Taco trucks are big business in Southern California. And as the market matures and the economy tanks, this low-budget niche is attracting new customers and entrepreneurs. Consider the Kogi company's "Korean taco truck" of Los Angeles. It's become the city's fusion du jour. That's because of the truck's originality and hybrid food. But it also has a lot to do with Kogi's use of a blog, Twitter, and other online tools. Corey Takahashi spent an evening with the Kogi crew and filed this report on "The World."
It's early evening, and there's a makeshift party happening on the streets of downtown L.A. The line of people is listening to a DJ play Japanese reggae and reggaeton tracks. They're here because they've heard the Kogi Korean taco truck is going to make a stop.
Schoolteacher Carolina Chavez is the first in line: "I've been in line since about 4:30, and it opens at 5 – now it's about 5:30, so about an hour now."
Chavez says it's worth the wait: "'Cause it's delicious. It’s actually a fabulous fusion of Mexican tacos and Korean tastes that I love."
Chavez knows the Kogi taco truck is coming because she follows its movements online. There's a Kogi blog that updates fans on the truck's whereabouts at any given time. Kogi also has a Twitter account. Twitter is a micro-blogging service that allows you to send and receive short messages from people – or taco trucks – you want to follow. When the truck finally shows up, people rush in for their fusion cuisine fix.
The Kogi truck's unique blend of Korean barbecue taste and taco portability hit the streets last year. Filipino-American restaurateur Mark Manguera popularized a concept other Angelenos had only fantasized about behind closed doors. His dream was born as he was hanging out in his Koreatown apartment, drinking champagne and eating tacos with his Korean-American sister-in-law, Alice Shin. Manguera partnered with the Seoul-born, L.A.-raised chef Roy Choi.
Choi has worked in some of the world's most exclusive kitchens, but in his new role, the Internet has replaced the Michelin Guide and pre-theater rush: "Instead of creating that barrier of tablecloth and waiter, or pretension or anything, what we've done is really just break it all the way down to its purest form and brought people out to the streets. Our dining room is the streets."
Much of Kogi's online persona is maintained by Alice Shin, the younger sister in this family business. Shin oversees the official Kogi blog. But here’s the funny thing: she's not based in L.A., but in Brooklyn. Shin's blogs and Twitter posts caught the attention of the food-blogging world, and Kogi's buzz has spread to people who have never tasted a Korean taco or live thousands of miles away from L.A.
Shin: "They’ll go on our website, they’ll drool over the food porn of all the, like, photography that my brother takes, comment on how delicious it looks, right? And on Twitter, with my Twitter personality, people will engage with me, asking about where we are, where we’re going to head, even though they have no intention of ever coming to our truck to eat our tacos."
Back on the streets of California, the Kogi truck's gone from gritty downtown L.A. to the back lot of a chic bar in Culver City. There are people waiting even before the truck pulls into its parking space.
Chef Roy Choi says most of them were summoned by a blog or a Twitter message: "We just threw out a 20-minute Twitter shout-out and 200 people showed up out of nowhere, you know? It's crazy!"
But Chris Gagne stumbled upon the truck by accident. Gagne is a product manager at an LA web company. He says Kogi looks like a textbook case of Internet word-of-mouth.
Gagne: "You don’t necessarily trust Zagat to tell you what’s good because Zagat is not gonna tell you to check out this little taco truck on Washington Boulevard at 10 p.m. on a Thursday evening."
Kogi's not so little anymore. There is now a second Korean taco truck roaming the streets. And starting today, this week, there’s a non-roaming option: Alibi Room is a brick-and-mortar lounge serving Kogi Korean tacos.
PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.