Last year, Korean flavors went viral, and brought the rest of San Francisco's food scene with them. Thank Los Angeles for the boost: In November 2008, three Angelenos started up a taco truck called Kogi BBQ. Kogi drove around to different sites, selling Korean-Mexican street food like kalbi tacos and kimchi quesadillas, tweeting its location as the night progressed. Within months, the truck attracted crowds — hourlong waits or more — and write-ups around the nation. In San Francisco as well as Los Angeles, a critical mass of diners, many of them active on Twitter and Facebook, fell hard for the romance of transience, igniting this city's street-cart and pop-up-restaurant scenes.
But Kogi wouldn't have become a national phenomenon if the rest of America weren't finally assimilating Korean flavors. Thanks to new cookbooks from David Chang and Cecilia Lee, for instance, kimchi has become the probiotic DIY project of choice. Just like every other assimilated cuisine, assimilation has meant editing a grand culinary heritage down to a few shorthand scribbles — mainly bulgogi, spicy pork, kimchi, and gochujang (sweet fermented chile paste). All over San Francisco, Korean-American restaurateurs — up and down the price range from bistro chefs to proprietors of mom-and-pop delis — have used this shorthand to craft a glorious new culinary form: Korean-fusion junk food.
The most famous of the snack foods directly inspired by Kogi's success are the burritos from John's Snack and Deli (40 Battery at Pine, 434-4634, www.snackanddeli.com). The family-run convenience store has been in the Park family for 19 years, and began selling Korean dishes like kimbap (sushilike rolls) and bibimbap five years ago. Last March, owner John Park read about Kogi in The New York Times. He introduced his own Korean burrito ($6.25), rolling it around kimchi fried rice and bulgogi, with sautéed kimchi, gochujang, salsa, cilantro, and cheese. "People started calling me, requesting it," he says. He's now looking for a second location.
How is a Korean burrito? Just as dense and satisfying as the original, really. When you get a bite with too much cheese, its tang clashes with the fermented funk of kimchi, but more often than not, you get hit by the shock of pickled cabbage, the sweet burn of gochujang, and the floral cilantro, all segueing into spicy pork or bulgogi, and later, a carb coma. (More delicate constitutions may want to skip John's kimchi-pork hot dog, which makes DQ's chili dog look like a Jenny Craig dinner in comparison.)
As for Kogi-esque Korean taco trucks, the South Bay is aswarm with them — Yelp currently lists five. The newest, MoGo BBQ (Twitter: @MoGoBBQ), is only a few months old but is already cloning a second truck, which co-owner Sam Pak says will travel to Berkeley, Oakland, and possibly San Francisco. The city is also seeing the return of Seoul on Wheels (Twitter: @seoulonwheels), Julia Yoon's Korean lunch truck, which lost its permit to operate on San Francisco streets late in 2008 and has since been appearing in corporate parking lots in Emeryville, Brisbane, and North Beach (check the Twitter feed for new appearances outside two Mission cafes).
Yoon has been driving her catering truck around, dispensing bulgogi rice plates and kimchi fried rice, since 2007. She says she actually advised Kogi's owners in the months before they started up. This summer, noting their success, she created her own Korean tacos. "I wanted to do something more fun than the traditional rice plates," she says. "Something that you could eat with your hands."
While Kogi's tacos are tiny, two-bite things, Seoul on Wheels' ($2.50) you need to wrangle with both mitts. They resemble Bay Area taqueria tacos in their girth, the stacked tortilla wrappers discharging with every turn shredded green lettuce, marinated meat, threads of pickled daikon, and fat dribbles of gochujang and Mexican crema. Yoon is a creative force in the Korean-fusion genre, so she also does burgers topped with kimchi and spicy pork, "Korritos" constructed along the same lines as Park's, and a bacon-wrapped hot dog with sautéed kimchi and Tater Tots, which I was both sad and relieved to find Seoul on Wheels wasn't serving the day I stopped by.
