Review: Gogi

Korean tacos arrive in Portland at last
By BRIAN DUFF  |  July 6, 2011

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If you are looking for a prototypical American restaurant in this week that started with Independence Day, you could do worse than Gogi. Gogi brings to Maine a trend that began when second-generation Korean hipsters in Los Angeles appropriated the taco trucks that first-generation Mexican immigrants developed to feed the temporary and undocumented immigrants doing day-work in Southern California. That's an only-in-America story right there. Further, Gogi does it in a West End space recently occupied by a French-Canadian resto-bar and a family-run Somali joint, reminding you both of the pleasures of multiculturalism and the risks inherent in the American tradition of entrepreneurialism.

Gogi stands a good chance of surviving these risks. Yes, they are chasing a trend, which is a strategy that is profoundly American. As Tocqueville noted, in the absence of traditional and stable sources of authority, Americans will defer to the tastes of the public opinion, wherever those tastes alight. And the trend Gogi follows is a good one — cheap, quick, and ingenious. The essence of this trend is the Korean taco, and it is the popularity of their tacos that will likely determine Gogi's fate.

The Korean taco, at its best, offers something a little lighter and sour-zingier than its Mexican cousins. For about $3 a pop, Gogi's tacos do the job pretty well. They come in about seven varieties, many of which have a lot in common. Most of the tacos are topped with chopped lettuce and veggies and a brown sauce that offers an ambiguous and intriguing mix of flavors, including ginger and garlic. The portion of meat per taco is not exactly generous, but it is not negligible either.

There is enough pulled pork, for example, to appreciate the way the blend of spices (especially garlic, soy, and sesame) give it a Korean character distinct from Mexican or Southern versions. The mix of chopped vegetables on top is mostly dark lettuce, but with a nice cilantro brightness and some crunchy radish, cabbage, onion, and bean sprouts. Perched on a thin layer of cucumber slices is a cool dollop of garlicky brown sauce. The short rib was a bit chewier, in the Korean style, but still plenty tender, with an aroma of five-spice. The shrimp taco seemed less Korean —sweet little Maine shrimp grilled with spices that smelled Cajun. A fish taco was downright familiar — fried pieces of white fish topped with a cool cucumber sauce.

Gogi is using corn tortillas that are not freshly made (the kitchen confirms they're bought pre-made), but are not bad either. The dilemma is that they are doubling them up to help you avoid the mess of disintegrated tacos. But two layers of middling cornmeal is a bit much, so your best strategy is to slide your inner tortilla along, pushing a bitable section beyond the sheath of the outer, eating only the one tortilla with your taco. This wastes a tortilla, it's true. But it also allows you to engage in the American tradition of subsidizing the corn industry, currently reeling from disturbing allegations that its syrup is basically poison, and its ethanol doesn't help the environment much. You can also get your taco wrapped in lettuce — actually a traditional Korean way to serve grilled meat at lunch.

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