Imitation, as they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. Which is why the most revealing part of a recent Wednesday rendezvous with the Kogi Korean taco truck, L.A.'s latest culinary obsession, wasn't the flash mob of 200 hungry Angelenos that began to materialize outside the Golden Gopher bar at 9:00 p.m., lured largely by a recent post on Kogi's Twitter feed announcing that one of its two roving vehicles was on the way. Nor was it the hour-long wait everyone was willing to endure for griddled tortillas filled with short ribs and sesame-chili salsa roja. Or the staggering 400 pounds of meat that Kogi would dispense by evening's end. Or even the credentials of Kogi chef Roy Choi, a La Bernardin alum and Culinary Institute of America valedictorian—the reasons, in short, that the three-month-old Kogi has garnered so much fawning coverage (BBC, New York Times) and become one of America's buzziest restaurants. Instead, the day's defining image was a group of Korean businessmen examining the underbelly of a kimchi-covered "Kogi Dog." Their goal, according to Choi: to clone his creation. "At every stop, it'll be, like, hundreds of young people," he said, "and 12 middle-aged copycats in suits and ties asking where I buy my cabbage."
It's no wonder. Taco trucks, of course, are nothing new. Neither are upscale vehicles serving fancier fare to hip foodies. But thanks to the unprecedented speed and scale of its success—crowds often exceed 600 people—Kogi has already transcended its roots as a gourmet gastromobile and emerged, through a combination of cuisine, context, attitude and Internet alchemy, as something far more interesting: America's first viral restaurant. As Pulitzer Prize-winning L.A. Weekly critic Jonathan Gold recently put it, "not since Pinkberry has anything captured the local imagination as quickly"; even the Top Chef: Season 5 contestants are devotees.*. In many ways, Kogi's rapid rise reflects the same cultural moment that produced Barack Obama; youthful, urban, multiethnic, wired and communal, both brands resonate with a grassroots generation that distrusts top-down messaging and prefers to learn from peers, often online. The question now is whether L.A.'s Twitter-fueled Korean taco truck is merely a fad (more like, say, Howard Dean)—or, as the Kogi copycats are hoping, a model for the future of fast food.
As he chopped Asian pears Tuesday in the cramped kitchen of the Alibi Room—a Culver City lounge set aside to serve as Kogi's first stationary location—Choi, 38, spilled the secrets of his sudden success: the original idea, which came last summer to buddy Mark Manguera, 30, as he scoured Koreatown for a carne asada taco; his own tenure as chef de cuisine at the four-star Beverly Hilton; a team of friends, family and 15 talented (and mostly Mexican) cooks. But the most important ingredient, Choi confessed, was the Web. At first, the decision to post Kogi's ever-changing whereabouts on Twitter—the popular site that allows users to share short mobile updates with friends—was practical: the average al pastor truck simply has no way to publicize its next stop. But it soon yielded unexpected benefits. When the cops shooed Kogi from one corner, the Twitterati would suggest another. When the truck was running late, a quick Tweet—"Give us 10 more minutes, yeah??? TACOS FOREVER"—would keep wavering customers in line. Followers were asked to design t-shirts and name Kogi's vehicles; fan photos and YouTube videos were promoted on the official blog. The result—now called Kogi Kulture—is an exponentially expanding community of chowhounds eager to escape L.A.'s isolating psychogeography by connecting, both online and on the street, with clued-in fellow travelers (and the accessible Kogi crew). "I can cook for 100 people a night," says Choi. "But Twitter can hit, like, 5,000 people a second. It's word-of-mouth times a million."
Still, spreading the word is pointless without a word worth spreading. Raised in his family's Koreatown restaurant, Choi long avoided Asian cuisine for fear of being pigeonholed. But the idea of presenting Korean flavors in a Mexican context, he says, "just opened the floodgates for me." After weeks spent calculating how best to counterbalance the carmelized sweetness of his transplanted taco fillings—a brief glimpse at Kogi's classified marinade recipe showed more than 20 ingredients, including kiwi—Choi hit on the perfect solution: an acidic blend of crushed sesame seeds, cilantro-onion-lime relish and a julienned salad of romaine and cabbage tossed in chili-soy vinaigrette. Since then, Choi's repertoire has expanded from the original taco lineup (short ribs, spicy pork, chicken or tofu) to include kimchi quesadillas, pork-belly tortas and Korean blood-sausage hotdogs, among other items, and he's hoping to add grilled tripe, stuffed sweetbreads and marinated anchovies to future menus. Overall, the experience is perfectly au courant: market produce and unfamiliar proteins prepared for the authenticity-craving postracial palate and sold at recession-ready prices ($2-$7). But Choi insists that Kogi connects with Angelenos mostly because it reflects Los Angeles itself. "These cultures—Mexican and Korean—really form the foundation of this city," he explains. "Kogi is my representation of L.A. in a single bite."
Even so, it's likely that Kogi fever will soon spread beyond SoCal. In addition to the Alibi Room, which Choi sees as a prototype for future brick-and-mortar kitchens, Kogi is currently aiming to send trucks to San Diego and San Francisco before eventually heading east. His "real dream," however, is to inspire viral spinoffs. "I hope we spark other people—imagine an Indian dude with a Tandoori taco truck—to have the balls to do this," Choi said as he garnished a three-taco combo. "I don't even want to be the one who carries on." A few hours later, a young student at Santa Monica College—ballet flats, black tights, plastic aviators—squealed when she spied Kogi on campus. "Oh awesome!" she said. "I tried this once outside of some club and I was, like, in heaven." She quickly texted her friends: "The tacos are sooooo good. Do you think we could franchise this?"
*Note: The original version of this story mistakenly reported that the contestants on Top Chef: Season 6 were Kogi fans.