By Cornelia Seigneur, Special to The Oregonian
Originally published as Living Cover story in Saturday, Nov. 5, 2011 print edition of The Oregonian
The Bridgeport location adds to Kwon’s three Korean taco trucks that move around town, a permanent location in downtown Portland, and two trucks in standing locations on North Mississippi Avenue and Southeast Division Street. Kwon is making Korean food a mainstream choice in Portland by serving it in a familiar formula.
Who doesn’t know or like tacos? Or burritos or quesadillas?
Kwon grew up in a Korean household in Tigard; his parents emigrated from South Korea 33 years ago.
“They came here with $100 in their pockets,” says Kwon, 32. “In my fridge we’d have Korean food on one side — like kimchi and rice — and American food — like American cheese, hot dogs, peanut butter — on the other side,” he says, adding, “and I’d ‘Koreanize’ (the American food) out of basic necessity.”
He was 12 when he first attempted fusing the cuisines.
“I created a grilled cheese sandwich with kimchi and ketchup,” Kwon says. “Twenty years later I am doing the same thing for customers. Who knew?”
Kwon graduated from the University of Oregon in 2000 with a degree in marketing. He worked at Nike, Integra Telecom and Portland Precision Instruments. But, by the end of 2007, Kwon says, the marketing work began to disappear.
At about the same time, his dad had heard about Roy Choi’s Korean taco trucks in Los Angeles, and he suggested Kwon check them out.
“I took the first flight there to meet Roy. I knocked on his door and asked if I could learn from him and franchise him. He said, ‘No, but, you can do it yourself,'” says Kwon. “He gave me his blessing to spread the love and do this in the Portland area.”
“I literally walked up to a Mexican food truck and asked if I could buy it, and they happened to be selling it,” he says. “So, I said, ‘If I buy it from you, this is the deal: I will work for free for six months to learn from you.’
“I just wanted to learn everything from them.”
After six months, he launched his version of the Korean taco, announcing his launch on Twitter: “Free Korean tacos at 6th and College, by Portland State University.” That was in 2009.
Kwon’s mom, Soohee Kwon; his dad, John Won Kwon; his brother, Jay Kwon; and other friends and family have helped him with recipes, cooking and running his growing Korean taco empire.
“We were the second main company to release the Korean taco on the West Coast, behind Roy,” says Kwon, who was highlighted alongside Choi in a July 2010 article in The New York Times about the Korean taco trend.
Kwon’s menu features staples other than kimchi, including bulgogi (barbecued beef) and kalbi (short ribs), which may all become household words via this food trend.
And the personality Kwon’s carts serve up go hand in hand with the fresh food. His customers leave happily with shoutouts that they’ll see him later. Or, sometimes, “See you on Twitter.”