Manguera, too, has brought in a group of people who know better than him. By his own admission, he is not very tech-savvy. "The most I know about the online world is my Google mail and my MySpace," he says. That's where his sister-in-law Alice Shin comes in handy.
She blogs incessantly for Kogi using the upbeat, LOL-speak that drives online dialogue. Her post about the recent launch of a second Kogi truck reads: "KOGIHEADQUARTERSIS TOTALLYPREGGERSAND ISGIVINGBIRTHTOANEW BABYTRUCK . . . So I'm leaving it to YOU, the peopLes to nominate names for our trucks, because at this rate, Roy's gonna be caLLing Big Brah KoGi #1 and Mark's gonna be caLLing the new one KoGi #2, which, frankLy, is way BORING." Names poured in from fans; an early favorite was "Kogi Juan Kenogi," but the crew settled on the more prosaic Kogi Roja and Kogi Verde -- though they're still not sure which truck will be which.
Shin also runs the truck's Twitter feed, which, as it turns out, is a transnational endeavor. Because Kogi draws such massive crowds, it usually runs late. When that happens, Manguera calls Shin in Brooklyn, and Shin puts out a Twitter feed notifying those waiting of the truck's delay.
The other key players on the Kogi carousel? Manguera's wife, Caroline, who as a food, beverage and hospitality specialist with Four Seasons hotels knows how to keep a crowd calm and make people feel special (she also knows how to keep Kogi's books); Caroline's brother Eric Shin, who obsessively photographs the truck's cross-county journeys (from Rosemead to Westwood to Mid-Wilshire and more); Eric's best friend Mike Prasad (another twentysomething social networking and branding wunderkind); Caroline's cousin Young Ho Yoo, who acts as the truck's promoter; and finally, 38-year-old chef Roy Choi himself, who sees his place in the group as that of culinary guru -- a sort of post-Abstract Expressionist food artist.
"This is my graffiti," says Choi, who insists that up until now his life story (despite its many highs) has been one of failure. Born to Korean immigrant parents, Choi struggled to find his place, toying with law school before stumbling into the world of the palate. He worked in restaurants in New York and Palm Desert before being invited to work in the kitchen of "Iron Chef" Rokusaburo Michiba in Japan.
When Manguera contacted Choi he was at a crossroads, having left a cushy chef de cuisine job at the Beverly Hilton Hotel (where he cooked for then-Sen. Barack Obama, Bruce Springsteen and the royal family of Dubai) and most recently moving on after helping open RockSugar Pan Asian Kitchen in Century City.
"It's not Korean food," Choi says of Kogi. "It's a Korean American kid translating the food from his country into the present-day life of L.A. It's everything I see: the Latinos working in the Korean market, the bus that I ride."
Choi introduces nightly specials to the menu (like the Venice Beach vegan black sesame seed jelly special, barbecue sliders and chorizo and egg tacos). Once people have waited in line, they tend to order a lot, pushing the average check near $20. When they finally sink their teeth into the much-hyped fare, are they disappointed?
For the most part, the answer is no (though many in line say they wouldn't make it a habit). After a two-hour wait in Little Tokyo, Doug Wu and his friends walk away with a large bag. Wu stops to bite into a taco as his friends look on anxiously. Wu scrunches his face in displeasure. "This is disgusting," he says. His friends look deflated, then he smiles broadly, juice dripping down his forearm. "Ha! No, it's really good!"