East meets Southwest: Korean tacos combine best of both worlds

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- The ingredients on the table looked like they came from three different meals: corn tortillas, beef stir-fried in a teriyaki-like sauce, cilantro, fried tofu in soy sauce, red peppers and fermented cabbage.

A fully-assembled Korean taco
A fully-assembled Korean taco. Photo credit: Tu-Uyen Tran/Grand Forks Herald

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- The ingredients on the table looked like they came from three different meals: corn tortillas, beef stir-fried in a teriyaki-like sauce, cilantro, fried tofu in soy sauce, red peppers and fermented cabbage.

But, as I learned a few years ago, they were made for each other, the intense savory sweetness of the beef balanced by the citrusy aroma of cilantro, the spicy cabbages balanced by the fruity peppers.

At a recent dinner party, I introduced my guests to Korean tacos, and, to my delight, I heard a lot of happy chomping around the table.

The tacos are a culinary invention by a Los Angeles food truck company called Kogi that had been spreading up the West Coast for several years. This year, they came to Grand Forks; they're served at Gilly's Bar and Grill downtown.

When I learned about Korean tacos three years ago in an online magazine, I had to make my own, and they've become a reliable crowd-pleaser.


Bulgogi, kimchi

So, what makes a Korean taco Korean?

Two things: the beef, otherwise known as bulgogi, and the fermented cabbage, or kimchi.

The beef is marinated in a sauce primarily made of soy sauce and sugar -- this is the base for Japanese teriyaki -- seasoned with sesame oil, garlic and chili. At a Korean barbecue restaurant, servers bring out platters of marinated beef that guests can grill on an iron plate over a gas fire placed in the middle of the table. I learned to love Korean food while living in Seattle, which, like Los Angeles, has a fair-sized Korean-American population.

From the Korean restaurants I learned to love kimchi, too, because it's served with every meal. I was never comfortable with spicy food or the idea of fermentation as a child, but kimchi won me over. Fermentation, after all, is what lends depth to cheese, sauerkraut and wine, all things I now love.

You'll find kimchi in the produce section of many larger supermarkets. The jar looks red with chili, but it's no hotter than the mildest buffalo wing sauce.

As an alternative to the bulgogi for my vegetarian guests, I made tofu simmered in seasoned soy sauce, otherwise known as dubu jorim, a dish normally served as an appetizer.

When fried so the outside is crisp and soaked in savory soy sauce, tofu is nothing like the bland mush that many have come to expect. Even my fiancée's dad, a solid meat-and-potatoes guy from Minot, couldn't help picking away at it when I made Korean tacos for my soon-to-be in-laws a few months ago.


Fusion cuisine

What makes a Korean taco a taco requires less explanation: It's in a tortilla and there's cilantro.

Mexican food has been a part of American cuisine for so long it has been thoroughly reinvented in our image, often by Mexican-Americans. I was surprised when I learned not many years ago that fajitas and chili con carne are essentially American dishes with Mexican ingredients.

To me, Korean tacos are just another evolution of the taco, which is basically some kind of filling wrapped inside a tortilla. The genius of it is the ingredients come from places thousands of miles apart and cuisines so unlike one another.

But I guess that is what happens when people of different cultures enjoy one another's food.

Korean Tacos


3 pounds beef, a marbled cut is best, sliced thin against the grain


1 cup Japanese soy sauce

2/3 cup sugar

3 tablespoons sesame oil

5 cloves garlic, minced

1/3 onion, diced

2 scallions, minced

1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes



Scallions, minced

Sesame seeds, toasted

Mix all ingredients for beef stir-fry and marinade overnight. The soy sauce does seem like a lot, but the sugar does moderate the saltiness of the soy sauce.

Stir-fry or grill beef on high heat. Remove and garnish.

Reserve some of the soy sauce to use on the tacos, if desired.


4 tablespoons Japanese soy sauce


1 1/2 tablespoons sesame oil

2 teaspoons sesame seeds, toasted

2 teaspoons red pepper flakes

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 tablespoon scallions, minced

Sesame oil for frying

1 cube firm tofu, cut into cubes about 3/8-inch on each side



Scallions, minced

Mix soy sauce, sesame oil, sesame seeds, red pepper flakes, garlic cloves and scallions.

Separately, fry tofu in sesame oil until seared. Add sauce and scallions. Let simmer until sauce is reduced by half. Remove and garnish.



Red-leaf lettuce

Bean sprouts

Red bell peppers (fresh or roasted)


Serve meat or tofu with vegetables in a corn or flour tortilla.

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Venezuelan White Rice

A nice side dish to Korean tacos is this strangely satisfying white rice. Salt and fat really are elementally addictive, just like junk-food opponents have been saying all along.

2 cups white rice

2 cups 2 tablespoon water

2 teaspoon salt

4 teaspoon vegetable oil

1/2 onion, halved

4 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 green bell pepper (optional)

1/4 red bell pepper (optional)



Butter (optional)

Lime juice (optional)

Mix all ingredients except garnish in a pot, bring to a boil and simmer until rice is done. Remove onion and peppers. Use a bowl as a mold to shape rice. Serve on plate with cilantro, butter and lime juice as desired.


Mexican Sangria

My fiancée found this recipe for sangria online and made it for our Korean taco party. It's fusion cuisine of a different kind, a Spanish drink with some Mexican ingredients.

1 bottle red wine, preferably Spanish such as a Rioja

1 cup Grand Marnier, Cointreau or generic triple sec

1/2 cup brandy

1 cup orange juice

1 orange, cut into wedges

1 lime, cut into wedges

1 cup pineapple chunks, drained

1 apple, cut into small chunks (optional)

2 4-inch cinnamon sticks (optional)

24 ounces (2 cans) lemon-lime soda


Put all the ingredients, except for the lemon-lime soda and ice, into a large pitcher and stir to combine. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for several hours. Just before serving, mix in lemon-lime soda and top off with ice. Serve in wine glasses, straining off the fruit. Garnish each glass with a wedge of orange or lime.


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