The gold standard for Korean tacos

The pork Korean taco at Doma, 18th and Callowhill: Marinated loin with creamy jalapeno dressing on a bed of cabbage, carrots, and red onion with fermented chile vinaigrette.
The pork Korean taco at Doma, 18th and Callowhill: Marinated loin with creamy jalapeno dressing on a bed of cabbage, carrots, and red onion with fermented chile vinaigrette.
Posted: October 17, 2010

Try finding the birth certificate for the first cheesesteak, the first hoagie, and, well, good luck. You'll do a lot better hunting for the papers for the first Korean taco - a shred of barbecued Korean short rib or spicy pork, typically heaped on a soft, flour tortilla (with maybe a sprig of micro-cilantro).

The quest leads straight and unmurkily to the Kogi Korean BBQ taco truck, which started roving around Los Angeles, its movements broadcast via Twitter. And it doesn't lead back far: the Kogi truck had its soft opening just shy of two years ago.

The Korean taco is an inspired piece of fusion, born, according to urban legend, after a night of barhopping, in the still-woozy brain of one Mark Manguera, a Filipino who'd married into a Korean family.

It followed the usual vectors, popping up on the streets of New York and, later, in Philadelphia at the now-closed Queen Village haunt called Ansill run by David Ansill, who conveniently had a talented Korean chef on board at the time, and who's now making a drippingly juicy pork-belly version (and an occasionally overly salty short rib one) at his latest venue, Ladder 15, at 15th and Sansom.

In a matter of months it has circled the usual bases, closing in on that all-American tipping point - not quite as formidable as the once-ethnic bagel or Mexican salsa, but creeping up on the spring roll, or the hoagie recast in Vietnamese colors as the bahn mi.

Sweeping it along, of course, is a broader current - a growing taste for newer, spicy Korean flavors, the gochu jang kick of a brick-red chile sauce, sweet-spicy glazes, the endless variety of kim chi pickle. You hear rumors nowadays of kim chi pizza and the thought occurs: Is Korean the new Cajun?

A modest version has surfaced as a Happy Hour hit, aired out with leafed (not shredded) lettuce at Miga, the Korean spot at 15th and Walnut; it's on the menu above "kimchi wings," a Korean-ized take on the game-day staple.

But on Wednesdays, it's a different level of the game at Meritage, 20th and Lombard, where the Asian fusion sensibilities of chef Anne Coll produced a winner seven months ago that's still my gold standard.

Its Korean taco is an unfussy rendering, stuffed with perfectly balanced, six-hour braised (in low-sodium soy sauce, red wine and rock sugar) short rib, topped with a soft crunch of kim chi, the pickled cabbage, scallion and sesame seeds. On busy nights, Coll says, she can sell up to 100; and up to seven a customer.

For those into food lineage, that primo example at Meritage is the handiwork of one of Coll's team, Ann Suk Miller, the Korean-American chef who launched the first Philly version - ta-daah! - when she was cooking at Ansill.

It has taken much longer for Giwa, the bustling Korean cafe at 16th and Sansom, to catch the wave. But it's surfing it now with a taco that's less Korean than it is Taco Bell - the chopped, spicy pork or chicken bulked up with sticky rice and sauteed cabbage, slicked with sour cream, and topped with low-rent cheddar.

The melding of Korean and Mexican is not as novel as it appears. Korea's love affair with chiles was triggered in the first place by Catholic missionaries bearing New World peppers. The role of the Korean soft pancake is not so different from the job of Mexico's tortilla. (Chino-Latino spots dot New York. And in Philadelphia, Jose Garces has a place, Chifa, devoted to Chinese-Peruvian cuisine.)

Six weeks ago, Doma, the pristine Japanese-Korean spot at 18th and Callowhill, hopped on the bandwagon. Co-owner Patti Moon wasn't sure about the sour cream-cheese thing on the marinated pork loin tacos, so she opted for a creamy jalapeno dressing touched with mayo and heavy cream. ("That's the 'cheese' for us.")

Under that she settled on a crunch of raw cabbage, carrots, and red onion in a fermented-chile vinaigrette, and a stripe of kim chi relish, making for one of the most carefully prepared, most tidily-presented Korean tacos in town.

In deference to its Mexican pedigree, she skewers a sleek lime wedge to the side of the tortilla - a jaunty sidecar and snappy salute.

"It is selling," she says, "like crazy."


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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