Tomas Lee has long dreamed of selling American consumers on Korean barbecue.
Lee, a 42-year-old native of Seoul, South Korea, who grew up in Mustang, Okla., took a step toward realizing that dream in October when he opened Hankook Taqueria in Atlanta, serving tacos stuffed with soy- and garlic-marinated beef, along with chicken and pork, all barbecued in the Korean style.
"I was going to open a traditional Korean barbecue restaurant," Lee said.
Then his wife, Mackenzie, had an idea.
"She saw this thing about Kogi on the Web," he recalled. "And I thought tacos might be a way to get Korean food on everybody’s table."
What captured Mackenzie Lee’s attention was Kogi Korean BBQ-To-Go, a retrofitted catering truck that rolled onto the streets of Southern California in November 2008, selling corn tortillas piled with Korean-style barbecued short ribs known as kalbi, garnished with onion, cilantro and a hash of chili-soy-dressed lettuce.
Eighteen months later, dozens of entrepreneurs are selling Korean tacos. Like Buffalo wings or California rolls before them, Korean tacos have gone national, this time with unprecedented speed.
Few of these entrepreneurs appear to have made pilgrimages to Southern California to eat at a Kogi truck. (There are now five.) Many, especially those of Korean ancestry, say they studied media reports of the Kogi concept, recognized their culture at the core and made the concept their own.
"You get the feeling that this is our chance to mainstream Korean food," said Jae Kim, a Seoul native, selling Korean tacos since February at his Chi’Lantro truck in Austin, Texas. "And it’s happening so quickly. It’s like everybody is realizing that it’s now or never."
"I’ve never tasted anything like this before," said Tim Burroughs, a recent customer at Hankook Taqueria. "It’s as if they’re making up a cuisine as they go."
Granted, Koreans have long eaten kalbi wrapped in lettuce leaves, in a taco-like fashion. But it’s a 21st-century paradox that Korean food, still considered exotic by many Americans, has begun to gain widespread acceptance, when wrapped in a Mexican flatbread and topped with taco truck embellishments.
Last month in Indianapolis, John Ban, 31, raised in Indiana by Korean parents, and Arnold Park, 28, a native of Seoul, began selling $2 tacos—corn tortillas piled with nubs of beef, chopped onions, cilantro leaves and red jalapeno salsa—late at night to club kids who visited their West Coast Tacos truck.
"First we were going to move to Korea and open a regular taco truck," said Ban, who has worked as a DJ and hip-hop artist. "Then we thought we’d do a Korean taco truck in Korea. We settled on doing a Korean taco truck in Indianapolis."
"The meat makes it Korean," said Ban, who marinates chuck roll in a soy and garlic sauce that is traditionally used with Korean barbecue dishes. "The tortilla and the toppings are a way to tell our customers that this food is OK, that this food is American."
Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee, a native of Seoul, raised in Southern California by parents who ran a bodega that catered to a Mexican clientele, said the Mexican-Korean culinary connection was born of proximity.
"The idea of Korean tacos isn’t new," said Mackenzie Lee, who wrote a guidebook to South Korea and recently finished writing a Mexican cookbook. "Koreans run stores. They hire Mexican workers. They eat together."
"Before, when Koreans ran out of rice and grabbed a tortilla to go with our kalbi, we called it lunch," she added. "Now we call it a Korean taco."
The dish may have honest folk roots, but many Korean taco makers recognize Roy Choi, a Kogi founder, as the pioneering force.
"Chef Roy was the alpha," said Bo Kwon, who has been serving Korean Oregon Infusion BBQ from his Koi Fusion trucks in Portland, Ore., since May 2009.
"We just Portlandize what he did in L.A.," said Kwon, whose menu borrowed from Choi’s in the manner that 50 Cent sampled Biggie Smalls.
Choi respects the work of Koi Fusion, where the specialty is a marinated short-rib taco, a virtual Kogi knockoff dressed with shredded cabbage, chopped onions, scallions, bean sprouts, cilantro, daikon sprouts and salsa.
But he worries about what will happen as more and more restaurateurs adopt the form.
"If Kogi-inspired trucks change how American eats, I’ll be a pig in slop," Choi told a November gathering of chefs at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone campus in St. Helena, Calif."But if their food isn’t any good, I’ll be Kurt Cobain."
Choi’s day of reckoning may come soon, for Kogi-inspired tacos are now legion.
Four Portland vendors compete with Koi Fusion, including Boolkogi, Bulkogi and Korean Twist.
Ten or more trucks now roll through Southern California, where Bool Korean BBQ Tacos & Pastelsserves Korean, Mexican and Brazilian foods. Calbi Fusion Tacos and Burritos, financed by an investor in the Baja Fresh Mexican Grill chain, is selling franchises.
In the Bay Area, home to a half-dozen or so operators, Jomar Guevarra, a Filipino, and Sam Pak, born in California to Korean parents, work the MoGo truck, dishing short-rib tacos as well as bacon-wrapped and kimchi-topped hot dogs.
Although Korean taco saturation is greatest in California, the growth of the genre is not restricted to the West Coast.
