Roy Choi's secret to the perfect taco - Exclusive

Roy Choi knows a thing or two about tacos. You may have heard of the Korean-born, Los Angeles-based chef because of his chill rapport with the dozens of of celebrities — from Robert Downey, Jr. to Seth Rogen — who've appeared on his Netflix series, The Chef Show, now in its third season. Or maybe you've caught him on the new HBO Max show, Selena + Chef, starring the one and only Selena Gomez. But Choi got his start and won our hearts with his 2008 company, Kogi BBQ, a Korean-Mexican fusion food truck business that would announce where it would be parked next on Twitter.

Some Kogi fans have waited for hours just to get a taste of Choi's Korean BBQ tacos (per the Los Angeles Times). And they say the wait is worth it; as one TripAdvisor user described, "The mixture of the flavors together make this taco experience something to reflect on days, maybe weeks, after." Wondering what makes a Kogi taco so memorable? In an exclusive interview with Mashed, Choi revealed his requirements for taco perfection.

Roy Choi says a great taco has to combine many flavors and textures

According to Choi, it's useless to say there's one specific ingredient that makes for taco greatness. "A lot of taco savants and very technical people always try to dissect it: Is it the tortilla? Is it the meat? Is it this or that? I don't look at food that way," he said. "I don't take a stance or a soap box of like, if you don't have a handmade tortilla, it can't be a great taco. Or if you do have a handmade tortilla, then it is a great taco."

Instead, Choi said, a great taco is about all the feelings. "I look at food by what it feels like when you eat it, the temperatures, the textures, and then the pops of flavor," he explained. "So for me, a great taco has to have a warm tortilla that's plump and delicious, and the meat has to be seasoned and caramelized — or if it's not meat, whatever it is in there — just has to be full of umami and flavor," Choi added. The temperature matters a lot, he said. "And those things have to be hot, really hot. And then the onions and cilantro and the salsa and everything else, so the salad has to be cold. So when you eat it, you have this intersection of hot, cold sumptuous umami, but also sharp, acidic, and crump, and just delicious!" Choi emphasized. "And so it has to have... to me a taco is about: texture, the feeling, the warmth."

Don't even think about eating a taco with a fork, Choi says

There is one thing Roy Choi feels passionate about: The taco should be constructed so you can eat it without projecting all of the ingredients on the floor, or all over your pants. "The taco should also be ergonomic to you," he advised. "So it should fit in your hand and you should be able to eat it." 

Choi added that his Korean roots combined with the Mexican-influenced culture of Los Angeles have led him to feel very passionately about forkless tacos. "The culture I come from here in Los Angeles, a culture that has really given me a pass and accepted me my whole life — and it's something that I represent, try to represent through Kogi all the way through — is that if you eat a taco with a fork, then get the f*** out it," Choi said. "So, the taco should be able to be eaten in your hand. That's a taco."

Owning a taco truck business is all about freedom

So once you've figured out how to make a taco that's got hot meat and cold lettuce, pops of flavor, and tantalizes with umami, what if you want to start your own taco truck business? Choi said that while it's got its challenges, running a food truck business is the ultimate road to freedom.

"Well, you got to love the streets first of all — you have to love being out on the streets. So everything that comes with that, you got to love the hardship of that, flat tires, broken engines, traffic, just the craziness of the streets at midnight, everything," Choi said. "And then the other part is, the weather is very hard on the food truck." But aside from that, he said, "everything else is beautiful. Everything else is amazing. It's the best life ever." As a food truck owner, Choi said, "I've been given the keys to freedom and all of our team members and everyone involved, and the customers — this is a gateway to freedom."

If you're not sure what Choi means by "freedom," he has an analogy for what it's like to own a business that you could drive anywhere. "Do you know that feeling when you're like, whether packing up with your friends to go to Coachella or go hiking or go to the lake, but whatever it is you do — that feeling of a road trip or going off to college or whatever it is, that feeling? Imagine that feeling, every single day of your life," he explained. "It's pretty amazing. It's pretty awesome."

Choi said working a food truck is literally the opposite of what it's like to work for any other kind of company, in any other type of job. "We don't work for anybody, and our intentions are completely pure. If you're out there running a food truck, it's not like that is some front or some global manipulation to be doing something else," he said. "You're out there performing under the sky, on the streets, completely free. No one even knows where you are in many cases. It's only the people that find you, know where you are. You're almost living outside the grid. And so because of that, what happens is, you feel this invisible weight being lifted off, because every day is like going on a road trip."

Catch the HBO Max Original Series Selena + Chef to see Selena Gomez banter with Chef Roy Choi and nine other master chefs. Streaming now!