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Los Angeles: Checking Back in on the Kogi BBQ Truck, Over 4 Years Later
There has perhaps been more ink spilled (and profiles done) over Roy Choi's genre-defining Kogi BBQ than any other food truck in the history of mobile dining. What began as a late-night Korean fusion taco-slinging operation along Hollywood Blvd. while Choi slummed it in the kitchens of high-end hotel kitchens on the westside has blossomed into multiple trucks spanning at least two counties, a small Kogi operation inside a bar, and the rise of Choi's own Chego-laced mini empire.
So, after about half a decade of watching the rocketing rise of gourmet food truck culture all over the country (and the failure of many concept carts in the process), I thought it might be time to check back in on Kogi BBQ. You know: actually figure out where they are on Twitter, drive across town, find parking, wait in line and eat my meal as it rests on top of a newspaper box. Just like the good old days.
Thankfully, with a fleet of Kogi trucks trawling the office parks from Irvine to Woodland Hills, it's not hard to catch up with the fire-branded white loncheros. The availability and relative proximity that comes with having four trucks instead of one is certainly a positive change from those early get-it-or-it's-gone nights, affectionately known as 'gangsta stops'. So, it's much easier to track and make contact with a Kogi truck in the wild.
But how are the lines? Naturally, that depends on the venue and the hour.
On recent visits, the late-night crowds tend to still hover at the Kogi truck, confident in the brand as opposed to, say, some new Chinese-Italian fusion truck across the street. But for daytime runs, even outside of spaces with heavy foot traffic like L.A. City College, the crowds are sparse to nonexistent. While Kogi may still have brand cache and total recognition, there are enough other well-known operations converging on the same market that daily diners have dispersed across the spectrum, instead of honing in on Kogi's famous short rib tacos.
Long time diners will also notice that the prices at Kogi have climbed over the years. That's not really surprising, given the cost of expansion and the prices that the rest of the food truck market dictates. Tacos are $2.29 each now, burritos and the kimchi quesadilla have hit $6, and the on-board burger is $8. Frankly, the prices are still pretty competitive when compared against every other gourmet food truck, and the slow rise over the years certainly hasn't seemed to scare anyone off. Plus, as of a few years ago, you can pay with plastic, and that convenience is almost worth the spare coins you'll be spending.
Now the real question: how has Kogi's kitchen weathered the rapid rise and slow deflation of the food truck climate they helped to create? Pretty well, actually.
The scaling of the Kogi operation and Roy Choi's focus on other brick-and-mortar projects hasn't brought down the quality of the flagship items on the truck menu. The short rib taco is still, by far, the star of the show. It is warm and greasy, with a zippy, chopped chili-soy vinaigrette slaw that helps to hide some of the richness from all that beef and marinade. The short rib taco hasn't suffered from skimpiness; it's the same bulging two-tortilla affair that it always has been, offering thick bites and plenty of griddled, smoky char.
Elsewhere, fan favorites like the blackjack quesadilla continue to impress. For my money, this is still one of the best late-night drunken soak-up items you can buy. Chopped mounds of the same spicy pork you can get as a taco are laid inside a large tortilla laced with cheddar and Jack cheeses. Throw in some perfectly caramelized onions for sweetness and a bit more texture, then griddled on an oily plancha until crispy, greasy, cheesy, meaty perfection. Splash on some citrus-backed jalapeño salsa verde and you've still got a near perfect flavor combination, even after all these years.
Unfortunately, that same pork doesn't shine as brightly when it's all alone inside a taco. Without the ability to hide behind piles of cheese and caramelized onions, the pork comes off as rather bland. What's really needed is more kick from the thick, slightly sweet marinade. This is the sort of "spicy" dish that may work for legions of curbside diners from all walks of life, but I can't help but reminisce of a time when the spicy pork seemed to have more bite.
Similarly, you won't find much to love about the calamari tacos. The rubbery rings lack the kind of fresh, clean taste you might be hoping for (even when it comes to seafood off of a truck), and instead gets overwhelmed by the salsa roja. Kogi still smartly puts a bit of char and crunch to their griddled tortillas, but that alone can't save the soggy, sloppy calamari taco.
When it comes to the basics, Kogi is still as strong as ever. Basically, this is food that relies on a recipe, rather than the individual quality of the components. Therefore, an underwhelming batch of short rib can be overcome by the marinades, sauces and execution that Kogi is known for. This is still short rib and late night grease-bomb territory. On a chilly winter night in Hollywood, as the bars close and patrons file down Hollywood Blvd. to get in line for a late-night bite of savory satisfaction from that white Kogi truck, you might even find yourself forgetting what year it is. The things that Kogi does well are still absolutely timeless.
Check KogiBBQ.com for the trucks' whereabouts.