Every movement needs a creation myth, and the gourmet-food-truck movement has a really good one. In 1996, Roy Choi, a law-school dropout and a general disappointment to his Korean-immigrant parents, was watching the Food Network one afternoon, eating Cheetos while coming down from some serious drugs, when suddenly Emeril Lagasse started talking directly to him. "He came out of the TV," Choi recalls, "and said, 'Smell this. Touch this. Taste this. Do something.'"
Choi, now 40, was in no position to argue with an out-of-body Emeril experience, so he got off his couch in Los Angeles and enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He worked his way up to chef de cuisine at Los Angeles' Beverly Hilton and got fired as chef at Rocksugar, the Cheesecake Factory's attempt at Asian street food, before he found his calling in a kitchen on wheels.
Gourmet food trucks are democratizing the local- and slow-food trends that started with restaurateur Alice Waters in Berkeley, Calif., and were spread by the Food Network. Although the goal of these trucks is to be quick, convenient and cheap, they are decidedly anti--fast food. They're about dispensing Alice Waters food in a McDonald's manner.
Choi, who does his proselytizing from a fleet of culinary clunkers, became the leader of this movement not just by creating a whole new cuisine--a mashup of Korean and Mexican food that has given rise to short-rib tacos and kimchi quesadillas--but by dishing out punk attitude. Peer inside one of his Kogi taco trucks (the name is Korean for meat), and you'll see him yelling in Spanglish, baseball hat askew, arms tatted up, hands flying like a rapper's. This is performance art, and people often wait in hour-long lines for the privilege of snarfing it down with a spork.
"Why is this $2 taco affecting people on this level?" Choi asks, standing next to one of his four trucks. "You have these famous chefs and farmers' markets with fresh vegetables, and you have fast food--and nothing in between," he says. "If I introduced you to 100 people in my life, 90 of them will never have eaten real Parmesan cheese."
It doesn't really matter that gourmet food trucks were busting out in American cities a few years before Choi parked his first food truck, in November 2008. Or that short-rib tacos weren't even his idea. (A former co-worker's sister-in-law, Alice Shin, had read about a homemade version on a food blog and, as Kogi's publicist, helped hype them through masterful Twitter and website work, which turned the truck's mysterious whereabouts into a hipster happening.) Choi's amazing food has become one of the movement's signature successes. Kogi made $2 million in revenue in its first year, on checks averaging $13 per person. It has given rise to a number of copycat Korean-taco trucks and inspired the Baja Fresh chain to add short-rib tacos to its menu.
And Choi's sensitive-burnout passion is the movement's story. He gets choked up about replacing McDonald's cuisine with freshly prepared, price-competitive, high-end food. "It's convenient to eat horrible food, and it's so difficult to eat great food. It's O.K. to eat flaming-hot Cheetos and never read books or eat vegetables," he says. "This is where we've come as a country, and I'm not cool with it."