On Wednesday morning in L.A., while so many Angelenos were numb about the election and struggling to get out of bed, indefatigable chef Roy Choi did what he always does: He put his head down and went to work, repping his city and its diversity like nobody else.
This was a big day for Choi, whose Kogi taco-truck empire launched eight years ago and now employs a melting pot of more than 100 people. It was the grand opening of his new Kogi Taqueria inside the Whole Foods Market in El Segundo.
A South Bay supermarket near the airport might not appear to be a likely location for an outpost of the city’s foremost street-food slinger. But if you understand where Kogi came from and where it’s been, it makes perfect sense.
“Kogi in the beginning really didn’t have huge dreams,” says Choi, who was an unemployed chef, laid off during the recession, when Kogi started. “You gotta go all the way back to the beginning of Kogi. We’re just straight up like graffiti writers. We’re just trying to tag walls, we’re just trying to hit corners and feed people. The universe presented itself to us, and we adapted and we mutated and we morphed as it grew.”
Thanks largely to Twitter and tremendous word-of-mouth, the Kogi truck became a roving party. It would park somewhere, and more than a thousand people would show up to a warehouse or an empty lot or an abandoned office.
“One of those moments where we really really morphed and mutated was here in the South Bay,” Choi says. “A lot of people that really really know Kogi, they know our South Bay roots, and that’s Torrance, Hawthorne, Gardena, El Segundo. Those were the days of 1,400, 1,500 people on the street. It was just full-on flash mobs.”
And, this being the South Bay of Los Angeles, the crowd was “very very diverse,” Choi recalls. “A lot of TSA workers, a lot of Asian kids, a lot of white kids, a lot of car clubs, a lot of families, a lot of Pacific Islanders who loved Kogi, a lot of Hawaiians, a lot of Samoans.”
People drove over from Carson and Long Beach. They came to hang out, to connect with friends and strangers, to feel love and to escape and to be part of something bigger than themselves. But they mainly came because the food was fucking delicious.
And the food Choi is now serving at Whole Foods (the chef also has a Chego rice-bowl joint inside the Downtown LA Whole Foods) is even better because the grocery-store chain makes it easier for him to source higher-quality ingredients. Tacos are $3.25 at Whole Foods vs. $2.50 at his truck because Choi is using many organic items at Whole Foods. An adjacent beverage case lets customers pair their food with yerba mate, kombucha, Virgil’s cream soda, Reed’s ginger beer and organic Wild Poppy juices like peach vanilla and grapefruit ginger.
“A lot of people like to hate on Whole Foods,” Choi says. “What Kogi’s about always is breaking stereotypes, whatever those stereotypes are. They could be stereotypes about elitism, like what a lot of people have toward Whole Foods. I’ve been here every single day for the last three weeks, and the people I see shopping and the people who have helped me out, who work in the store, the last thing they are is elitist.”
By 12:30 p.m. of Kogi Taqueria’s opening day, there are 50 people eating Choi’s food while they sit and stand in the supermarket. Another 30 people are in line. It’s a diverse group: office workers, college students, parents who pop by while their kids are in school, whites, black, Latinos, Asians.
I’m eating a Blue Moon mulita and a carnitas burrito when Choi gestures for me to come over and take a close look at the crowd that’s formed.
“Ain’t nothing elite about a Kogi line,” the chef says proudly.
Choi, of course, has fought off totally different stereotypes in the past, about things like how taco trucks are dirty and how “sub-human” minorities don’t understand hygiene and why anybody would eat from a “roach coach.”
But now he’s serving his four OG Kogi Korean tacos (short rib, spicy pork, chicken, tofu) as well as soul-warming carne asada, carnitas, pollo asado and cebollita y aguacate at a fancy, 66,500-square-foot mega-grocer. There are burritos with all these fillings, too, and burrito bowls might be coming soon. There are also Kogi favorites like the Blackjack quesadilla, Pacman burger, hot dog, hot wings, sliders and Korean-spiced fries, all priced at $10 or less.
“For me, I’ve never positioned Kogi as a Korean thing,” says Choi, who can’t help but smash boundaries every time he parks his truck or opens a new brick-and-mortar spot. “That’s the difference, I think, of what Kogi is. I see a lot of Asian-Americans out there always having to make such a defiant claim about something as Taiwanese-American or Chinese-American or Korean-American or Asian-American. A lot of our creative endeavors, sometimes we isolate ourselves into this strata of, like, it has to be Asian-American.”
What Kogi is, instead, is a reflection of its wonderfully multicultural city.
“What we are is, we’re Los Angeles and we’ve always represented that and we’ll always be that,” Choi says, looking at his staff at Kogi Taqueria while we chat at the counter. “And within that, we naturally become just who we are: So, El Salvadoran, Mexican, Honduran, Guatemalan, Korean, Chicano, white, black, it doesn’t matter. We’re hiring from L.A. and we’re feeding L.A. if you look at our line.”
There were a lot of people in the supermarket talking about how they felt like it was such a terrible day, but then they got a taco and cheered up a little.
“Kogi is that escape,” Choi says. “But it’s also reality. It’s a suspended portal, where we interact and get with each other. You’re connecting and plugging into the rhythm of Kogi. Whether you’re standing in line at a Gardena parking lot or you’re at a private event in Beverly Hills or you’re at a Whole Foods Market in El Segundo, you’re plugging into the rhythm of Kogi. As you’re standing in line, nobody’s judging you.”
Choi remembers finding Kogi’s first lunch spot years ago, in front of the Mattel office in El Segundo. And this week, to mark his Whole Foods opening, Mattel employees came over and gifted Choi a Barbie food truck.
“We’ve got a lot of love over here, man,” Choi says. “People here, they remember.”
If the pieces fall into place, Choi says he’d be down with the idea of opening more spots at Whole Foods. The San Fernando Valley is another place where Kogi has been showered with love over the years, so maybe Whole Foods in Tarzana could be next. But Choi, who also has big plans to take his Locol fast-food chain nationwide, likes to think well beyond his city.
“We only have four trucks,” Choi says. “But the brand is worldwide. Individually, I can’t open a Kogi in Michigan because I don’t have the infrastructure. But I can open a Kogi in a Michigan Whole Foods because I know Whole Foods has got my back.”
Choi is the first chef Whole Foods has partnered with on in-store restaurants, but the company has also invested in Los Angeles sandwich chain Mendocino Farms and upped its dining options with spots like the Astro Pub restaurant/cocktail bar in its new Playa Vista location.
Choi, who began his relationship with Whole Foods after speaking at their company conference a couple years ago, adds that he has many chef friends who are being approached by Whole Foods. The biggest pioneer of the food-truck boom is now laying the groundwork at grocery stores too, continuing a revolution that started with him putting Korean barbecue inside a tortilla. As Choi likes to say, Kogi por vida.