At Meritage in Philadelphia, Anne Coll, former chef of the Chinese-French restaurant Susanna Foo,serves a Wednesday night special of braised short-rib tacos, topped with kimchi. (The sous chef Ann Suk Miller, whose mother is Korean, previously served a very similar dish at Ansill, another restaurant in the city.)
In Austin, Kim, the owner of Chi’Lantro, dishes tofu tacos with a soy vinaigrette salad.
"Korean tacos are what’s next," he said. "After that, maybe it’s Korean pizza."
In Chicago, Steve Lee, born in the countryside outside Seoul, serves chips and salsa, aguas frescas and kimchi-topped tacos at Taco Chino, a restaurant he opened in December in a strip mall.
"A lot of Mexican restaurants have just one flavor," Steve Lee said. "I wanted to add another flavor."
Also in town, Del Seoul, featuring Korean-inspired dishes like kalbi tacos stuffed with short ribs and the rice dish bibimbap threaded with turnip greens, plans to open late this summer.
Trend-conscious restaurateurs, some with few apparent ties to Korea, have also adopted Korean tacos as their own.
In Brooklyn, the Oaxaca restaurants advertise "traditional Mexican fare" but serve specials of kalbi tacos topped with Asian pear slaw. Sagaponack, a seafood restaurant and raw bar in the Flatiron district of Manhattan named for a Long Island village, serves kalbi tacos and pesto fries.
Meanwhile, in January, Ducks Eatery, set within SPiN, a table tennis parlor in the Flatiron district, began serving short-rib tacos with oyster kimchi and miso aioli.
While the trend, which Kwon of Koi Fusion has called "the movement," shows no signs of abating, a few Korean taco businesses have already come and gone.
Yummo, a frozen yogurt cafe in Kansas City, Mo., that sold short-rib tacos with homemade kimchi, closed last fall. Kogi Shop, a Korean taco truck in Oklahoma City that was started in November 2009 by a Korean husband-and-wife team from Los Angeles, last updated its Twitter feed in March.
And variations on the Korean taco form were inevitable.
Julia Sharaby, of German and Cherokee descent, runs Fusion Taco, a truck serving short-rib quesadillas and chicken satay tacos in Houston. In Los Angeles, Masamichi Kiyomiya, proprietor of LA Chickenserves Japanese chicken tacos.
In August, Tan Truong and Jonathan Ward rolled out Kung Fu Tacos, a bright yellow truck, selling nun chuk chicken and wu shu char siu to office workers in San Francisco’s financial district.
The partners had planned a trip to Los Angeles to sample Kogi’s food. But then it hit them.
"My wife is Chinese," Ward recalled. "Why would I try Korean tacos when I could try Chinese tacos? So I texted Tan. I wrote ‘char siu taco.’ And he wrote back ‘brilliant."’
Recalibration has already begun.
Namu is a sleek restaurant in San Francisco operated by the brothers Dennis, Daniel and David Lee. They call their cookery "cutting edge, new California." Born in the United States to Korean parents, the Lees serve dishes like asparagus with guanciale, maitake mushrooms and a tofu-sesame puree.
Now on the dinner menu are "real Korean tacos," of kalbi and sesame rice, topped with kimchi remoulade and daikon salsa, folded into toasted seaweed pouches.
"Every time someone from the press called, they asked if we made Korean tacos," David Lee said. "It was like we were being typecast. They were thinking, ‘Hey, you’re Korean, you must make Korean tacos."’
"So we gave them they wanted," David Lee said. "Korean tacos, but on our own terms."
KOREAN CHICKEN TACOS
Adapted from Hankook Taqueria, Atlanta
(Time: 30 minutes, plus 2 to 4 hours’ marinating. Serves 6.)
For marinating chicken:
1/4 cup Korean red pepper paste (gochujang, available in Korean markets)
1/4 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken
For the vinaigrette:
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoons sesame oil
1 1/2 teaspoons hot red-pepper flakes
3 leaves green leaf lettuce, shredded
1 cup shredded green Napa cabbage or other cabbage
1/2 cup diced Vidalia or other sweet onion
1/4 cup sliced scallions
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
6 burrito-size or 12 taco-size flour tortillas
1/4 cup Monterey Jack cheese
6 lime wedges, for garnish.
» For marinating chicken: In a bowl (or sealable plastic bag) combine red pepper paste, vinegar, sugar and sesame oil. Add chicken and mix again. Cover (or seal) and refrigerate 2 to 4 hours.
» For the vinaigrette: In a small mixing bowl, combine soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, sesame oil and pepper flakes. Whisk until well blended.
Prepare a grill or heat a large skillet. Grill or saute chicken until golden brown on all sides and opaque in the center; be careful not to overcook. Remove from heat and cut into 3/4-inch dice.
In a large mixing bowl, combine lettuce, cabbage, onion, scallions and cilantro. Toss with 2 tablespoons vinaigrette, or to taste. Place a tortilla on each of six serving plates. Place an equal portion of chicken on each tortilla, and top with a portion of salad. Sprinkle with cheese, garnish plate with a lime wedge.