A Korean take on the traditional taco truck
on July 19, 2010
A couple of days a week, a long line stretches down Emeryville’s Hollis Street in front of a taco truck. As people near the front of the line they check out the menu.
“Kimchee burrito?” one man says reading aloud.
“Sounds good,” his friend responds.
This is not your typical taco truck—the tacos being served up here are more Far East than south of the border. In addition to kimchee burritos, aka “korritos,” Julia Yoon, the owner of Seoul on Wheels, sells barbeque tacos, barbeque sandwiches, traditional barbeque rice plates and more—all of which have Korean ingredients, spices and flourish.
Along with helpings of kimchee—spicy fermented cabbage—Yoon adds sweet daikon radishes, spicy rice and hot pepper paste to her dishes. Then there’s her traditional Korean-style barbequed meat, made with a special marinade spread on thinly sliced meat that is quickly grilled over a hot fire and then used to fill tacos, burritos and other dishes. People can choose from bulgogi (rib-eye beef), spicy pork, chicken or tofu.
“They are traditional-tasting meats,” says Yoon, who is quick to smile as she serves her customers, “but they are specific to my food, with the perfect balance of flavors—sweet, savory, smoky, and spicy, of course.” She says that she uses all sorts of spices: soy sauce, ginger, sesame and red chili. “I don’t discriminate,” she says.
Seoul on Wheels can be found in Emeryville and at special events in Oakland. It is one of several mobile gourmet food trucks now cruising around the East Bay that people can locate through social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook. Customer Zach Perkins, who recently lined up at Seoul on Wheels, says that he finds Yoon’s truck at least once a week but that he also tries to hit up other food trucks in the area. “I try to spread it out,” he says. For him, there’s something novel about buying food from roving trucks. “There’s definitely an underground cool-kid element to it,” he says.
Yoon, who moved to San Francisco from Los Angeles a few years ago, started Seoul on Wheels in 2007. After eating out in San Francisco, she realized that something was missing, “I really missed cheap, super tasty Korean food,” she says. She decided to start a catering truck, which quickly became her roving restaurant.
With no actual restaurant experience, it was the ideal situation for Yoon—she could create her own dishes and atmosphere without facing the logistics of running a restaurant. In addition to bringing Korean food to the street, Yoon wanted to create a fun environment. “I like hanging out with my friends and cooking,” she says. “I wanted to bring that emotion to the truck.”
When she first decided to start her business, she went down to Los Angeles and took cooking lessons with a Korean chef. Together they created unique marinades and recipes for Seoul on Wheels. “Korean food is my favorite food,” she says. “If I had to choose a last meal it would definitely be it.”
The barbeque rice plate and the way she cooks her meat are typical for Korean fare, but, she says, “We do fun not-so-traditional things, such as the tacos and the korritos, and we make sandwiches—which are definitely not traditional.”
When out on the street, the line of people waiting for Seoul on Wheels food can often reach down the block, but Yoon stays calm and collected with lots of “hello ladies,” and “thank you so much.” She politely asks people how their day is going and how spicy they want their food.
When Yoon first started Seoul on Wheels in 2007, she parked only in San Francisco, which she says she thought “would be perfect and small business-friendly.” But she soon found out that it was actually a lot easier to operate a small business in the East Bay. “At first it was because it makes good business sense,” she says, “but now, I love the East Bay. It has its own feel and culture and everyone is really cool.”
In addition to spending two or three days a week in the East Bay, Yoon also parks in San Francisco, does catering events and takes part in food festivals, such as Off the Grid—a Friday night food truck extravaganza in Fort Mason, San Francisco. She’ll also be at the upcoming Eat Real Festival in Oakland’s Jack London Square from August 27 to 29.
All of this traveling feeds into Yoon’s greater goal: “To have every person in the U.S. try Korean food at least food once,” she says. “I never met anyone who has tried Korean barbeque and didn’t fall instantly in love with it.”
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