Creativity 50 2010: Roy Choi and Mark Manguera

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Credit: Eric Shin
Naranja, verde, azul or rojo. If, upon reading those words, you start to drool, it's not synesthesia. Rather, you're probably just suffering from a case of Kogi withdrawal. Spanish for orange, green, blue or red, respectively, those are the names assigned to the brand's food trucks that roam the streets of Los Angeles, satiating devotees of Chef Roy Choi's meaty juicy magical bits of goodness known as the Korean taco.

A bite of a kogi treat—be it the mainstay shortrib taco, the Kogi dog, or the kimchee quesadilla—embraces a flavor spectrum from sweet and spicy to sesame and cilantro. Kogi's creativity, however, lies not just tucked inside a corn tortilla, but also in the way that company has grown its devoted following—and business—through social media. The Kogi trucks announce where they'll be parked at any given time via Twitter, and then, the pilgrimage begins. Fans, at times, numbering in the hundreds, will flock to the mobile kitchens and line up for their fix. Pre-Kogi, the foul-mouthed Korean-American diehard L.A. boy Choi was a professionally trained chef who had just left his hotel restaurant job, when his pal and former co-worker, the Philippines-born, U.S.-raised Mark Manguera, came up with the Kor-Mex idea after a late night post-party visit to a taco truck.

Now, thanks to the pair, other Southland night owls have not just Kogi, but its many K-taco imitators and other nouveau roving culinary entrepreneurs to soak up the booze. The company has sparked some interesting collaborations as well—chain restaurant Baja Fresh had tried to partner with Kogi on a new menu item (albeit unsuccessfully)—and Scion teamed with the company on a special edition xD model that looks like the aftermath of a Transformer's one night stand with a Weber grill. At press time, the Kogi founders were on the verge of launching their next gig—a bricks and mortar rice bowl shop in West L.A.

Chef Choi, on the rash of imitators and food truck craze that Kogi has inspired: The current food truck craze is a complex one for me. When I started Kogi I said to some people that I wanted no credit for any of this. I just hoped to kick the ball that others would play with. I also imagined visions of street food stands and hawker markets like in Asia and how that would replace fast food in America. I never imagined it would catch so fast with every color of the rainbow. I am happy for others that have started a venture in their lives, but I am a gypsy and loner by birth. I feel weird about being a part of a fraternity of food trucks, I feel more comfortable in dark alleys behind chain link fences under broken street lamps. But I hope the food gets better and that the street food scene continues to grow. I just hope that as people venture into it, they search the spirituality of the history of street food and don't do it for the fad. I think although America is a great creative country, it is still very young in it's eating culture and this is almost like Medieval times back in the old days of Europe. We're still gnawing meat off a bone and shit. We['ve] got a lot of growth left in this whole street food world.

Read the full interview with Chef Roy Choi.

See the rest of the 2010 Creativity 50 here.

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