The Way the Kogi Crumbles
Kogi, a humble lunch truck, became instantly famous in Los Angeles last November when it began selling Korean tacos: grilled short ribs marinated in Korean flavorings, topped with Asian slaw, and wrapped in Mexican tortillas. Today, Kogi, has three trucks, a lounge, 36,000 Twitter followers, and lines around the block wherever they park.
Kogi had a great Internet-era, come-from-nowhere run selling something no one else had—until now, maybe. It’s not surprising that Korean-style tacos are popping up at restaurants around the country. But Baja Fresh, 283-unit casual Mexican food chain went a step further last month when it tested a version of the Korean taco at one of its restaurants and called it “the Baja Kogi taco.”
Highway robbery? No, says the corporation: “There were certainly no intentions to rip off a name or a product,” says Chuck Rink, president of Fresh Enterprises, which owns Baja Fresh.
This is an only-in-America story. It has dynamic and valuable cultural evolution. The Korean taco trucks have quickly become the hottest thing in LA, despite their humble circumstances. And it has cultural fusion: Korean insides wrapped in a Mexican outside. Not to mention that the spokesperson quoted in the article for the taco-truck company, Caroline Shin-Manguera, has a last name that bespeaks neither Latino nor Asian culture, but something altogether new. The addition of lawyers to the mix is what officially assimilates the tale into the melting pot.
The success of the Korean taco truck, and the need of a big corporation to get in on it, is a lesson in how foolish a lot of thinking about culture in the age of globalization is. Culture is never pure. It is always subject to outside influences, which are not bacterial contamination but instead experimentation, often for the better. "Protecting" some imaginary pure culture ideal form is thus equally foolish. And, contra anti-globalization hysterics, this an instance of the big corporation having to adjust its behavior because of innovation from below, and in so doing bringing a new cultural form - the Korean taco - to far more people. This is culture in a globalized world, and we are lucky to be alive to sample it.