If one food truck deserves the credit (or, if you prefer, the blame) for the proliferation of the species nationwide, it's Kogi, a Los Angeles operation that serves a fusion of Korean barbecue and Mexican street food: short-rib tacos and kimchi quesadillas. Everything that's now considered typical of the food-truck scene — the retro cool of the mobile vendor; the sophistication of ingredients and preparation; the slick graphics; the skillful buzz-building via social media (specifically Twitter) — Kogi pioneered. It hardly matters whether Kogi truly was the first food truck to employ all or even any of these strategies. Chuck Berry invented rock & roll. Kogi created the contemporary food truck.
Kogi's influence extends beyond its business plan. Chef Roy Choi's Korean-Mexican mashup, which made perfect sense in the context of Los Angeles' demographic stew, has spawned imitators in places that lack the contextual piece of the puzzle. What to make of a Korean taco truck in a town where the sum total of Korean restaurants can be counted on the fingers of one hand?
Seoul Taco owner David Choi (no relation to Roy) aims to find out. The truck's menu adheres to the Kogi template, offering tacos and quesadillas filled with bulgogi — Korean barbecue beef — pork or chicken. (Tacos add a fourth option, tofu.) Those who prefer their Korean meals tortilla-free can order bowls of rice topped with barbecue and garnished with a fried egg.
The tacos afford tangible proof that Korean-Mexican fusion is no mere gimmick. Beef and pork bulgogi are analogous to carne asada and pork al pastor — savory, spicy and transformed by the inimitable alchemy of fire-cooked meat. Analogous, yes, but far from identical: The differences, subtle but definite, soon make themselves known. The beef's marinade imparts to the meat a gentle sweetness that's miles away from the flavor profile of its Mexican cousin; the pork slaps you with aggressive heat of Korean chile paste — a frontal assault on the tongue the likes of which you don't find south of the border. (As for the chicken? Skip it.) The tortillas are corn, the meat garnished with greens, chopped scallions, sesame seeds and a drizzle of the truck's "Seoul" sauce, tangy and mildly spicy. On the side, to squeeze to taste, is a wedge of lime.
The quesadillas have less to offer: The blend of melted cheeses (cheddar and jack) dampens the meats' distinct flavors to the point where you might as well be eating straight-up Tex-Mex. Choi scatters a few spinach leaves inside each quesadilla. Admittedly, substituting the spicy flavors of kimchi would crib yet another page out of the Kogi handbook, but it would help Seoul Taco stand out from the Kor-Mex crowd — at least until St. Louis gets one.
Every food-truck aspirant owes a debt to Roy Choi, yet few seek to re-create what made Kogi truly special. It wasn't the meal-on-wheels setup, nor even the gloriously funky hybrid cuisine. It was the ambitious and enterprising chef himself, who understood that our relationship to food and restaurants has evolved, and who had the talent to execute his vision. (The inter-ethnic culinary marriage was a stroke of genius, but the notion would have gone nowhere if the food sucked. Kogi did a lot of things right, earning a loyal following that triggered widespread acclaim, from a blurb in Time to a "Best New Chef" nod from Food & Wine.)
To its credit, Chop Shop opts for the challenging path, offering a cuisine that might seem ill suited to a truck: sushi.
Eliott Harris is Chop Shop's owner and chef. As he proved at Miso on Meramec in Clayton, where he was the executive chef from 2009 until last year, Harris balances Americans' demand for ever-more-elaborate rolls with a traditional sushi chef's insistence on impeccable technique. With Chop Shop he has adapted this approach to the reality that many Americans view sushi as a commodity to be ordered at fast-casual joints or purchased prepackaged at the supermarket.
Chop Shop sells what it terms "big fat sushi rolls." Instead of slicing these overstuffed rolls into small, bite-size pieces, Harris cuts them in half, the better to be held and eaten like a wrap, with the seaweed sheet taking the place of the tortilla. The menu is brief, consisting of four different rolls, miso soup, fried spring rolls, a grilled-chicken dish for the sushi-averse and, for dessert, a fried Twinkie.
The "El Camino" is representative of the Chop Shop approach: spicy tuna, crisp cucumber and chunks of ripe avocado, kaiware (daikon radish) sprouts, pickled ginger and — the grace note that elevates the El beyond big and fat — a touch of a lovely garlic-ginger ponzu. A ponzu zapped with the slightest hint of truffle oil elevates a similar roll, "the Caddy," which omits the spicy sauce from the tuna and subs in smelt roe (masago) for pickled ginger.
The "Woodie" isn't as complex, but it doesn't need to be: A generous portion of sweet snow crab meat is accented simply, with cucumber, avocado and a chile aioli. (Chop Shop throws in a little takeout-container humor: "Enjoy your woodie.")