Chef Chat, Part 3: Matt Pak of Koagie Hots, and His Gourmet Korean-ized Food Truck Fare
Photos by Mai Pham A hot-off-the-griddle Kim Chi Koagie. Just looking at it makes me hungry.
This is the third part of a three-part chef chat series. If you missed the first parts, you can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
This week, we chatted with 28-year-old Matt Pak, a self-trained chef who had worked up the kitchen ranks since the age of 15. Like many young chef-entrepreneurs around the country, he capitalized on the national fervor around gourmet food trucks and relatively lower start-up costs to open two concepts in close succession: Koagie Hots, which sells Korean barbecue hoagies, hot dogs and fries; and The Golden Grill, which does gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches.
I'd been trying to meet with Pak for almost two months before we made it happen. During Part 2 of this Chef Chat, Pak described the all-consuming nature of food truck life, the fact that it was a 24/7-type job that left him little room for much else. The day we met, we even had to push back our initial meeting time to accommodate a last-minute catering job he'd picked up in League City. It was a sweltering hot day, and he came to the meeting with his hair plastered to his head. There was no doubt in my mind as to the veracity of his statements: Owning and operating a food truck is hard work, a fact that made the food I tasted that much more remarkable.
Pak spends a lot of time just keeping the truck clean -- and it shows. All meat is cooked to order.
For the purposes of the tasting, we focused on food from the Koagie Hots truck. We started with his most popular item, the Kim Chi Koagie. I climbed inside the truck to see it being made, noting a sparkling clean, shiny silver interior that would rival many restaurant kitchens around town. As the meat sizzled on the grill, Pak informed me that each portion of bulgogi (Korean barbecue rib eye) is marinated and portioned ahead of time in small eight-ounce bags, then cooked to order when a customer places an order.
The bread, essentially a large white loaf baked fresh and supplied daily by Slow Dough, is dense with a slightly crispy crust. Split in two and filled with piping hot bulgogi mixed in with provolone, kimchi and grilled onions, the Koagie was just as Pak had described -- sweet and salty, with a bit of crunch and this occasional spicy kick mixed in with gooey cheese. As much as I love Philly-style cheesesteaks, if one were pitted against the other in a head-to-head battle and I were the judge, the Korean hoagie would win hands down.
I get cravings for this. Tastes even better late at night!
Though the Avo Dog -- topped with avocado, bacon, feta and spicy mustard -- is the most popular hot dog item on the menu, I wanted the Koreanized hot dog version, so we went with a Koagie Dog. The quarter pound Hebrew National all-beef dog topped with bulgogi, kimchi aioli, Asian slaw and a fried egg is a force to be reckoned with, reminding me of the popular (and addictive) Japa-Dog chain in Vancouver for the way in which the Asian flavors just burst in your mouth when you take a bite. I kid not when I say that this has become my all-time favorite hot dog in the city, something I'll crave and drive into town for.
We finished off our tasting with the Kim Chi Fries, also a best-seller, a generous mound of thin-cut french fries topped with kimchi, aioli, feta and scallion. Again, the super tasty, crispy hot potato sticks were delicious, and I could imagine sharing this with a bunch of hungry friends late at night, which is exactly the scenario they were designed for.
Super tasty kimchi fries. Good to hoard for yourself if you're hungry, or to share.
Houston has a strong Korean neighborhood in Spring Branch, centered around the Long Point area between Blalock and Gessner, but inside the Loop, Korean food is hard to come by. For Korean-food lovers, Koagie Hots can help to fill that void. The truck is parked at Boondocks every night except Monday, from around 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. It takes just one taste to see why it's become so popular in the last year and why it has a steadily growing clientele. Fresh bread, tasty ingredients and that secret marinade based on Pak's grandmother's bulgogi recipe result in food that is the very epitome of "gourmet" -- even if it comes from a food truck.
With that, I leave you with a video of my first experience eating a Koagie Dog from the Koagie Hots food truck, an experience that promptly turned me into a @KoagieHots Twitter follower and devoted fan.