Fusion Wars! Which Asian Taco Reigns Supreme?

Fusion Wars! Which Asian Taco Reigns Supreme?

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Since the rise of the Kogi truck Asian tacos have become the trend in hip fusion cuisine. KoreAm surveys the competition to see how they stack up.

LOS ANGELES -- Back in January 2009, KoreAm profiled the Kogi truck, the progenitor of the Asian taco craze. A year and a half later, the ridiculously long lines of carnivorous co-eds and hungry, hungry hipsters have faded under the glut of an over-saturated mobile food market. So has the fad officially croaked? Hardly. A new crop of competitors has taken to the streets with their own versions of fusion, either imitating Kogi's model or experimenting with different Asian cuisines. At times, fusion means wrapping a tortilla around standard Asian fare while others retain more of the Mexican influence. Whatever you might call the combo — MexiKorean, Chino-Latino or Mex-Saigon food — the best-tasting fusion usually harkens back to essential elements of the traditional taco: meat marinated in something akin to carne asada or al pastor, savory with a dose of sweetness, heat and tang; a piquant garnish reminiscent of Mexican curtido (pickled carrots, onion and peppers) to cut the richness; and a salsa or sauce to bolster the flavors and perhaps add some heat.

The fervor may have subsided, but fusion still offers a landscape of new, toothsome flavors yet to be explored — kal-beza taco anyone?

Here's how the fusion tacos stack up:

1. Kogi

Korean Mexican Fusion

Kogi is still tops! It continues to hit the aforementioned essentials with impeccable Korean barbecued'ed meats, well-dressed toppings and gochujang-based salsa roja. But most importantly, Kogi has managed to retain its high standards, consistently delivering fresh, quality food with five trucks now in its fleet. For Kogi, fusion isn't a fad; it's a commitment.

2. Mandoline Grill

Traditional Vietnamese

The Mandoline Grill specializes in traditional Vietnamese cuisine. Hence, its taco is actually a secret off-menu item. Basically, it is bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwich) served in a corn tortilla instead of a French baguette. Options include grilled pork or beef, Vietnamese chicken curry and tofu. Crisp pickled carrots and daikon and a big sprig of cilantro compliment the lemongrass-marinade while the Sriracha-aioli delivers the heat. The secret is out!

3. Bull-Kogi

Korean Mexican Fusion

One of the newer trucks to jump on the Korean-taco bandwagon, Bull-Kogi isn't shy about whose coattails it's riding. BK's version is served with bits of kimchi, and topped with a sesame cabbage slaw and cheese. Unfortunately, the beef was sliced too thin and over-tenderized — resulting in a mushy (albeit well-seasoned) bite. The spicy pork and spicy chicken tacos, though, were cooked perfectly.

4. Calbi Fusion Taco and Burritos

Korean Mexican Fusion

Calbi has made an aggressive push to cut into Kogi's market share with six trucks in operation and franchising opportunities. Quality takes a backseat to expansion, though, with inconsistent service. The spicy pork is succulent and boldly seasoned, but the beef and chicken are rather timid and regrettably dry. Portion size is stingy and the light sprinkling of cheese perfunctory.

5. Don Chow Tacos

Chinese Mexican Fusion/Traditional Mexican

Though the bourbon-infused barbecue glaze is thoughtfully constructed to better suit the taco medium, Chinese food in general just doesn't readily lend itself to this kind of fusion. Hence, the salsa verde and side of lime serve more as a crutch than homage. Plus, the pork was dry. Better off ordering the traditional Mexican fare and making it an "ultimate L.A." taco by adding bacon and caramelized onions. You can't go wrong.

Oliver Saria is a contributing writer to KoreAm.