|Flying Pig's Duck Taco|
Korean taco trucks are everywhere in parts of LA. You can't walk a few blocks without running into one in Santa Monica, it seems, especially on a beautiful, warm, sunny Saturday afternoon. They congregate near the farmer's market on Arizona Ave., where they draw in both locals shopping for produce and tourists wandering in from the Third Street Promenade. After an appetizer of a delicious Luna oyster from the Carlesbad Aquafarm stand, some juicy citrus segments from another stand and a few miles of walking, I was ready to get serious about lunch. Fortuitously, I wandered east on Arizona, where it wasn't long before I spotted a truck the color of a Barbie convertible....
Flying Pig: Duck, Spicy Pork Tacos; Pork Belly Bun
Flying Pig is pretty much impossible to miss. Aside from its rather garish color, there will probably be a large throng of people in front of it, if this recent Saturday afternoon was any indication. That's a good thing, though: You really don't want to miss it.
I tried two tacos and a bao. In retrospect, I'm kicking myself for not ordering every item on the menu, including the crispy tofu tacos, which were recently featured in Food & Wine.
The tamarind duck confit taco with pickled red beets, toasted almonds, radish sprouts, mandarin orange, and tamarind gravy (pictured at the top of this post) was quite simply remarkable. The shredded duck meat was extremely tender and fragrant, with a great balance of flavors. Garnishes were very well thought out. Pickled beets, finely diced added a lightly acidic and sweet note, and a little bit of textural contrast. Radish sprouts were distinctly peppery, a beautiful addition that helped cut the sweetness of the other components. I worried that the mandarin oranges might overwhelm the other flavors, but all the ingredients really came together nicely. My only nitpick, if I had to make one criticism, would be that the almonds could have been (longer?) toasted to really bring out their aroma. (5/5)
|Flying Pig's Spicy Pork Taco|
|Flying Pig's Pork Belly Bao|
In general, I really appreciate Flying Pig's attention to detail. All the corn tortillas on the tacos (petite four-inchers) were perfectly griddled until there were the faintest traces of brown spots on the bottom, which brought out the scent of corn. And the ratio of filling to tortilla, while generous, was not overwhelming as it was at some other taco stands. The folks who work the truck were wonderful -- sincerely friendly with a great sense of humor. And though tacos were a little more expensive than at other taco trucks, you're paying for the quality of the ingredients. For me, that's very much worth it.
New York Gal Bie: Spicy Pork Taco
|New York Gal Bie's Spicy Pork Taco|
I noticed that both New York Gal Bie and TNB BBQ top their tacos with shredded cheese. I'm not sure the combination of cheese with Korean-style marinated meats (or kimchi or shrimp) really works for me. The cheese really only serves to muddle the flavors.
All in all, this was an enjoyable taco to eat for this New Yorker, though I'm sure it doesn't rank among the better tacos trucks in LA. (3/5)
TNB BBQ: Spicy Pork, Beef, Chicken and Shrimp Tacos
|TNB's Beef, Spicy Pork and Chicken Tacos|
As at the other trucks, each taco was served with a double layer of small, 4" corn tortillas, which like NY Gal Bie's versions, were not griddled for long. At TNB, however, the construction was unconventional: Rather than bedding the taco with meat, there was a base layer of nicely crunchy shredded cabbage and romaine lettuce, which was then topped with your selected protein; a layer of their secret sauce (which is lightly sweet and tastes like it includes banana and pineapple, among other things); optional kimchi (yes, please!); and a light sprinkling of white and yellow shredded cheese. The problem with this construction was that though it was more aesthetic and you could see the meat overflowing from the taco, it was too top heavy to be structurally stable. Of the three taco trucks I tried, this was the messiest and most unwieldy to eat.
The kimchi was a mild, "fresh" kimchi, which hadn't been left to ferment. I love my kimchi ass-kickingly pungent, but for the purposes of crowd appeal, I understand why TNB serves it mild. They also marinate the hell out of their meats. These are of good quality for a taco truck, but if you're a Korean bbq snob, you would probably be disappointed that the heavy marination obscured the natural flavors of meat: You can't deduce much about its freshness. The spicy pork taco (basically dweji bulgogi) was not very spicy and a bit too sweet, but the meat was fairly tender. (2.5/5) The beef in the beef taco (basically a bulgogi) was again a bit too sweet for my tastes, though tender. There were a few pieces of gristle, which I don't personally get worked up about, but be forewarned if that kind of thing does bother you. (2.5/5) The chicken taco and shrimp taco included very moist and juicy proteins, which were laudably not in the least bit overcooked. The chicken was nicely marinated; shrimp had no hint of fishiness. (3/5)
My criticism of the tacos from TNB, generally, is that they were much too busy with far too many competing ingredients indiscriminately thrown together. Flavors were muddled. The sweet sauce was not necessary and though it distinguishes TNB from the many other taco trucks on the streets of LA, it was overwhelming in combination with the already sweet marinated meats and frankly clashed with the kimchi. There was too much moisture in the tacos from the sauce and kimchi, together, which made the tacos messy and difficult to eat: Liquid dribbled out the other end of the taco with each bite. Cheese was wholly unnecessary. If I were to redesign the tacos, I'd include only the vegetables, meat and kimchi.
Again, I have to admit that for a New Yorker who doesn't have much taco truck selection -- much less Korean taco truck selection -- at home, TNB's tacos were enjoyable to eat. I'm sure this truck would draw crowds in Midtown Manhattan. But in LA, it's probably forgettable.
I didn't have a chance to try Kogi or Calbi, sadly. I'm saving them for my next trip.
Flying Pig: Locaton Varies (https://twitter.com/FlyingPigTruck)
New York Gal Bie: Locaton Varies (found on Arizona Ave. / 4th St., Santa Monica, Saturday 12 p.m.)
TNB BBQ: Locaton Varies (http://foursquare.com/venue/3867306)