California Korean Tacos: Too Busy Writing History to Read It

Our 50 Plates tour continues with chi-chi taco bulgogi from Korean Twist

Summer is road-trip season, so we're taking a culinary tour of America. But because Portland is a city of immigrants from other states, we don't have to leave town to do it. We're traveling to 50 Portland restaurants to try one distinctive food from each state. Our 50 Plates tour continues with Korean tacos from California, which joined the union on May 29, 1848.

The state: Unnecessarily large and teeming with Kobes, Kanyes, Kardashians and hundreds of thousands of future Portlanders, California is primarily known in this region as the source of Oregon’s inferiority complex. It’s a one-sided rivalry—most Californians still assume the area between San Francisco and Seattle is just one giant beaver habitat—but in many ways, Oregon, and Portland in particular, has defined itself against the Golden State, from the weather patterns on down. Would anyone here even ride a bike if not for the fact that everyone in L.A. lives in their cars? And I don’t think it'd seem so chic to brag about not owning a television if the entertainment universe wasn’t centered in the same place where the Lakers play. Anyway, the state will either be bankrupt or underwater in a few years, forcing refugees northward to pave over Portland’s last remaining cart pods with Googleplexes and Instagram Villas and rename the city in their image. How does “New Palos Verdes” sound?  

The food: While Portland may have popularized the national food-cart craze, one of the truly novel creations to emerge from the phenomenon originated in L.A.: the Korean taco. Though it has appeared on menus going back to the '90s, the dish, as currently conceived, is traced back to the Kogi Korean BBQ cart and chef Roy Choi, who in 2008 began stuffing corn tortillas with the likes of beef bulgogi and barbecued short ribs and veggies splashed with a chili-soy sauce. Spreading the word via Twitter, which at the time seemed like a real wacky way to promote your business, the cart immediately took off, and the taco spread across the country and up to Portland, marking the first time residents have not screamed "Go back to California!" at an L.A. transplant.


Other dishes considered and rejected: When I lived in California, I used to go to shows in Hollywood and Echo Park exclusively to get a bacon-wrapped hot dog from the tiny Oaxacan ladies selling them outside the clubs when the concerts let out. Alas, that's an Arizona import. Also rejected: the San Francisco burrito, the California roll, the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Get it from: Koi Fusion followed quickly on Kogi’s heels, opening in May 2009 with a menu the New York Times wrote “borrowed from Mr. Choi’s in the manner that 50 Cent sampled Biggie Smalls” and a similar Twitter-based promotional technique, and became one of the cornerstones of Portland’s emerging food cart scene. Other carts, including Korean Twist in the Southwest 10th and Alder pod, have also “sampled” the L.A. original, but Koi remains the Portland standard bearer, with 14 stationary and mobile locations from here to Beaverton.  

Click on the map to see each state's distinctive food and where to get it in Portland.

Pennsylvania Maine Louisiana Texas West Virgina Nevada NC Colorado Alaska Mississippi Washington Minnesota Tennessee Nebraska Missouri Massachusetts Michigan Wisconsin Ohio Arizona south carolina newyork Connecticut rhode island Wyoming New Mexico Kentucky Idaho alabama new jersey georgia kansas california iowa montana oklahoma indiana vermont hawaii utah arkansas maryland Virginia oregon Illinois Florida New Hampshire South Dakota Delaware North Dakota