Korean Tacos Come in off the Street

It all started with Kogi BBQ, the Los Angeles taco truck with the cult following. Now Korean tacos are taking other cities by storm—and your home kitchen could be next.
korean tacos

By the time I finish telling you how to make your own Korean tacos, it’ll probably be too late: A Korean taco truck will be parked in front of your house. This is a trend with legs—I mean wheels.

Like most people with taste buds, Kye Soon Hong and Eric Vigesaa were thrilled to hear about Kogi BBQ, the L.A. taco truck that serves Korean tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and hot dogs. Kye is Korean-American and Eric is of Norwegian heritage; they’ve talked about starting a blog called Kimchi and Lutefisk. Unfortunately for their Kogi jones, Kye and Eric live in Seattle.

First they tried to convince the folks at Kogi to drive their truck to Seattle. The staffers said this would make their truck fall apart. What about flying up the Kogi crew and borrowing a local truck? Sure, that could be done, at a price that would come out to, like, $27 per taco.

“Hey,” I said, “they do sell Korean food and tortillas in Seattle. How about you guys throw a Korean taco party? You can make the food and I’ll eat it and take notes.” I am a really helpful guy.

Kye and Eric agreed. Kye’s mother, Sook Kang, was visiting from Seoul, and Kye roped her into collaborating on three kinds of homemade kimchi: Napa cabbage (baechu), daikon (kkakdugi), and cucumber (oi sobagi). (Unfortunately, Sook couldn’t stick around for the party.) I imagine Kang responded as enthusiastically as my Jewish grandmother would have if I’d asked her about kugel recipes.

Before the party, Kye and Eric had some business in L.A., and of course they attempted to visit Kogi. It didn’t work out—by the time they got to the Twitter-announced location, the truck had sold out and left. “Kogi eluded us,” said Eric with a sigh.

At this point, I should admit that I’ve never been to a Korean taco truck either. I did, however, call Kogi’s Alice Shin for advice.

“What would be really cool is if you got a piñata and filled it up with Korean candy,” said Shin.

Okay, but how about taco ideas? Shin recommended kalbi (marinated short ribs) and daeji bul-gogi (spicy pork), with condiments including a slaw of shredded romaine lettuce and Napa cabbage with a sesame vinaigrette. “Instead of vinegar, which is what Koreans would use, I’d use fresh lime juice,” said Shin.

Kye and her mother also made homemade ssamjang, the sauce typically slathered on the Korean lettuce wraps called ssam, which you can think of as the original Korean taco. (Actually, Shin recalls tortilla-based Korean tacos long predating Kogi. “Growing up in LA, there’s so many Latinos in K-town, you had Korean tacos at your backyard barbecue,” she said. “It never really tasted great.”)

Now, let’s address some pressing issues:

Are Korean tacos a fad?

Here’s what I can tell you. Between the time we dreamed up the Korean taco party and the time we actually held it a couple weeks ago, Korean taco trucks appeared in Portland and Seattle.

Here’s what else I can tell you: Korean tacos don’t taste like a fad.

Eric came in from the grill with a batch of smoky, sweet beef bulgogi, and I piled my first taco with beef, cucumber kimchi, daikon kimchi, ssamjang, cilantro, and a squeeze of lime. The taco was spicy, sweet, tart, and meaty, everything a taco should be.

So I made another, this time with spicy pork, romaine lettuce, blanched spinach, and lime. Also a hit. I made a burrito with kimchi fried rice, spicy pork, bean sprouts, romaine, cucumber kimchi, and ssamjang. I want to eat like this all the time. It is pure pleasure.

Is the tortilla being used as a covert Korean-food delivery system?

I certainly hope so. Korean food is one of my favorite things and has been on the verge of mainstream success for as long as I can remember, so it’s great to see people lining up for it in places like Oregon.

“I was really surprised how many people like kimchi,” said Bo Kwon, owner of Portland’s KOI Fusion, the Portland truck. “It’s being requested every time I go out. I really didn’t think I was going to have a big outpouring for kimchi.”

Are there Korean tacos in Korea?

“I haven’t heard of it yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they started anytime soon,” said Shin.

Jean Oh of The Korea Herald, who wrote an article about Kogi, agreed. “For the time being, I don’t think there are any Korean tacos to be had in Korea,” she told me by email, but she noted that there is a popular Tex-Mex chain serving non-Korean tacos in Seoul, and it’s not like it would be a stretch for them to put a little kalbi on the menu.

Now, take a look out your window. If you see a Korean taco truck, I told you so. If not, invite some friends over and try the recipes below. I don’t know the Korean word for “crazy delicious,” so as my Jewish grandmother would put it, I guarantee you will plotz.


Adapted from Kye Soon Hong

Makes enough for about 18 tacos

Note: the same marinade may be used for kalbi, thin-sliced bone-in short ribs

• 1 1/2 pounds beef rib eye, thinly sliced (preferably from a Korean or Japanese market)
• 2 tablespoons soy sauce
• 1/4 cup sugar
• 1 tablespoon minced garlic
• 2 teaspoons Asian sesame oil
• 2 teaspoons mirin
• 2 teaspoons water

Combine all ingredients and marinate at least 2 hours or up to 24 hours. Cook meat on a grill or in a skillet, then chop for tacos.

Dwaeji (Spicy Pork) Bulgogi

Adapted from Kye Soon Hong

Makes enough for about 12 tacos

• 1 pound pork shoulder, thinly sliced (preferably from a Korean or Japanese market)
• 3 tablespoons coarse-ground hot Korean red pepper powder
• 1 tablespoons soy sauce
• 1 tablespoon sugar
• 1 tablespoon Asian sesame oil
• 1 tablespoon minced garlic
• 2 tablespoons mirin
• pinch of black pepper

Combine all ingredients and marinate at least 2 hours or up to 24 hours. Cook meat on a grill or in a skillet, then chop for tacos.

Kimchi Fried Rice

Adapted from Kye Soon Hong

Makes about 5 cups, enough for 4 burritos

• 4 cups cooked rice, cooled and chilled in refrigerator
• 4 strips bacon, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces
• 2 cups Napa cabbage kimchi, the riper the better, diced
• 1 tablespoon butter
• 2 teaspoons sesame oil
• salt
• sesame seeds, for garnish
• sliced scallions, white and green parts, for garnish

1. Cook the bacon in a large skillet or wok over medium heat. Add the kimchi and cook several minutes.

2. Raise the heat to high, add the rice and stir-fry several minutes, until rice is beginning to brown.

3. Stir in butter and sesame oil. Season with sesame seed and salt to taste and garnish with scallions.

Napa-Romaine Slaw

Makes about 6 cups, enough for many tacos, with leftovers

For the dressing:
• 1 tablespoon soy sauce
• 1-1/2 teaspoons lime juice
• 1-1/2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
• 1/4 teaspoon sugar

For the salad:
• 4 cups (5 ounces) shredded romaine lettuce
• 2 cups (3 ounces) shredded Napa cabbage
• 1/2 cup (2 ounces) thinly sliced onion
• toasted sesame seeds for garnish

Toss the salad in a large bowl with 1 tablespoon of the dressing. Add more dressing to taste and garnish generously with sesame seeds.

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