A few years ago we started hearing about Korean tacos, and at the time it seemed such an only-in-L.A. phenomenon. Here was a mobile truck dishing out tortillas stuffed with kimchi and meat, with lines of wacky Angelinos snaking up to the take-out window and clamoring for a piece of the action.
But then Korean tacos started showing up everywhere, including here in Atlanta of all places. Hankook Taqueria begat the mobile Yumbii truck. Now Southern barbecue joints like Decatur’s Burnt Fork BBQ see good reason to make room on the menu for Korean tacos.
What sounds like fey fusion faddishness actually makes perfect sense. Mexican and Korean cuisines conduct love affairs with the Capsicum genus of hot peppers. Both revel in the contrast of fatty, crusty barbecued meat with crisp, fresh garnish. And both like to wrap: The ready cognate to the Mexican taco is the Korean ssam, or (usually) leafy vegetable wrap we best know from the countless Korean barbecue restaurants around the city.
You ready for the next jump into the mainstream? Here it comes: Fire up your grill. Hose the pollen off your deck. It’s time to celebrate the warm weather with a Korean taco party!
I had one recently, and it was the kind of fun, open-ended mess I cherish. Those who wanted to bring something contributed with salsas, desserts and side dishes. Those who wanted to help were put on the tortilla-making line. Those who just wanted to wander around and stuff their faces were more than welcome to do so.
In visualizing the tacos, I thought about the different components and what would be best for each. Here’s what I came up with:
1. The meat: I decided just to go with my partially barbecued pork butt that I call “Semi-cue.” It’s basically marinated, garlicky meat that goes on my domed-lid grill in the morning and cooks at low temperature until it’s time to serve, well chopped. I thought about marinating it with Korean pepper paste as the folks at Heirloom Market BBQ do, but decided I wanted all the funky seasoning in the sauces and garnishes.
2. The wraps: Here’s where I got creative. The one element I don’t usually love in Korean tacos are the doughy commercial flour tortillas. So I bought a bag of masa harina and put a couple of guests to work pressing balls of the just-add-water dough into rounds and cooking them on a griddle. The first few were as thick as shoulder pads, but we soon got the hang of it. Just in case, I also warmed up some flour tortillas. I also put out a plate of lettuce wraps.
3. The sauces: There are quite a few commercial Korean pepper pastes that can taste good in a Korean taco and are readily available at any Asian market. I would avoid gochujang, the ubiquitous fermented pepper paste you may know from ordering the garnished rice dish bi bim bap. It is thick, sticky and pretty overpowering. Better are some of the derivative sauces made from it. Ssamjang, used specifically for grilled meat in lettuce wraps (ssam), has a salty, miso-like flavor and rough texture from beans. It comes in a plastic tub and should be spooned out and applied sparingly to the lettuce wrap or tortilla. Cho-gochujang is a sweet vinegared sauce that comes in a squeeze bottle, and though Koreans primarily use it for raw fish, it makes sense in context to an American palate raised on barbecue sauce. I put out both of the latter two sauces and explained them to guests.
4. The garnishes: The trick is to keep things fresh and crunchy. My favorite garnish was red and green cabbage that I tossed with a little cho-gochujang thinned with water, some herbs and a squeeze of lime. Commercial Chinese cabbage kimchee tasted spectacular against the smoky meat. Vietnamese-style pickled carrots and daikon also made perfect sense. Friends brought both pineapple salsa and guacamole, and they were terrific as well. I avoided serving cheese, which I really think doesn’t go well in a Korean taco, not against the sweet, peppery, fermented flavors of Korean seasoning.
Once it was all there, I called people to the buffet and let them go at it. I was pretty happy with how everything all came together, with easy assembly, appealing flavors and a fresh spin to the old do-it-yourself taco bar.
Until it gets too mainstream, the backyard Korean taco party is cool.