Things I Learned While Working on the Kogi BBQ Taco Truck
Editor's note: We continue our Kogi BBQ Taco Truck coverage with this insider's look from Kogi team member Alice Shin. You already know that a day on the Kogi truck is a long one, but Alice dissects the day even further, revealing the good and the bad.
After adopting a 4-star chef into the family and renting out a humble little truck, we’ve been on the road in search of bellies hungry for our K-town homage to Mexican taco trucks. Here are some of the things I learned along the way.
Fasten Your Seatbelts
Riding around at 55 mph in a creaking, hulking Korean taco truck feels a lot like surfing. It’s also the closest I'll ever get to surfing. Sudden turns can result in a wipe out with plastic buckets and kitchen utensils raining over your head. The sliding cutting boards are about as long as your average surfboard. And just as heavy. My toes can testify.
Don’t Open Shop Until You’re Ready
It’s hard not to fling open the doors and windows when you’ve got a crowd of 50 or more hungry people wrapped around the block in wait for your tacos. But if you drop the ball, chaos will ensue. Multitasking is not optimal when CHAOS ENSUES. The extra 30 seconds it takes to decipher a fancy ticket—NO CHEESE, EXTRA ONION RELISH, 3 TORTILLAS, BEEF INSTEAD OF PORK—will cost you a cold taco. And there’s nothing that will make your taco chef angrier than a taco growing cold in the window. I still have dreams that haunt me.
In the Dead of Winter, Cook If You Can
Because of all that smoke from the sizzling Korean barbecue and frying eggs, all the windows and vents must be opened. The only heat you’re going to get on a night that’s 30 degrees is next to that grill. Fingers wet with lime can be frozen solid when they come in contact with cold air. If you can’t cook, take a 15-second break every half hour to defrost your hands above the stove.
Drunk People Can Be Awesome
Though I prefer our patrons to be sober when experiencing our tacos, drunk ones are generally easy to please, enthusiastic, and don’t mind waiting up to half an hour for their taco.
Drunk People Can Be Forgetful or Partially Deaf
Tickets get lost and hearing gets fuzzy when we call out their numbers. Our luscious lushes also have a tendency to imagine that they ordered more than what was written on their tickets. For this reason, we have our cousin Young Ho stationed outside to shepherd the lost little puppies back to the window. Or, if they’re too drunk to understand, we have him deliver their paper boats of goodness into their uncoordinated hands.
It’s 2:30 in the morning. There are two to three people who rush onto our truck after their 9-to-5 jobs, and everyone else has been shopping for veggies, massaging raw meats with marinade, and dicing onions since noon. People are tired. And sleepy. But all it takes is that car full of people who have been following our coordinates on Twitter to say, “WAIT! I’m really, really sorry—but we’ve been driving two hours just to see you guys and we got lost somewhere along the way—could we please, please, please put in an order for some tacos?” and it’s like the inner contents of a Hallmark card exploded all over your heart. Exhaustion takes a temporary vacation as we fire up that grill one last time, hoping to have made that one road trip worth the travel.
Food Blogs and Yelp Become Your Life
Like a coke fiend itching for her next hit, I find myself Googling our truck at least twice and day and hitting up Yelp twice that. The response in general is enthusiastic, though some of the critique will come with a BITE. It takes a thick skin not to take things personally. You know, with thin skin being full of nerve endings and all.
There are Some Angry People Out There
Or I could be wrong. Maybe they just have a loving fondness for the caps lock. In any case, we can’t be perfect 100 percent of the time. We’ve been up and running for only a few months and yet some people expect for us to be pros, even though none of us have worked at a taco truck prior to this, much less served crowds of up to 400 people. Or maybe they’re not expecting people‐maybe they’re expecting really efficient vending machines. In any case, they unleash that caps lock to get mad at us for the incredibly long wait, which is because of the incredibly long line, which is due to the incredible amount of press we’ve been getting lately.
It Feels Weird to Turn Down or Postpone Newsweek, BBC, and New York Times
Just three months ago I was just salivating to have one of my favorite food bloggers to just come try our tacos. Lucky for us, Eddie Lin from Deep End Dining stopped by our tasting. It all just snowballed from there. So it’s strange now to tell the BBC we’re incredibly flattered for their interest, but that we might have to pass or have them wait a few weeks because we’re worried that more press will create even longer lines that we’re currently not ready for.
There Are a Lot of Super Cool People Out There
There will be times when the cops will tell us to "git"—and they can because we're within 200 feet of another dining establishment or because a store owner wasn’t crazy about the lines. It happens. But when that happens, there are some awesome people out there who will go out of their way to do the research and map us a safe, snuggly little parking space. Or there will be regulars who will stand out in the rain for 45 minutes just for a few tacos. Or make videos of their taco-hunting exploits and post them up on YouTube. Or gift us with cupcakes. It’s pretty damn cool.
Kogi Is Not For Everybody
There’s definitely something considered the Kogi Vibe. You’ll find it in Venice, Silverlake, or even Little Tokyo. It's when people don't just come for the food, but they come for a good time. They actually talk to the people in line, flirt, get rejected, or make new friends. Some of them come with lawn chairs and most don’t mind squatting with a bunch of people to enjoy their food. They say hi to Roy or know that the name of the person writing up their tickets is Eric.
But then there are other locations, which will remain nameless, brimming with people who come to our truck because it’s the cool thing to do this month. Because it was mentioned in LA Weekly and Good Food. So they come in droves with a list of impossible expectations for a $2 taco and a mouthful of complaints for every little detail—from the wait to the, "Your ticket system makes no sense," to the, "Where am I supposed to eat these?” to the, “This is what the hype is all about?” So THAT’s not pretty damn cool. It’s not really cool at all.
People You Thought You Didn’t Know Will Facebook You
Remember all those people from high school who never spoke to you but for some reason are your friends on Facebook? They will come with messages of congratulations and wall posts of memories you’re pretty sure you’ve never shared—but the intentions are nice, anyway.
When Working a Full Shift at Kogi, Sleep Is for Suckers
It’s not uncommon to roll out of bed at 9 a.m., check emails and update our Twitter while massaging dead cows and piggies with marinade until the 5 o’clock hour strikes. After that, it is MADNESS, pure MADNESS, people. The people—so very hungry. And by the time the party’s over, you are about to knock out—only to realize that it is only 2:30 a.m. and that there is still another full hour of driving back to the lot, cleaning out the truck, releasing greasy rivers of Kogi water from twin spigots and heading back home to check more email, shower, and hit the sheets. On a good night, sleep will come by 4 a.m. Lather, rinse, repeat.