I RECENTLY TOOK A TRIP to the heart of Los Angeles. Being in taco truck ground zero, you'd think I'd have spent days searching out perfect asada. Nope. In fact, I only had one truck on my list: Kogi BBQ.
Kogi is the originator of the Korean taco, and theirs is astounding. The meat is tender and juicy. The shred of toppings includes lightly fermented kimchi-like slaw, adding freshness and zing to the unique blend of savory, sweet, and spicy. A spritz of lime and an amazing red sauce equals taco heaven.
Since Kogi launched they've been the focus of the greatest form of flattery, AKA imitation. Portland currently has at least four Korean taco joints, often operating within a three-block radius of one another. With the memory of Kogi fresh in my mind, I recently headed downtown to explore the local K-taco options.
Bulkogi Korean BBQ
SW 5th & Stark
Open for lunch daily, $2 tacos, 3 for $5
Bulkogi wins the prize for biggest Korean tacos in town. They are monsters, thanks to the pile of toppings. In fact, they're so big, three "small" tacos don't fit on one plate. Meat options here are standard K-taco fare: spicy pork, chicken, and BBQ beef. Oddly, Bulkogi claims its ingredients are steamed, boiled, or fresh—making the meat tender, with sweet/savory marinade tones, but lacking grill flavor to make it sing. Still, the red sauce (like a mix of teriyaki and Sriracha with a hint of maraschino cherry) is good and tacos include sesame seeds (a Kogi standard) amid toppings of cabbage (not kimchi), onion, and cilantro. Unfortunately, those toppings overwhelm the meat. Best bet here in terms of flavor is the BBQ beef, which has a nice, fatty pot-roast flavor.
SW 5th & Oak
Open for lunch daily, $2 tacos, 3 for $5
As with Bulkogi, Boolkogi is named after a traditional style of Korean BBQ beef (also spelled bulgogi). So it's likely no accident their namesake taco is by far the best. The boolkogi BBQ beef is very tender, but has a nice touch of smoke. It's also a little less sweet than their other meat options. The toppings are minimal, making the tacos here downright diminutive compared to their rival down the street. All tacos feature roughly chopped red cabbage and just a touch of cilantro, tucked into two corn tortillas with the meat. Other meat options are fine, but a bit too sweet for my taste. That's especially true for the chicken, but less so for the pork, which has a bit more spice and a good amount of savory fat to mellow all the sugary tones.
SW 3rd & Washington
Mon-Fri for lunch, $2 tacos, 3 for $5
Of the three non-mobile downtown emporiums, Korean Twist is the K-taco Goldilocks—a "just right" option. The tacos are big enough without being overwhelming, and have a perfect ratio between meat and topping. In fact, these tacos are all about balance. The meat isn't too sweet or savory. The corn tortillas are large and soft, not crumbly and intrusive, and the shredded toppings—including lettuce, cabbage, cilantro, and carrot—are plentiful but not obtrusive. There is nice interplay between veggie crunch and tender meat, and they have the added benefit of light sour cream—more similar to crème fraiche than anything else—adding an interesting creaminess to the textures. One of the nicest things about Korean Twist's meat options is you can actually taste the grill on the chicken and pork—the meat isn't hidden beneath marinade and overly riotous flavors.
Follow @KoiFusionpdx on Twitter for location and hours, $2 tacos
Portland's OG Korean is the only taco truck to receive blessings from Kogi BBQ creator Roy Choi, according to KOi creator Bo Kwon. That said, KOi's tacos are the least similar in construction to LA's Kogi (that honor goes to Bulkogi's offerings). However, KOi's are my favorite K-tacos in Portland because of their killer fillings. Whether you go for the chicken, pork, or outrageously flavorful short ribs, each offers a balance of spice, savor, and just a hint of sweetness to add depth—all thanks to Kwon's kind mother with the secret magic marinade. Also lifting the KOi taco is the addition of bean sprouts and pico de gallo, making them the most fusion-y of PDX K-tacos. It's a lovely touch. Plus, they are the only Korean taco joint in town to offer lime—a taco necessity. One complaint: On my last trip it appeared as if KOi had stopped making their own tortillas. I'd love them to get back into the tortilla game. Please.