By Sophia Kang
Photo: Arnold Gatilau, Flickr
First of all, let me start by confessing that I am not a foodie. I repeat: I am not a foodie! But yet another food craze has become so blatantly obvious that even I took notice. I just hope these Korean tacos are more satisfying than that last frozen yogurt phase.
I’ll start by recounting the brief history (and current success) of Kogi, a humble Korean taco truck, that created an instant hit when it came into the Los Angeles scene in November of last year. Kogi’s product was innovative, Korean-style short ribs nestled in warm miniature corn tortillas. Who woulda thunk it? Since its launch, Kogi has created quite a phenomenon with its multicultural tacos and burritos and has expanded to include other novelties like hot dogs and sliders.
But like anything popular, Kogi has given rise to its own set of comparable competitors, not to mention a new culinary genre of cooking, that even restaurants are adopting. Baja Fresh, a popular Mexican food franchise, is concept-testing very similar Korean barbecue-style tacos and burritos in one of its Irvine locations. Even traditional Mexican restaurants like La Taquiza and Pancho’s are introducing Korean-inspired tacos to their menus as well.
I set out to determine whether these tacos are really worth the attention and money they are getting, I hunted down the original Kogi beef taco and sampled what the competitors had to offer. My evaluations are based solely on Kogi and numerous other Korean-fusion beef tacos. Some of the qualities I took into consideration while judging the taco trucks was service, price, quality of ingredients, heat intensity, and convenience.
Kogi, the one that started it all: 4 stars
I’d heard praise of their supposedly “amazing” tacos before but I didn’t think they could possibly be so delicious that I would wait two hours in line for some. I would not have chased after such a truck out of my own will but this was for journalistic purposes.
My friend and I got to Cloverdale and Wilshire at 6:06 p.m. but saw no sign of the truck. We looked at each other in panic. Where was the infamous line of eager patrons? Nervously, I circled the block twice looking for parking. By the time I returned, there was the truck and already about 10 people in line.
Despite an additional 30 minutes of set-up, the line moved fairly quickly after the cashier took his first customers. My friend and I got our food within 10 minutes
The only dessert option was a tres leches cake, which was good but overly sweet for my taste. And for $4, I don’t think I’d order it again. One taco and dessert came to a total of $6.60.
For the somewhat steeper price, I was surprised Kogi had its customers assemble the tacos to-go themselves. When we finally sat down to eat in my car, I was not pleased with the smell, but the taco made up for its odor with its taste. There was a lot of meat and the salad on top had a sweet Korean-style dressing that had a refreshing, spicy bite to it. Kogi definitely delivered.
But I have to knock Kogi down a star because despite being about the 10th person in line, I had to wait almost an hour for the food—plus I got ripped off with that $4 cake, which was only about the size of my fist.
Calbi: 4.5 stars
There was no line at Calbi so I got my food in no time. The Korean woman who took my order was prompt and attentive. When I went back for another taco, she said she saw me struggling and offered me a fork.
The total came to $2.20 for one taco. Calbi offers a roughly equal vegetable to meat ratio. The menu didn’t indicate that the beef taco would be spicy, but I’m Korean and I’m glad it was. The heat comes not from the preparation of the meat but from the dressing on top that has a nice spicy kick to it. (Beware! I can tolerate a high heat factor and liked the tingle left in my mouth after I had finished eating, but I can understand that others might find it too spicy.) You need to eat these quickly, before the excess dressing escapes and makes the tortilla soggy.
I went back for another shrimp taco, which I thought was a good option — until I tasted it. Aside from the sauce, the shrimp wasn’t flavored in any other way. And Calbi is stingy with the shrimp… I only got three bits in my taco.
Bool: 4 stars
Bool did not have a schedule of locations on its Web site so I requested that the truck come to USC’s campus in an online guestbook. Bool was very quick to respond and a representative replied that the truck would be on Jefferson and McClintock the following day. What great serviceWhen I arrived, there was already a short line, and no wonder! The aroma surrounding the cart was divine. They must be onto something good, I thought. I waited about five minutes to order and listened to customers who had already eaten talk about how good the food was and how they wished they could eat more if only they had not run out of money.
I ordered a beef taco and a pork pastel because it seemed to be one of Bool’s trademark dishes, both of which came out promptly. The total came to $5.49.
The taco had a mountain of meat piled on top with raw onions and cilantro. The beef tasted like authentic Korean barbecue that one might get at restaurants. I found the taco to be a bit dry, but it went perfectly with the salsa that came with the pastel. (Beware! Bool’s tacos leave you with major onion breath!)
I didn’t know what to expect with the pastel, which is basically a huge fried pocket of meat and cheese. It was delicious. It had a nice crunch but was surprisingly gooey in the center. The pork tasted like sweet pulled pork and struck a nice balance between savory and sweet. The pastel made up for the shortcomings of the taco. (FYI: Bool also offer dessert pastels in apple caramel or chocolate banana.)
Bull Kogi Korean Taco Truck: 4.5 stars
This is the first taco truck I came upon that had music blasting from the speakers, which helps pass the time while waiting in line. Bull Kogi also offers a range of condiments such as lemon wedges, radishes, Sriracha sauce, and such.
The service was rather slow, the cashier was nice and didn’t seem disappointed when I ordered just one taco, unlike some of the other taco trucks.
I ordered the spicy bulkogi taco and the total came to $2 flat. I didn’t expect much but I was quite pleased when I unveiled my neatly packaged taco. It looked very enticing: lettuce, red onions and cabbage, with an additional sprinkling of sesame seeds atop a mound of meat.
Bull Kogi offers good portions but the taco was a bit salty because the vegetables are stir-fried and not prepared as a salad. But where was the spice factor? I did order a spicy bulkogi taco after all. After my first bite I discovered tiny slivers of sliced kimchi, but they were practically nonexistent. Good thing I’d grabbed some Sriracha sauce and radishes.
I also tried a spicy bulkogi bowl on a previous occasion but that wasn’t spicy either. Bull Kogi falsely advertises, so don’t be intimidated by the phrase “spicy” because it really isn’t. The spice, I suppose, is supposed to come from the kimchi but it’s such an insignificant amount, and you can always just eat around it if you prefer.
Pancho’s (in the UV): 4 stars
Pancho’s, a Mexican food vendor in the food court, has also caught onto the new Korean taco trend. While Pancho’s does not operate from a truck, it has added “gogi taco” to its menu for $1.99. I ordered one and the total came to $2.18 including tax. (Note: I only ordered one in order to write this article. Because I am a regular customer the manager let me slide, but the minimum for tacos is two purchases.)
The taco had large chunks of well-cooked, really chewy beef, with a meager amount of kimchi and lettuce on top. It was somewhat greasy but overall quite good and satisfying.
The tacos are so obviously homemade, like an attempt to imitate Kogi’s success. I could easily make this at home, but these have a charm of their own. They’re honest — just meat, kimchi and lettuce. No fancy Korean dressing or radish bits strewn in the salad here. Pancho’s tacos are what I consider a true fusion of Mexican and Korean food.