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Kogi chef Roy Choi debuts a new 'backyard barbecue' taco stand in Palms

Kogi founder Roy Choi prepares al pastor at his new venture, street stand Tacos por Vida in Palms.
Kogi founder Roy Choi prepares al pastor at his new venture, street stand Tacos Por Vida in Palms. (Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

Last week Roy Choi was looking for the telltale signs: a lot of cursing, a lot of eyes rolling back with every bite. He was secretly launching a new taco stand — his first L.A. restaurant debut since 2016 — and as the crowd began to grow at his no-frills street stall in Palms, he saw every indication that Tacos Por Vida is on the right track.

“Other chefs are looking for ‘soigné’ or ‘excellent,’ ‘delicious,’ ‘fantastic’ ... all those words that they use,” Choi said. “I'm looking for ‘f—.’ If people say ‘f—,’ it’s primal.”

The Kogi founder and celebrity chef set up the blue- and red-tented stands next to the Palms location of his Kogi truck, where he and his team have been serving Korean-tinged tacos, quesadillas and burgers since 2010.

At Tacos Por Vida, the street-style tacos and burritos are more straightforward. Handmade tortillas, a blend of corn and flour, blister then swell on the plancha and serve as warm vessels for charcoal-and-wood-grilled steak, pork, chicken and mushroom. Choi said he wanted to use live fire and provide something that wasn’t necessarily Korean-influenced — something that felt more like the taco stands he grew up visiting, including his favorite, Tire Shop Taqueria.

An al pastor taco on a white plate with slices of lime and radish
Choi's al pastor marinade involves harissa, gochujang, sesame oil, achiote and green onion. (Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

“I moved around a lot here in L.A. and I grew up on taco stands, attached markets and backyard tacos,” Choi said. “Those memories and everything about it is a very specific taco for me. … We're bringing the history of a certain part of Los Angeles into this taco. The taco is not regional to any place in Mexico — it’s regional to here, and it's regional to our story and our life.”

The best way to describe it, he says, is what one might find at a backyard barbecue in La Puente. Kogi financial chief and manager Eddie Gonzalez — who’s from La Puente — provided his own small home grill while Choi awaited delivery of his equipment . On March 5, with a little extra space on their rented Kogi lot, they quietly erected a tent, lit the coals and hand-wrote the pared-down menu of $2 tacos and $10 burritos.

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Choi always liked to finish his tacos with a little salt and pepper and lime in addition to sauces, and at Tacos Por Vida he’s using two finishing-salt blends and constructing the tacos for guests, as opposed to allowing for customization over the ubiquitous tubs of salsas, chopped cilantro, onions and pickled vegetables.

These recipes are built on the foundations of watching moms, aunties and grandmas cooking, both in Mexican and Korean home kitchens. His asada marinade — a blend of lime, salt, garlic, chiles, cilantro and beer — is the culmination of roughly 20 styles he’s witnessed and cooked throughout the decades. In a way, he says, it’s almost a throwback to the beer can chicken he served at his now-shuttered Culver City restaurant A-Frame.

The just-caramelized pork is what Choi refers to as “a psychedelic al pastor,” marinated in a blend of nearly 30 ingredients, including gochujang, harissa, achiote, garlic, cilantro, green onions, orange, pineapple and sesame oil.

Chef Roy Choi prepares a taco at an outdoor taco stand.
On day two of service, Choi prepares a taco as the line for Tacos Por Vida grows down the block. Guests began lining up an hour and a half before service began. (Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

At first he considered using a trompo but opted for a long charcoal-and-wood-burning grill.

“As a cook, I don't like to put things out there that I don't feel like I’ve got something to say with or that I've been trained on,” he said. “There’s people that do that well; I don't feel like I can offer anything to that, but I'm really good on the grill. There's some people that are really good with tweezers, really good with emulsions and sauces. For me, you get me around live fire and I can make s— happen.”

Two days of service this week saw lines stretch down the block. On Tuesday, Choi told The Times that customers began lining up an hour and a half before service. Tacos Por Vida will return March 28 and 29, then on April 2 will officially launch, at which point Choi hopes to operate Tuesday to Saturday from 5 to 11 p.m.

The month of March is serving as Tacos Por Vida’s soft opening, where recipes, hours and items might change. They’re experimenting as they go, testing ratios of salsas and wood; it’s currently cherry and mesquite, but perhaps with a bit more almond wood or charcoal thrown into the mix in the coming weeks.

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“We literally are putting the pieces together in real time,” Choi said, adding, “For us it’s kind of like that old saying of fixing the plane while it's still flying.”

With nearly two decades of operating Kogi, the children of some of Choi’s employees are now old enough to work and want to learn the business. According to the chef, as much as two-thirds of the employees have been with Kogi for more than a decade; he’s hoping to create an offshoot that can bring new family members into the fold, as well as create new menu items.

“With Kogi, I can't change f— anything on it,” he said. “The people who love Kogi will go f— apes—.”

A hand holds tongs over a grill covered with meat.
Tacos Por Vida's tacos and burritos can be filled with charcoal-and-wood-grilled chicken, pork, beef or mushroom. (Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

With tacos priced at $2 apiece — roughly half the cost of Kogi’s — Choi also hopes Tacos Por Vida can provide a less expensive option for customers.

Should Tacos Por Vida’s Palms stand prove successful, Choi and his team could expand the operation to other Kogi-truck outposts such as Whittier, Long Beach, Temple City and Carson.

“In the early, early days of Kogi, people thought that it was this orchestrated scavenger hunt,” he said of its 2008 beginnings. "We were just looking for parking and trying to figure things out on the freeway, and posting updates on Twitter, or we got a flat tire or were running late, or we ran out of food. But on the other side of it, it felt like it was this clue or this big, mysterious game. Fifteen years later with Tacos Por Vida, nothing's changed with us. We're still a small, independent, family-run company, and this was just an idea we had a couple months ago.”

Kogi founder Roy Choi, in a yellow apron and L.A. baseball hat, prepares al pastor
Should the Palms outpost prove successful, Choi hopes to expand the taco stand to his other Kogi truck locations. (Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

Of course, things have changed for Choi over the last 16 years.

Choi went from hometown culinary hero to international celebrity chef. Since helping to define food-truck culture with Kogi, he’s appeared as one of Time magazine’s most influential people, authored a cookbook, hosted and appeared on multiple TV shows and web series, served as culinary advisor on Jon Favreau's film "Chef" and more recently expanded to Las Vegas with lauded restaurant Best Friend.

Some of his surprise at the overwhelming response to Tacos Por Vida can be traced to how much he feels the food world has changed since he and his team last introduced a new restaurant to L.A. When they debuted Locol in 2016 and updated Chego in 2017, TikTok hadn’t yet launched in the U.S. Food trends, social media and the landscape have changed drastically.

“There were no food influencers, there was no Smorgasburg, there were no small pop-ups to the extent that you see now, restaurants weren't opening at a pace that they are now,” Choi said. “So we didn't know if we even mattered that much anymore in the whole scene.”

After experiencing the crush of excitement over Tacos Por Vida, he says he now feels a little like beloved former Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela : “No matter how long ago we played, people still got love for Kogi.”

Tacos Por Vida reopens at 3434 Overland Ave., Los Angeles, on March 28 and 29, with a grand opening planned for April 2.

Roy Choi prepares a taco while a member of his team flips tortillas
Choi readies a taco, left, while employee Jennifer Lopez flips the freshly pressed tortillas on the plancha. (Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.