Cultures fuse in LA to create a culinary classic


By Steven Gorgei
Medill Reports

LOS ANGELES— Mexico City and Seoul are 7,500 miles apart, but here in Los Angeles, where Mexican and Korean immigrants have lived side by side for years, the two cultures have collaborated to create a unique culinary creation: the Korean taco.

Typically, Korean tacos are created by marinating meat in a soy-based sauce, grilling it, and stuffing it into a soft corn tortilla along with other Korean fillings like kimchi, which is spicy pickled cabbage. The sweetness of the sauce combines with the salty taste of the meat, the tartness of the kimchi and the texture of the tortilla to create a unique bite.

“When I first tried it, I was like, ‘Wow, why didn’t this happen sooner? “said Patrick Yoo, 25, who grew up in Irvine and is Korean American.

The origins of the Korean taco are murky. There’s no definitive proof of who created the dish, but it’s clear that food truck Kogi, founded by Mark Manguera and chef Roy Choi, helped popularize the dish in Southern California. In 2008, during the early days of social media, Kogi used Twitter to advertise where his food truck would be at any given time and soon began to draw large crowds.

“It was a big craze at first,” said Solomon Abdella, 31, of Sawtelle. “Everyone was like, ‘Oh, we have to go to Kogi Trucks.'”

Kogi is synonymous with Mexican-Korean fusion to many, but not everyone agrees on why the combination of the two cuisines works so well together. For Lisa Tan, 34, from Highland Park, it’s the ability to combine two of her favorite types of food in one dish without having to choose between them. For Yoo, the difference between the flavors used in Mexican and Korean cuisine and the way all the elements come together is what makes Korean tacos special.

“I think the spices, even though they have one or two similarities, are usually a bit different,” Yoo said. “The vegetables really offset the fat in the meat, and that’s why it usually tastes really good together.”

Regardless of why the combination works together, the kitchen’s popularity has grown so much since the early days of Kogi tweeting its location that it’s now prominently featured in remote Pacific Rim towns.

In Chicago, two restaurants offering Korean tacos, Del Seoul and Seoul Taco, each have more than 1,100 reviews and are rated 4.7 and 4.4 stars respectively on Google. In Atlanta, Hankook Taqueria serves Korean-Mexican fusion and has a 4.7-star rating on more than 1,600 Google reviews. For some Angelenos, the expansion of the kitchen is a source of pride.

“I’m half Filipino,” said Tyler Thayer, 24, of Santa Monica. “So just seeing Asian food that in many cases people think is weird, especially kimchi, you always hear about, like, kids being embarrassed to bring kimchi to school and stuff. So , to see that now in the middle of Chicago, or places where it’s not necessarily like the Asian community is the main community there, I think that’s super exciting.

Steven Gorgei is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @ Gorgonsports.

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