TOMAS LEE has long dreamed of selling American consumers on Korean barbecue. Mr. Lee, a 42-year-old native of Seoul, South Korea, who grew up in Mustang, Okla., took a step toward realizing that dream in October 2009 when he opened Hankook Taqueria in Atlanta, serving tacos stuffed with soy- and garlic-marinated beef, along with chicken and pork, all barbecued in the Korean style.
“I was going to open a traditional Korean barbecue restaurant,” Mr. Lee said. Then his wife, Mackenzie, had an idea. “She saw this thing about Kogi on the Web,” he recalled. “And I thought tacos might be a way to get Korean food on everybody’s table.”
What captured Ms. Lee’s attention was Kogi Korean BBQ-To-Go, a retrofitted catering truck that rolled onto the streets of Southern California in November 2008, selling corn tortillas piled with Korean-style barbecued short ribs known as kalbi, garnished with onion, cilantro and a hash of chili-soy-dressed lettuce.
Eighteen months later, dozens of entrepreneurs across the country are selling Korean tacos. Like Buffalo wings and California rolls, Korean tacos have gone national, this time with unprecedented speed. Few of these entrepreneurs appear to have made pilgrimages to Southern California to eat at a Kogi truck. (There are now five.) Many, especially those of Korean ancestry, say they studied news media reports of the Kogi concept, recognized their culture at the core, and made the concept their own.
“You get the feeling that this is our chance to mainstream Korean food,” said Jae Kim, a Seoul native, selling Korean tacos since February at his Chi’Lantro truck in Austin, Tex. “And it’s happening so quickly. It’s like everybody is realizing that it’s now or never.”