It’s hard to not love Roy Choi. Kogi BBQ, his brainchild, set the stage for chefs to gain prominence without navigating venture capital weirdness (and the attendant sacrifices in culinary integrity) to secure the immense resources needed to open a brick and mortar restaurant. Food trucks allow chefs to serve you the food they want to serve you, rather than having to spar with the deep pockets that keep the lights on.
From the trunk of a truck plastered with more stickers than a graying hippie’s Volkswagen, Roy Choi started slinging whatever the hell he wanted. Most loved it. Some didn’t. But even his detractors will admit (some more grudgingly than others) that his food is — if nothing else — interesting, honest, and original.
Some complain that food trucks are like the Internet in that they remove the talent filter that previously existed in the culinary world, which (apparently) ensured a certain level of quality. It was bad enough that any asshole with a laptop and a hunger pang can pretend to be a food critic. Now we have to suffer dilettante chefs too?
On balance, though, that view is as wrong with respect to food as it is as applied to information. It’s nice that food fell from the ivory tower and landed in a strip mall. Sure, caveat emptor is a much more current creed now that there are literally thousands of places that no reputable outlet will have written about. You’ve got to dig through a lot of trash to find treasure. But that’s not such a bad thing; nothing worth having ever came easily.
I’m digressing. This isn’t a meditation on the merits vel non of food trucks. It’s about Kogi BBQ. Roy Choi’s relentless creativity led him to expand the menu at Kogi (the kimchi quesadilla is a revelation, but also a full-frontal gastrointestinal assault). Eventually, the menu expanded to include a burger, and my interest was piqued. I went on a solo venture and checked it out.
Location varies — see website for details.
The Order: “Pacman” Burger
The Price: $8
First things first. Don’t call it a burger.
The Pacman Burger is named after Manny Pacquiao, and that’s fitting. Manny Pacquiao doesn’t look like a boxer. In fact, if I hadn’t seen him punch people in the face with such precision, skill, and dogged determination, I wouldn’t believe he was a boxer just by looking at him (that might be racist and size-ist, but I’m a small brown man too, and nobody mistakes me for the second coming of Sugar Ray Leonard).
Similarly, the Pacman Burger isn’t really a burger at all. It’s a self-styled “mashup,” a sandwich consisting of a gallimaufry of fiercely flavorful ingredients. Front and center, a trio of meats: the outlet’s signature short rib, spicy pork, and spicy citrus chicken. Rather than being alloyed and compressed into a patty, chunks of each meat sit nestled in a mélange of sauces (salsa roja, salsa verde, sesame mayo, and cilantro onion lime relish) along with cheese and chicharrones, all of this between two (sadly throwaway) sesame buns.
Each bite is a different experience. The various components of the frenetic assortment of ingredients exist in different proportions throughout the sandwich. Every square inch, then, features its own unique balance. That keeps things interesting, but robs the burger of coherence. It’s hard to come away with a strong impression about what you ate.
What’s more, these various ingredients don’t always balance one another well. It’s like the Wild West. The relish and the chicken duplicate the citrus, overloading the palate with acid when they are front and center. The meats are all distinctive, but compete with one another. The salsa roja and salsa verde are mostly redundant. The jack and cheddar cheese mix would be a nice touch, but for the fact that any subtlety it might otherwise impart is impossible to discern in the gustatory monsoon.
Trying to isolate one of these ingredients and assess its impact on the burger is like trying to slow dance at a rave. And maybe comparing this burger to a rave is apt: some will enjoy the frenzy and the disorientation. Others will not be taken by the bright lights, loud noises, and disparate elements in close contact. I wouldn’t say anything is out of place here. It probably is closer to the mark to say that this burger lacks a sense of place altogether.
All of Choi’s passions collide in a messy, imperfect, chaotic, innovative, oppressively flavorful, challenging, and sometimes frustrating meal. It really is a “mashup.” It unites recognizable but arguably disparate and incompatible elements — each a technically worthy creation in its own respective right — and forces them to coexist. It also forces us to accept that coexistence, even if it doesn’t align with our preferences.
It certainly isn’t arbitrary. Like a mashup, there’s a harmony beneath all the noise, and it isn’t there by accident. Even so, there are a few inconveniently inescapable facts about mashups. First, sometimes the dissonance crowds out the harmony. Second, sometimes the component parts get in each others’ way instead of working together to make something more. And third, even if the synergy works, it doesn’t follow that the synthesis is better than its components were on their own.
In this case, the burger falls prey to those first two problems. There’s just too much going on here to give the burger a consistent taste. With so many ingredients filling the same role (three meats, four sauces, two cheese), none of them get a chance to interact meaningfully. To paraphrase the bard, if the burger’s a stage and all the ingredients are merely players, then here, we have like more than one actor playing the same role, and everyone is screaming their lines at the same time.
That said, it isn’t surprising that Roy Choi would make a burger like this; it’s a giant middle finger in the face of convention, and it emanates from the same fundamental principles – truth, abundance, innovation, chaos – that make Kogi so successful. Choi is, as always, selling what he wants to sell. It’s less clear that what he’s selling is worth buying, but that’s our choice to make (I’d advise you to redirect your funds to Kogi’s other, worthier offerings), and I doubt he would have it any other way.
Flavor: 8.00 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 7.10 / 10.00
Value: 8.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 9.50 / 10.00
Bun: 6.00 / 10.00
Patty: 5.80 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 6.30 / 10.00
Balance: 5.00 / 10.00
Total: 69.40 / 100.00
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