Not everyone has heard of Kogi. At the beginning of January, Mi-son Jeon took over the small, bright-green sandwich shop Pick Me Cafe and renamed it Wow Deli and Cafe (528 Larkin at Turk, 563-6502). She started with her predecessor's list of $4 subs, but is slowly making changes, introducing three Korean barbecue sandwiches: teriyaki chicken, spicy pork, and bulgogi cheesesteak. The idea, she said, came from her kid. "Normally, I pack lunch for my son, and he likes sandwiches with beef and kimchi."
In their first iteration, the $4.25 Korean subs seem a little overcomplicated. Jeon stuffs French rolls with microwaved meats, lettuce, baby spinach, sliced red onions, tomatoes, chopped basil, and sometimes shredded sun-dried tomatoes. I'd scrap the basil and tomatoes, at minimum, for a double hit of the red sauce she judiciously scribbles over the bread. To make it, she blends gochujang with onion and Asian pear, then stirs in enough mayonnaise to make it creamy. Sweet, aromatic, and mildly fiery, it was so good that I finished the sauce-colored bun first.
SF Weekly has written about another sandwich maker, Rhea's Deli (800 Valencia at 18th St., 282-5255), before (see "Pal's Takeaway, Rhea's Deli, and Mission Burger Offer Handheld Delights," Matthew Stafford, 10/21/09). It bears repeating: James Choi's Korean beef sub ($8.45) is one of the best Korean fusion snacks in the city. Choi's father bought the Mission liquor store and deli in 1991, when James was 17; they stopped making crappy sandwiches as the neighborhood gentrified. Once James took over from his dad three years ago, he decided, "The liquor store business was not challenging me. It's hard to get excited about Doritos. I wanted to do what I had a passion for, which was food."
Last July, Rhea's started selling sandwiches again. Though most are Italian-American classics, Choi has gotten the most attention for his chicken katsu and Korean steak subs, the latter using bulgogi marinated according to his wife's recipe. Like all the sandwiches, it's made with some of the city's best bread. Underneath the sweetly marinated beef, shredded lettuce, and tmatoes, he spreads a precise smear of homemade aioli and Sriracha — enough for a kick, not enough to overpower the beef. For a while, he was selling Korean steak tacos, too, but decided they weren't original enough. He's re-engineering them, testing recipes for a kimchi chutney, and planning to relaunch the tacos as soon as next week.
The most upscale of the growing genre are the street snacks and sandwiches Dennis Lee and his brothers have been selling at the Namu stand (www.namusf.com, Twitter: @namusf), which has been a staple at the Thursday Ferry Building farmers' market since July 2009 and just scored a space at the Saturday morning market, which is like wearing a new outfit to the winter dance and having the A-girls compliment you on your look.
The Lees thumb their noses at Kogi by selling "the real Korean taco," a $3 ssam (wrap) of seaweed wrapped around rice, beef, and daikon relish, Mexican fusion only in name. The wrap needs to be eaten the moment it's handed to you, while the seaweed is still crackly, the rice still warm, and the juices haven't dispersed to the corners of the paper tub it's served in. Some days a kimchi-topped hot dog appears; on other days, a chicken sando ($8), free-range thighs half-heartedly basted in teriyaki sauce and glooped over in toppings, and an underseasoned, unintentional mess.
Namu also makes what may just be the crowning glory of Korean fusion junk food: gamja fries ($5), which Dennis Lee says are designed as stoner food. He smothers a paper tub of french fries — the potatoes (gamja in Korean) fry up to have fine, crisp shells — in chopped short ribs, a ground kimchi relish, green onions, and intersecting drizzles of gochujang and Japanese mayonnaise. Sure, the gamja fries may foretell a day when our obese children whine after Xtreme Kimchi Doritos and White Castle Bulgogi Sliders. Ponder that morbid(ly) obese thought as you're ordering seconds.