Even if I didn’t know that KoJa Kitchen started in 2011 as a food truck in San Francisco, it would’ve been obvious the minute I saw the menu. Here lies all the hallmarks of food-truck cuisine: fries drenched with toppings and Asian ingredients wrapped in Mexican tortillas. Of course, it all goes back to Kogi, the one that started it all. Roy Choi’s pioneering food truck took a huge gamble by combining Korean and Mexican flavors, but it paid off with hourlong lines and a fan base willing to follow it anywhere, spurring a Gold Rush. There were not only knockoffs that copied Kogi directly, but also those who were inspired by the idea that there were great combinations to be discovered when you dare crisscross cultural lines.
In the past few years, Dos Chinos has done well combining Vietnamese and Mexican cuisines into burritos, parlaying its success into two brick-and-mortar locations. Meanwhile in San Francisco, KoJa built an empire with its fusion-y mash-ups. KoJa has now blown up to more than a dozen restaurants in the Bay Area alone. The Tustin branch is its 15th, but the first in Southern California.
The key to that success is a food product I’ve never seen before: the KoJa. The dish for which the restaurant is named—which, by the way, is short for “Korean Japanese”—is described as “like a burger, but better.” But it’s actually nothing like a burger: Instead of a bun, there are two coaster-sized discs molded from rice. The closest thing they resemble is onigiri or, more specifically, the grilled kind called yaki onigiri, as KoJa’s rice patties are also crisped up on a griddle. That crisping process is key to its success. It not only lends it structural integrity, but grilling also gives it a crunchy texture reminiscent of Persian tahdig.
There’s more to the KoJa than just the crispy rice buns; there’s also the bite-sized morsels of Korean barbecue short rib, which taste just as good and meltingly tender as this cut of meat can ever hope to be. And when you bite into a KoJa, which is cuffed in paper like an In-N-Out Double-Double, any and all skepticism about how it all could possibly work together disappears. It is an invention just as groundbreaking as the original Kogi taco.
After your first KoJa, you could try the restaurant’s version of a Korean taco to compare it to Kogi’s, but nowadays, that’s low-hanging fruit. You should instead try the agedashi tofu melt: It’s a rice bowl that I can’t say I particularly enjoyed, but to look upon it is to see how far and kooky things can get when creative minds start thinking outside the box.
For the dish, steamed rice and lightly dressed salad greens form the base for a classically made agedashi tofu. The tofu is properly dusted in potato starch before frying to attain a coating that’s at once gooey, mucilaginous and crisp. But then a layer of melted cheese goes on top, and a bowl of Japanese curry is served on the side, with none of it really cooperating with one another. The curry is too salty; the cheese is just weird with tofu. Throughout the meal, I kept thinking about the missing dashi broth that defines agedashi tofu. But I couldn’t help but be tickled that KoJa had the guts to attempt this admirable failure.
Other dishes, such as the Korean Buffalo Wings, keep it close to the original without much embellishment. The dish is so similar in flavor to a typical sports-bar Buffalo wing that I swear Frank’s RedHot had to be involved. The wings, however, seem to be made using the tried-and-true double-fry technique that’s characteristic of the Korean style. The skin is fully rendered, the batter crisp and the meat juicy.
And, of course, there’s the classic food-truck trope of French fries smothered in all matter of toppings. The kamikaze waffle fries are covered with minced Korean beef and kimchi, but the better one is always the one piled with the most stuff. Called the umami, it has tons of components, the most important being the miso-coconut-braised pork, which is so moist it weeps.
Even if it were the only thing I ate in KoJa’s sleek Googie-ish dining room, I’d still peg it as a food-truck dish. Heck, how could I not? Seven years later and 15 restaurants in, KoJa still serves everything in paper baskets. It just goes to show: You can make a restaurant out of a food truck, but you can’t take the food truck out of the restaurant.
KoJa Kitchen, 2943 El Camino Real, Tustin, (657) 859-6475; www.kojakitchen.com. Open daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Dishes, $3.09-$10.99. Beer and wine only.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.