he City of Angels has always been responsible for unlikely pairings: Shaq and Kobe. Sonny and Cher. Gin and juice. An opportune epicenter for migrants, vagrants, and flagrants, LA is tucked in the lower left corner of the country as if it were America’s “Start” button (if you can excuse the Windows ’95 reference). Naturally, we begin here.
Los Angeles is no stranger to conflicts between communities, but there are ways in which clashing cultures have crossed paths, in some cases resulting in movements that have taken the country by storm. It was slightly up north – in Delano – that in 1965 Philip Vera Cruz and Larry Itliong led the Filipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOK) in the infamous grape strike that eventually forged a partnership with the Cesar Chavez-led National Farm Workers’ Association (NFWA). It was also in Los Angeles where sushi chef Ichiro Mashita first substituted fatty tuna with avocado – an ingredient used most often in Mexican dishes – thus birthing the California roll. The culture of food and agriculture experimentation is still strong today.
“It took a long time to find the voice in my food,” explains Roy Choi, chief chef at Kogi BBQ. “But then I realized that our tacos represent migration.” Kogi doesn’t make traditional tacos, though their flagship product – Korean-style barbecue served in various tortilla wraps typically found in Mexican food trucks – are well on their way to becoming American tradition. Since the Kogi BBQ truck began appearing outside of LA nightclubs in 2008, a craze for Korean-style tacos has steadily spread through the states. “The flavor,” adds Choi, “represents different houses of immigrants.”
At first glance, Korean-style tacos might seem indistinguishable from other “fusion” inventions mashed together to quell late-night grumblings. But there’s an art to finding the similar flavors between distinct cultures, and balancing contrasting tastes. Describing the process of creating dishes that are inventive while observing tradition, Choi points out that both Korean and Mexican cuisine often use chili peppers (garnering both sides reputations as culprits of extremely spicy food). More subtle similarities are found with different types of ingredients; Mexican cuisine utilizes lime for acidic qualities while Korean dishes tend to use vinegar.
Of course, the Korean-leaning detours from traditional Mexican tacos are the most noticeable features of the dish – but even those stay true to certain attributes. The Korean-style short rib that replaces typical taco filling is still meat that’s shredded, marinated, and grilled, albeit differently. Some Korean taco trucks throw in kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage) as a replacement to the pickled carrots and peppers that usually accompany tacos, and the result is a multi-origin entree that keeps all roots intact.
While Kogi BBQ is widely recognized as the originator of Korean-style tacos, it is by no means the first instance of Asian-Latino collaboration, even within the realms of cuisine. As Gourmet Intersections touches cities throughout the U.S., we’ll uncover how this LA artifact is both the result and the harbinger of a wider cultural history.
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