Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Kogi BBQ: A Cultural Experience of Interconnectivity and Consumption

It seems today that everyone from local newscasters on the 11 o’clock news to university professors is clinging to the catchwords associated with Twitter: tweet, follow, trending topics, etc., etc., etc. However, looking back several months to when Twitter was veritably mocked as a useless social networking tool (I mean, 140 characters, really?), there were few companies, let alone dining institutions, that were harnessing the ever-increasing power of this tool for interconnectivity and information exchange. Truly visionary in both its use of social media and its creative fusion of Korean barbecue flavors and taco truck culture, Kogi BBQ has become a true icon in the LA social scene, and I couldn't have been any more thrilled to finally participate in the cultural experience of hunting down that flame-decorated truck than when I tracked it down in the heart of Mid-Wilshire a few weeks ago.

Today was the day, and I could feel it coming. I had woken up and stumbled over to the computer with my fresh cup of coffee and my steaming hot bowl of cooked rolled oats blended with a hint of cinnamon and topped with a poached egg, salt and pepper (don’t dog it until you try it!). Groggily logging onto my account to get an idea of what tweeps were taking about already for the morning, I was immediately shaken out of my sleep-induced stupor when I spotted the stop that Kogi would be making later that evening to start off its night-long tour around LA: “ROJA: 6PM-8PM@Miracle Mile - Wilshire & Cloverdale.” Yes. Suddenly, my day supernaturally rearranged itself to fulfill my long-held foodie fantasy, and hours later, I found myself antsy, eagerly anticipating the turn of the trance-inducing taco truck around the corner of La Brea with my fellow social networkers. While none of us knew each other, we immediately bonded over worries that Kogi was late. Would it arrive in half an hour? Would it ever come? Where will it be next if it doesn’t make it to our destination? Where will it park if it ever shows up? The man next to me asked if I knew what the truck’s update was, so my boyfriend whipped out his Blackberry and suddenly, on the corner of Wilshire and Cloverdale, we all became best friends, bonding over our quest for cultural participation and consumption of creative street food.

Finally, to our long-anticipated delight, the Kogi truck pulled around the bend of the heavily congested La Brea-Wilshire junction – and this was when our short-lived camaraderie on the corner of Cloverdale ended and panic ensued. Which corner was Kogi headed toward? In what direction should we line up? Is it rude if I run to get a better place in line? It was apparent that no one wanted to wait thirty minutes for their tortilla-wrapped handfuls of Korean barbecue, and as soon as the truck’s reverse lights shut off and the counter folded out like a medieval drawbridge from its side, the small groupings of hungry foodies anxiously swarmed the stretch of sidewalk like hungry honeybees arriving upon a fresh field of budding flowers. After a few pushes and shoves, the line materialized down the sidewalk and civilized itself as first-time neighbors began exchanging words of excitement and newcomers pleaded with experienced Kogi customers for ordering advice. Feeling like a tourist but not really caring whatsoever, my boyfriend and I took pictures with thumbs-up in front of the flame-painted silver truck, preserving our excitement for years to come and trying to distract ourselves from the savory and spicy smells wafting from the Kogi kitchen several yards ahead of us. After what felt like eternity, but in all fairness, was probably only twenty minutes, we valiantly reached the front of the line. Not knowing what to order, but only knowing that we did not have to re-enter the queue that was now winding hundreds of feet down the street, we gleefully celebrated our patience and success by commanding two of each of the four varieties of tacos, along with an order of Kogi sliders (although I must admit, I was devastated that there were no kimchi quesadillas…). Moving to the side to await the glorious combination of Korean flavors and hand-held convenience, I stood on my tiptoes to peek into the mysterious inner workings of the Kogi truck. I saw bottle after bottle of sweet chili sauce, piles and piles of flour and corn tortillas, and juicy piles of sizzling meat searing on the long metal grills, hissing and spitting droplets of spice-infused oil. When our small paper baskets appeared through the open window on the sidebar, we eagerly snatched them up and set off toward a stone ledge in front of an apartment building on the other side of the street to enjoy our long awaited freshly prepared fare.

Out of the spicy pork, chicken, short rib and tofu tacos, the short rib were by far the most flavorful and juicy. Oozing drippings of Korean marinade and steaming smoky aromas from the hot grill, the two- or three-bite taco was filled with just the right amount of shredded meat, strips of lettuce and a sprinkling of unidentifiable cheese. An added squeeze of a fresh lime wedge added an essential splash of citrus zing that balanced the deep savory and spicy tastes of the tacos. Though not kimchi, the toppings were ideal to accompany the meat selections by subtly accenting the intensely flavorful protein offerings rather than matching or overpowering them. While the chicken and spicy pork were equally savory and delicious, the tofu taco lacked the texture and substance that the meat varieties possesses, and while it presents vegetarians with the opportunity to partake in the Kogi experience, the tofu itself really should be baked with seasonings or marinated to intensify the added flavor it really needs to have. The sliders themselves were a delight – a hint of a mayonnaise-based sauce on the top half of the bun melded the spiciness of the shredded seasoned meat with the cool lettuce with the perfect touch of creaminess, and a touch of cheese again left an anonymous impression of hushed nuttiness. The bun was almost too fluffy, but was undoubtedly light enough to make the Korean barbecue flavors the lasting impression of each bite-size burger.

What is great about Kogi is that the process of acquiring its tasty Korean taco fare is in itself an incredible cultural experience, one in which every diner is invited and empowered to participate in tracking down the truck and interacting with fellow pop culture enthusiasts and tech-savvy Angelenos. The power of alluring fusion street food and far-reaching tweets should not be thoughtlessly dismissed as a short-lived foodie fad like smoothies, bagels and low-carb diets; rather, this phenomenon should be regarded as the mark of the beginning of the intersection and developing symbiotic relationship of online technology and in-person interaction. The process of change in cultural trends is steadily moving into the Web-based realm, and it is institutions like Kogi that will take care to ensure that, as communication and relationships progress into the digital world, we still live and participate in the unplugged community. And to make things that much better – thanks to Kogi – as you learn to skillfully span those two social spheres, those little bundles of Asian barbecue goodness practically melt in your mouth at the same time.

Kogi BBQ

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