Friday, March 6, 2009

Croquer: KOGI BBQ - May Require Hard Hat and Thick Skin

The time now is 12:58am
This may be the first time I have written on an experience immediately following.. But this could not wait. Too rich.
This isn’t really a post about food. More about cultural phenomena, the power that is word of mouth, trends, and innovation. It’s about hunger. I thought I was simply going to get tacos tonight, but in addition I was pinned by a mob, saw some celebs, witnessed a fight (over tacos), laughed with strangers, and awoke my taste buds.
I’d been flirting with the Kogi truck’s website for a solid week or two, fantasizing about the trucks’ schedule.. Trying to imagine myself in those places at those times, how long the line would be and who might be there. The closest it would be to my home was in Silverlake tonight, Thursday at 10:30pm, parked outside of the 4100 Bar. I vowed to be there.
OK back story: For several months now I’ve been hearing rave reviews about this roving taco truck. A Korean taco truck. Yeah, we’re talking Korean BBQ short ribs wrapped up in tortillas and Kim chi quesadillas. Only in LA. What’s more, since the truck is always on the go, you have to follow it on Twitter to get the current location. Luckily for the Twitterless, the website hosts a feed of the most recent posts, as well as a rough weekly schedule.
So there I was earlier tonight, 10:00pm, pulling up beside darkened Sunset Junction shop windows and scoping the scene. I saw a small gang of loiterers outside of the 4100 down the block. They were already hovering.
“First time?” a tipsy Korean girl in a furry hood asked as I approached the crowd and settled beside her. I nodded excitedly. Everyone was abuzz; the electricity in the late winter air was tangible. The 40-some-odd of us were shifting from one foot to the other in anticipation of something that hadn’t even arrived yet. I checked the time; it was now past 10:30 and still nothing. The crowd was mounting, in an unorganized sprawling continent spanning from the bar door down to the parking lot around the corner. I anticipated madness. Within minutes, I heard chirps and shouts, as if a gleaming tour bus was approaching an alley of adoring fans. A modest catering truck driven by insta-celebrity Kogi MVP Chef Roy himself pulled alongside us, he hung his baseball-capped head out of the window to address his people with a raised party fist. “Aziz!” he shouted to the Human Giant star and loyal customer in the crowd. Everyone cheered.
The truck pulled up literally onto the sidewalk where we had been standing, so the mob was ushered backward to the parking lot, where you could feel the tension thickening. Everyone started murmuring complaints about who was there first, and when. I understand the concern, but I for one had zero choice where I was going to end up in the line, I was pinned firmly to the wall, where I stayed planted for the next 20 minutes until the line inched forward. The truck teetered ominously on its perch and someone behind me commented that this was a Darwin Award waiting to happen. A wily taco lover in the back shouted something about cutting in line to a few people toward the front; the usual offensive remarks were tossed back and forth from each ‘gentleman’ until someone must have bit their thumb, because the escalation became very real. People laughed, others taunted, while most rolled their eyes, huddled against each other in the cold, and squinted ahead toward the aromatic truck. Chef Roy stepped in, further delaying Taco time, to appease his people and exorcise the drama with his winning grin. Inside the truck Roy’s cooks worked furiously. Tacos began filing out of the small window. Somehow, I made it to the front of the line, and I felt like Charlie approaching that chocolate factory for the first time. I decided to sample three tacos (which, coincidentally is the limit per customer!). I ordered a Korean Short Rib, Spicy Pork, and Spicy BBQ Chicken. Each was dressed with sesame-chili salsa roja, julienne romaine lettuce and cabbage tossed in Korean chili-soy vinaigrette, cilantro-green onion-lime relish, crushed sesame seeds, and sea salt. Eager to escape the twisted juju of the mob, I crossed the street to taste my bounty is the serene glow of the Jiffy Lube. Bite one converted me. The Short Rib was a (pardon the cliché) true explosion of complex and intricate flavors. Deeply savory with a bbq tang, rich smoke, brown sugar sweetness, hint of nuttiness and a vinegar-sweet/tart finish. Yes, I think I finally understand you, elusive umami. The Spicy Pork was less spicy than expected, but similarly flavored and robust. The Spicy BBQ Chicken too could have benefited from more of its namesake (or a healthy dose of Sriracha), but had a delightful crunch that I wanted more of. Much more. I devoured all three tacos before I made it to my car, delicious sweet grease dripping from my fingers. My palate was content, still trying to process what it had experienced, as I too tried to piece together how the last couple hours of my life were spent. I drank the [Korean] Kool-Aid, I jumped on the tacowagon. I know I’ll see Aziz again, and hope when I do it’s not at the end of mile-long giant human line.

Kogi is also available in a reliable, stationary sit-down format Mon-Sat from 6pm-12am at the Alibi Room (12236 Washington Blvd, Culver City), which I recommend for the weak of heart and/or claustrophobic.


  1. That's amazing! Wish I could try it. Next time I'm in L.A. (wink wink)>

  2. We have this in Portland now, or something exactly like it. You have to follow them on Twitter to find out where they'll be. I ate it at one in the morning. Sooooo good.