipino, his wife Caroline Shin-Manguera, second-in-command at Kogi, is Korean and thus responsible for introducing Mark to the flavors that have now made Kogi locally famous. Caroline, who was a Food, Beverage, and Hospitality Specialist with the Four Seasons hotel, now manages Kogi’s books. Her brother, Eric Shin, serves as the official Kogi cross-country photographer while his best friend, Mike Prasad, handles the company’s social networking and branding. Rounding out the Kogi team are Caroline’s cousin and the truck’s promoter, Young Ho Yoo, and, of course, Chef Roy.
Though the Kogi trucks, of which there are two – one named Roja and the other Verde – have no set schedule, their whereabouts are traceable via their constantly updated Twitter feed. It’s Kogi’s early and innovative use of this now seemingly ubiquitous technology that inflamed the phenomenon of what could have been just another taco truck in the taco truck-seeped landscape of Los Angeles. By seeming simultaneously elusive and yet accessible, mysterious and yet popular, Kogi now manages to draw crowds that can sometimes lead to two hour wait times. As proof of Kogi’s position in the cultural zeitgeist, enter ‘Kogi,’ which means ‘meat’ in Korean, into the YouTube search box, and a video called “Chasing the Dragon (The Kogi BBQ Adventure)” pops up, courtesy of locally renowned Kogi fanatic DJ Akaider.
Recently, and after much courting by a diverse group of suitors including SBE founder Sam Nazarian, the Kogi team adopted The Alibi Room as a semi-permanent place to call home. Though the Kogi trucks still run full schedules, the Culver City watering hole now serves as a surefire destination for the daily abatement of Kogi cravings from 6pm to midnight. With a full menu that includes the standard-issue tacos as well as Kogi Sliders, Kimichi Sesame Quesadillas, Kogi Hot Dogs, Vegan Sesame Leaf Platters, and - the one thing veteran Kogi lovers know not to order from the trucks as they aren’t served truckside – Korean Spiced Fries, the Alibi Room is certain to soon be overrun by Kogi fanatics too lazy to Tweet or wait in 2 hour-long lines, those who would prefer to relax, have a drink, and let the Kogi come to them for a change.
Only in LA could a taco truck become a celebrity in its own right, and it’s not surprising that this particular truck serves up hybrid delicacies comprised of some of the best elements of two of LA’s most prominent sub-cultures. Kogi is thus a unique phenomenon, sure to inspire copycats hoping to capitalize on what has now become another craze in this trend-happy city. It’s unlikely, however, that any imposter could steal from Kogi what is now a fan base to rival that belonging to anyone found on the pages of US Weekly, let alone any place found on the pages of Zagat’s.